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Nude portraits removed from St. George-owned art gallery after confrontation

Utah Tech University art student Maddison Smith holds a linocut print from her art show after taking down her pieces from a city art gallery, Oct. 13, 2022.
Elle Cabrera
Utah Tech University art student Maddison Smith holds a linocut print from her art show after taking down her pieces from a city art gallery, Oct. 13, 2022.

The City of St. George has taken down work from a Utah Tech University art student in the Electric Theater Center Gallery after a woman publicly criticized the show’s content.

On Monday, Oct. 10, UT student Maddison Smith said she was setting up eight pieces of her art in the theater gallery, which is owned by the city and is an extension of the St. George Art Museum.

The collection contained oil paintings and linocut prints featuring nude portraits of women in what Smith said are both empowering and vulnerable positions. She said the goal of her art is to help combat the sexualization of women’s bodies.

As she worked, several families with children passed by. Smith said a woman came up to her and told her she shouldn’t hang her art because it was inappropriate for kids. Smith told the woman she had permission and continued to work.

Smith said she had approval from the former manager of the St. George Art Museum, Natalie Gula. Since the Electric Theater gallery is an extension of the art museum, Smith said she checked in with Gula.

Gula wasn’t at the gallery, because she had been terminated earlier that day. But according to Smith, Gula said she would offer any support she could. The city did not comment on the termination or give a reason for it. Gula confirmed the firing, but declined KUER’s request for further comment.

Smith left the gallery after she finished setting up. Later that evening, some friends told her some of the pieces were no longer hanging.

Wednesday, Smith received a phone call from a faculty advisor saying the entire gallery was being shut down, and she was to come and grab her art as soon as possible.

“I actually haven't spoken to anybody directly from the city, and I've kind of been left in the dark a little bit,” Smith said. “I don't know who made the official decision to take my art down. I don't know who's responsible.”

The city declined an interview, but St. George spokesperson David Cordero sent a statement. It said the city is aware of the incident and that no city employees were present on Monday. Instead, the statement said certain procedures had not been followed, and that was why the art was taken down.

“Informal arrangements had been made with the artist for the exhibition, contrary to City practices. The City's practices include a written agreement specifying the terms of use of City property, insurance requirements and legal review. The agreement must be signed by City personnel having the authority to enter into agreements on behalf of the City. None of these requirements were followed,” the statement read.

The city went on to say that the extension gallery space where the exhibition was displayed had not yet been approved for public use. It did not mention the content of the art in its statement.

Smith said she was unaware of any of these requirements.

“I think it's been handled pretty poorly. I'm obviously pretty disappointed in the whole situation, and I think it's ridiculous,” Smith said. “I just think it's really unfortunate that we can't just … value and acknowledge the beauty and the power and just the human form and accept it for what it is, as opposed to sexualizing it,” Smith said.

The city is currently reviewing footage of the confrontation between Smith and the woman who criticized the art. Both the confrontation and the use of the gallery are under investigation, according to City Community Arts Manager Emily Reed. She said she was not present during the incident or aware of the art that was to be displayed.

Reed said St. George is struggling with the sometimes clashing needs and wants of a growing population, and this is just one example.

“There's a lot of growing pains and at this point, it's sad to say that we are being reactive instead of proactive. We don't address the incidents until they're happening, which I think happens in a lot of organizations,” Reed said.

The city currently does not have a policy in place for what can be displayed in the theater gallery. However, it has multiple uses and visitors.

“The issue with the extension gallery being downstairs in the Electric Theater Center is that there is a lot of children-oriented programming that happens down there,” Reed said. “So we do need to be more aware and cognizant of what type of art we display.”

Reed said the city has apologized to the woman who criticized the art but would not release her name and that it also sent a letter of apology to Smith.

However, Smith said she has yet to receive that letter.

I am an artist and I'm passionate about my art,” said Smith. “My bottom line is people should be able to share their art without being censored by the government.”

Smith said she has younger siblings and would be more than happy to have them view her work.

A local business, Modern Farm and Artisan Co-op, has agreed to display Smith’s art. That opening is tentatively set for Oct. 22.

Updated: October 14, 2022 at 9:51 AM MDT
This story was revised to remove quotes from one source at their request and add additional comment from artist Maddison Smith.
Elle Cabrera is a former KUER reporter
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