Muscarelle Art Museum Director Aaron De Groft’s judging of the Virginian-Pilot’s Student Gallery art show March 26 was overruled and deemed “inappropriate” by the Norfolk-area daily newspaper’s publisher, Bruce Bradley.
De Groft had declared a nude self-portrait of 17-year-old Beth Reid, a senior of Churchland High School in Portsmouth, the contest winner.
De Groft said the publisher told him the paper would be supporting child pornography if it published a nude painting of a minor.
De Groft said that the publisher’s interference with the contest was censorship of the arts and added that the trouble began the day after judging.
“They said, ‘She can’t be the winner; it doesn’t fit with the squeaky clean image of the Virginian-Pilot and SunTrust [their sponsor],’” he said. “And I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Every day on the front page of your newspaper you print a blown-up picture of dead people from the war in Iraq.”
De Groft picked Reid’s portrait because it was “head and shoulders above the rest in terms of influences,” which include Freud and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It was chosen from 60 finalists, a pool narrowed down from the 600 original applicants.
“It was the best portrait and had a much more sophisticated thought process. I said that I was simply not going to change,” he said. After refusing to change his decision, De Groft was replaced.
Bradley also rejected the decision of a second judge, Scott Howe from Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum of Art, who picked Chesapeake senior Jasmine Child’s sculpture of a nude pregnant woman. After Howe was replaced, the marketing and advertising department of the Virginian-Pilot chose the third and official winner.
When De Groft called, they informed him his name would not be mentioned with the contest.
“But my name had been mentioned in advertisements already,” he said.
Despite the controversy, De Groft was encouraged by the response from the community. In a show of support from local art patrons, Reid was given $1,000 — the amount she would have won if Bradley had not rejected the original contest results. Child will also receive a private award.
As a former student of the College and volunteer at the Muscarelle, De Groft said he appreciates the opportunity for art teachers to engage in a discussion about free speech, calling the incident “thought-provoking.”