Estera Milman says she's being censored. She says it's the University of Iowa that's doing the censoring, and in the name of academic freedom and intellectual independence, she's filed suit in federal court. She also says the UI lost out on a major, groundbreaking art exhibit because of it and may even have risked future federal funding.
That much of the story is easy, even sensational if you take the word of New York City avant-garde artist Martha Wilson. She sees a comparison as old as the Sistine Chapel in this question of whether "the donor has a right to say something about the content of an artist's work. It's like Michelangelo's situation with the pope," she says. "And Michelangelo made it clear for all of art history that he would not be controlled."
The rest of the story, however, is more complicated. Imagine if Michelangelo's masterpiece had gone unfinished because of personality conflicts, philosophical disagreements, bureaucratic turf battles, an internal grievance, acts of retaliation and finally a civil-rights case. Imagine all that and you get a glimpse of what seems to be going on.
Oh yeah, and in this case, Michelangelo's not really an artist.
"I'm a historian," the 52-year-old Milman explains to me from across her dining-room table. She speaks quickly, often in fully formed paragraphs. "My field is the history of contemporary art and politics, or, more specifically, art-based cultural interventions. It is not my artwork that is at stake. It would be wrong to suggest that it's the specific work, like the Brooklyn Sensation."
At the Brooklyn Museum of Art-a case that was really sensational-there was dung being flung and various sacrilegious images. At the UI Museum of Art, where Milman works, there was only a series of academic articles being written by Milman in conjunction with a grant from the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Those articles were being edited by her immediate superior, museum director Stephen Prokopoff, who has since retired.
"We all need editing," Milman says between drags from her Camel Lights Wide. "It's part of the academic and publishing process. [Prokopoff] was not editing. He was censoring from my perspective. And we had these very long battles and it was really very nasty."This is the million-dollar question.
At this point-it was March 1998-Milman decided to file a grievance. "I thought this was what the university stood for-nobody can mess with your funded research," she says.
As it turns out, this is the million-dollar question: Where does the university's authority over such research end and Milman's begin?
First, though, a few complications. Prokopoff wasn't just acting as editor. In the role of a Departmental Executive Officer (DEO), he was administering Milman's grant. Actually, he was administering two of Milman's NEA grants. A third in her name was being administered through the University Libraries. (Milman, who describes herself as "an aggressive publisher," has earned more than $284,000 of research funding for the UI over the past 12 years.)
But what does it mean to administer a grant? "According to the University of Iowa Manual of Operations," Milman explains, "with externally funded research grants, the project director has fiscal, as well as programmatic, responsibility for all grants."
In other words, it is the DEO's job to make sure the project stays on budget and on mission, to keep the project within the guidelines of the contract with the NEA without-theoretically-intruding on anyone's intellectual authority.
A second complication: Milman is not a regular faculty member with the many rights and privileges thereof. Instead she is classified as a Program Associate. In 1979 she founded a UI program called Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts, a bridge between the museum, university libraries and various other academic units. In her capacity as director of that program, she has served as an adjunct professor, overseen graduate research (the first adjunct in the history of the UI to do so, she says) and, of course, applied for and received federal grant money.
So before filing her grievance, Milman says she approached the university's Research Council, which is part of the UI Division of Sponsored Programs. The Research Council, she says, "confirmed there's no distinction by way of the rules between [staff like her] and faculty researchers on grants. That's the subtext of this whole thing," she says, "the Provost's office's attempt to distinguish among what they believe is first-class and second-class citizenship. The university has this whole hierarchy."
One could get bogged down in exactly these kinds of issues, and indeed it seems likely that lawyers for both sides are bogged down even as you read this, preparing for a preliminary hearing in Davenport May 11. What's important, though, is what happened next.
"And that's when the retaliation occurred."
"So then we sat down and had a conversation," Milman says, referring to herself and Prokopoff, "which is the first step in this whole [grievance] process, and that's when the retaliation occurred."
Prokopoff placed both of Milman's NEA grants being administered through the museum on what he called "hold." This included a grant intended to fund a major exhibit under her direction titled NO!art and the Aesthetics o f Doom, which was slated to be the premier event of Global Focus: Human Rights, the UI's year-long celebration of the ratification of the declaration of human rights.
According to a motion filed in the case by Milman's lawyer, "Defendant Prokopoff told Ms. Milman that the NO!art exhibition was cancelled because of her grievance." According to the same document, "Prokopoff stated that he had called the National Endowment for the Arts asking how Ms. Milman could be dismissed from her position as the principal investigator of the NEA grants." In addition, "During the 1998-99 fiscal year, in retaliation for filing the grievance, Ms. Milman was given only a token salary increase while everyone else in the Museum received a substantial raise."
"This seemed to me to be just flaky beyond belief," Milman says. "This was March. The show was scheduled to open in September."
Remarkably, Prokopoff admitted the retaliation in a July meeting, in front of UI Provost Jon Whitmore, Vice Provost W.J. Knight, Milman and assorted lawyers.
"He just all of a sudden said it and everyone seemed shocked," Milman remembers.
No doubt red-faced, the university was forced to admit to the retaliation as well. In a Sept. 22, 1998, letter to Milman's lawyer, Vice Provost Knight wrote: "We have no dispute on Ms. Milman's retaliation claim. The fact that Mr. Prokopoff stated that his postponement of the NO!art Exhibition was an act of retaliation against Ms. Milman because of her initiating the original grievance speaks for itself. Because such acts are explicitly prohibited in University policy, neither of us sees a need to conduct a hearing on this issue. Instead, all that remains is for us to work out the details of designing and implementing a remedy that will include the rescheduling of the NO!art show in a reasonably expedient fashion."
