The National College of Art and Design (NCAD) has rejected claims of censorship after a student withdrew an image depicting its director, Prof Declan McGonagle, in the nude from an end-of-term exhibition.
NCAD confirmed that management representatives met the student last Monday and advised him “about both the appropriateness of showing the image in the college and the responsibilities that come with making the image public”.
However, in a statement, NCAD said it did not order the student to withdraw the painting.
“It was made clear to the student on a number of occasions that the decision on whether or not the image should remain in the exhibition lay with him.”
The student, Shane Berkery, from Killiney, Co Dublin, told The Irish Times he painted the image – as part of a diptych, with himself also in the nude – as a "light-hearted" protest against how the college was being run.
“I painted Declan because I was not happy with the college, and I painted myself as an equal. So I was putting myself through the same thing. I don’t want to ridicule Declan. I don’t want to bully him or anything,” Mr Berkery said.
“It was something I wanted to put in my show because it represented how I felt. It’s about equality.”
There have been a number of sit-in demonstrations in recent months relating to overcrowded courses and deteriorating studio conditions, and a group of NCAD staff members issued a statement of no confidence in the management last April.
Mr Berkery included the diptych in his portfolio for assessment, and it was initially displayed in the annual graduate exhibition which opens to the public this Saturday. A press preview was arranged for last Monday, in advance of which the student was called before management.
“I was very pressured. They kept saying I needed to think about the consequences. So I said, okay, it’s definitely going to be more trouble than it’s worth - so take it down and put a different one up.
“It’s not particularly offensive. The whole point of doing art is doing that kind of stuff and creating a dialogue.”
In its statement, NCAD said it had sought legal advice “and advised the student in question - in the context of the college’s Dignity and Respect Policy, which has been in place since 2009”.
It added: “The legal advice received by NCAD about the current situation was that the college has a duty of care to all employees to ensure the Dignity and Respect Policy is upheld and has the right to request that any work of art that breaches the policy be taken down.
“It has chosen not to exercise this right on this occasion and has left the decision of whether or not to exhibit the work with the student.”
Prof McGonagle declined to comment, other than confirming that he exempted himself from discussions between the student and the college.
The student has received support from peers on campus, with the NCAD Student Action Group issuing a statement saying the sequence of events illustrated “the larger problem festering within” NCAD, including “the distrust between the senior management team and the rest of the college population”.
A number of staff members also criticised the college’s handling of the affair, saying it was illustrative of a “fragile” atmosphere on campus.
“We are an art college, and artistic freedom should have won out,” said one NCAD academic who did not wish to be identified.
As for the diptych, it had been listed for salewith a price tag of €800. Asked would he sell one of the paintings on its own, Mr Berkery said: “No, I would not want it taken out of context.”