Beware the Lilly Law, The Curator Responds

Several weeks ago I wrote about the ongoing censorship in the arts.

Several weeks ago I wrote about the ongoing censorship in the arts. I had recently correspond with interdisciplinary artist Michelle Handleman regarding two works at two different institutions that was partially censored due to her content not being appropriate for children.

Shortly after publishing our story I heard back from Sean Kelley the Curator at Eastern State Penitentiary. He very thoroughly and patiently explained the mishap with Michelle’s piece, “Beware the Lilly Law“, which deals with LGT inmates and prison policy since Stonewall.

Michelle’s piece was moved at the last minute from Cell Block 8 to Cell Block 10, under the assumption it would be “out of the way” from the heavy foot traffic of school groups. “Beware the Lilly Law” is one of several installations on view over the next months at ESP.

view of cellblocks.

Sean began his email to me addressing the fact he thought they handled the last minute change poorly and hastily, but that he didn’t believe the move would keep most visitors away from the piece. Cell Block 10 isn’t less prominent than the original location, but it would be away from where school groups entering the building and away from meeting places.

Installation view Beware the Lilly Law

Sean wrote, “I think that many families visiting would agree that we should give them some warning about the content of ‘Beware the Lilly Law’. There’s a question of the language; the word ‘motherfucker/ motherfuckin’ ‘ comes up several times in a row, spoken loudly and clearly, for example.”

Michelle had offered to mute the words, which Sean decided against since it would compromise her overall piece. He explained, “There’s the larger question of content itself; all three videos in the loop discuss rape. Putting that content so close to a bustling meeting place would make it virtually impossible to give parents and school groups a warning that they’d be experiencing something that they might not find appropriate for children.”

Installation view Beware the Lilly Law

Sean went on to say that his team spends a lot of time debating what may and may not be appropriate for children, since the nature of the Prison and the kinds of content artists propose can be very challenging. They are currently working on an exhibit about Life Sentencing policies.

I also asked Sean about funding and if government endowments affect the decisions they make. He explained that very little if any public money comes to the institution, but they do have a Board of Trustees who they have to answer to. Sean wrote, “Bob Dylan says ‘You’ve Got to Serve Somebody’, and of course he’s right. In the case of non-profits, the board of directors/trustees are generally the top of the line. Our board is generally quite supportive and encourages our various forms of risk-taking. I’m proud of them (us) for that.  If we ever got into real hot water of course they’d be concerned and ask me to explain why I’d pulled us into a situation that made the organization look bad.”

Installation view Beware the Lilly Law

In addition to that very thorough explanation, Sean has offered free passes to Velvetpark readers to visit Beware the Lilly Law (through Aug 31st). Sean going to offer them 2 at a time but he needs at least 3 days notice. So if you are interested in taking up this generous offer, which I know a few of us editors are, email me so I can pass that information on.

Eastern State Penitentiary
22nd & Fairmount Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Phone: (215) 236-3300