POSTPONED: Radical thinking: The MFA's Kristen Shepherd on how art (and the media) can affect society

Editor's note: Due to concerns over Hurricane Irma, the MFA has postponed the event — we'll let you know when it's rescheduled.

click to enlarge Gregory Green’s "Worktable #9, he of Righteousness" spurred the idea for a larger discussion about how the art and media worlds frame art, images and messages. - Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg
Gregory Green’s "Worktable #9, he of Righteousness" spurred the idea for a larger discussion about how the art and media worlds frame art, images and messages.

Does this piece of art have any place in an art museum? This question inspired Kristen Shepherd, the new executive director at the MFA, to create Art and the Media in the Era of Extremism, a public discussion featuring speakers from the Poynter, WUSF, and the artist who created the emotionally charged piece that spurred discussions about what sort of art belongs in a fine art museum.

Tampa-based sculptor Gregory Green created "Worktable #9, he of righteousness,” for Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration. It gave some people pause (including the critic who reviewed Skyway for CL). It makes sense: People don't expect to see an imagined re-creation of a domestic terrorist's worktable in a fine arts museum. This piece, partnered with Noelle Mason's cross-stitched work relating to the 1999 Columbine High shooting, exploded the idea of what one might see inside this graceful, stately building. And, as is the responsibility of a major art museum in the most densely populated county of the fourth-largest state in the country, the museum, under Shepherd's direction, wants to have a discussion about the responsibility of art.

Not only art, though — journalism, too. 

Media can play just as much a role as museums in exploring things some people would prefer left unexplored, Shepherd said. "It's our job to bring light to a number of difficult topics. What artists show us can inspire us, enrage us, radicalize us, activate us."

Journalists, she says, face the same challenges and responsibilities as curators. Case in point: when writing this piece, I debated — and ultimately decided against — using the names of the Columbine killers. You can read the arguments against using shooters' names here and here — and one in favor of it here; it's not an easily answered question.

Since, s Shepherd says, Greene's piece explored "the idea of external influences,” it became the perfect jumping-off point for such a public discussion, and to include journalists. 

"That work has led to some interesting conversations, [so] I thought it would be interesting to explore" the idea of the media and the art world’s role in creating extremists — and their responsibilities to the publics they serve.

Both WUSF and Poynter will participate in the discussion ("I do think they bring a really interesting point of view to the discussion," she says), as will Shepherd herself. Greg Green will also hold a short question-and-answer session.

Kudos to Shepherd for opening a dialogue on this. Prediction: In five years, St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts will attract a goodly amount of folks who never thought they'd find themselves in a museum of fine art. Tough discussions? Perhaps. But good discussions. 

"I think one of the important things that the museum can do is really provide a safe environment."

Contact Cathy Salustri here.