Malls Imitating Life

June 19, 1991

Shopping malls are used for so much these days, from Girl Scout encampments to organized exercise walking. Malls are even tourist attractions: Water Tower Place in Chicago, Union Station in Indianapolis, Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco, Harborplace in Baltimore.

Can we reasonably expect malls to function as art galleries? This year, the Columbia Festival of the Arts added a visual arts component, arranging for an exhibit at the Columbia Mall. The Rouse Co., which runs the mall, decided to place restrictions on art "which explores human forms in the nude whether they are sexually explicit or not; which has obscene writings or images; that suggests the use of violent behavior." Some called it censorship. Some called it a sensible precaution by a business organization to avoid affronting someone coming to Sears to buy a new hammer.

The Rouse Co. was somewhat apologetic. "We don't support censorship of art as a policy, but we really feel we need to be sensitive to the concerns of our customers," said Danielle Morgenthaler, director of sales and marketing for the mall. The show's organizers were somewhat defensive. "We have a long way to go before the people in this community [in Howard County] can look at art objectively. They have to be introduced to it in a way that's safe for them," said artist and show organizer Wendy B. Hackney. How's that for condescension?

There are alternatives. If there was space (Columbia Mall never has much vacant space), part of the show could have been in a set-aside area, open to those who want to see it and no threat to those who don't. Or if the organizers wanted a serious art show, they could have chosen to exhibit it in a place more appropriate for art.

There will continue to be disputes such as this -- for example, the battle over whether malls could or should ban Salvation Army solicitors at Christmas time -- as long as malls function as both private space (a place of business) and public space (Columbia's equivalent of Main Street). And when there are such disputes, all involved probably need to keep in mind that the citizens and shoppers of Howard County are not as unsophisticated as some -- particularly Ms. Hackney -- seem to believe.

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