As you might imagine, this never happened.
Instead, what has ensued over the last year-plus has included a series of bureaucratic delays, a fight over travel reimbursement, a fight over whether the university was reneging on its commitment to provide matching funds for the grants and a letter from UI Associate Counsel Marcus Mills stating "that the Museum Director is the ultimate decisionmaker, including decisions on editorial control over any text published or displayed, space and presentation, and budgeting."
Back to that million-dollar question.
The UI would only be willing to work with Milman in staging her exhibit if she granted full editorial control to Prokopoff, something Milman flatly refuses to do. This, she says, is when she decided to sue.
"The university is saying they own me, they own my thinking, they own my intellectual production," she says. "That's First Amendment to the Nth power. `Editorial control' is what they're saying [is at issue], and that to me is the same as being in a totalitarian state."
No comments to spare
Prokopoff, when reached at home, said, "The case is before the courts at this point. That's all I can say right now." However, he did go on record in a sworn statement filed as part of the case: "Ms. Milman's direct challenge to my authority to perform the functions of my positions as director created disharmony and disrupted normal working relationships in the museum."
Associate Counsel Mills refused comment. When contacted by phone, employees of the UI Museum of Art also refused comment, saying they were instructed not to talk about the case.
In fact, the only UI employee willing to discuss the case, even indirectly, was Brian Harvey, assistant vice president in charge of the Division of Sponsored Programs. He is the one who oversees the external funding administered through the university. He confirms the role played by Departmental Executive Officers, such as Prokopoff. They handle the purse strings-or, as Harvey puts it, "the proper expenditure of funds ...according to general university policies."
He seems to contradict what Prokopoff described as Milman's "direct challenge" to his authority. When asked if it was customary for a DEO to assume editorial control as part of those responsibilities, Harvey responds simply, "No."
"It's about biting the hand that feeds you."
Martha Wilson is what they call a "big deal" in the New York art world. Founding Director of the Franklin Furnace, an avant-garde art space and library, she is the recipient of an award from the Rockefeller and Andy Warhol Foundations honoring her Commitment for the Principle of Freedom of Expression. This is partly because she opened up the Furnace to folks like Robert Wilson, who, in 1977, repeated the word "there" 144 times next to a chair on stage. Or Karen Finley, who, in 1983, took a bath in a suitcase and made love to a chair aided by Wesson oil.
In a move that was not at all unrelated, the New York City Fire Department then shut down the space, classifying it as an "illegal social club."
All this helped spark the Culture Wars of the '90s, which saw heated battles between an increasingly conservative Congress and an NEA inclined to fund cuttingedge art. It comes as no surprise, then, that Wilson-who says she's still fighting the Culture Wars-understands the Estera Milman case in this context.
"It's about biting the hand that feeds you," she tells me over the phone from New York. "The university feels like it's a conduit for your money and it can control what you say and Estera is basically saying no."
For his part, Dan Siedel wants us to think in more specific terms. Curator and interim director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Siedel received his Ph.D. in Modern Art History from the UI in 1995. He points out that what's important here is that Milman was working out of a museum and not an academic department, where mechanisms like tenure are in place to protect academic freedom.
"It hasn't been worked out sufficiently so that museum staff enjoy as much freedom as their academic colleagues," he explains. "Part of this has to do with the museum itself, which serves a broader audience and set of interests. Does a university museum have the right to impose an institutional value on what is deemed important or unimportant research? Does the university allow for different voices among its staff? Or does the university museum director have the pressure to impose a single, monolithic voice? These issues have not come to the surface before now."
Which may be a roundabout way of saying that all of this doesn't quite add up to censorship. That's how F. John Herbert, another UI grad and co-director of Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids, sees it anyway. "In some ways this doesn't seem like censorship," he says, offering the caveat that he is only marginally familiar with the details of the case. "It just seems like bad management."
After all, remember that there are a couple of different issues being debated here: the original editing of Milman's articles and the suspension of her NEA grants in retaliation for the subsequent grievance.
"I wouldn't call it retaliation necessarily," Herbert says. "I would just say, `We don't really have a working relationship here.' My response as an employer in that situation wouldn't be, `Now, let's get working on these other grants together."'
"The NEA loses money and they don't like that."
Siedel and Herbert's points of view seem to make sense. Except that Milman says she confirmed with the Research Council, even before filing her grievance, that in terms of her funding, there was no distinction between her and other faculty. Tenure shouldn't matter. Her working in the museum shouldn't matter. Again: "That's the subtext of this whole thing," she says, "the Provost's office's attempt to distinguish among what they believe is first-class and second-class citizenship."
It also seems to make sense that if Prokopoff and Milman were not clear on who had what authority, then grants ought to be set aside until that could be clarified. Except that the university admitted that what Prokopoff had done was "explicitly prohibited in University policy." Or was it that what he had done was not in itself inappropriate but came to be defined, through his own words, as "retaliation"?
However this is resolved, it will likely be too late to salvage Milman's exhibit, NO!art and the Aesthetics of Doom. The $14,000 remaining of the original NEA grant will revert back to the federal government (and not the NEA) if unspent at the end of June. It's a prospect Milman says the university should take more seriously.
"The university is putting at risk future NEA and possible NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] funding for other UI scholars," she says. "The NEA loses money [if this exhibit doesn't happen] and they don't like that."
Siedel puts a fine point on things. "It's obvious to me that [Milman] didn't write her grant without the support and permission of museum staff. That's not a problem. But when you implement that funding, that becomes more problematic."
You can say that again.