KU takes down altered flag at art exhibit after complaints from Colyer, Kobach

The University of Kansas took down an altered U.S. flag that was flying on campus as part of a controversial art exhibit after mounting criticism from politicians and an intervention by Gov. Jeff Colyer.

The flag was no longer flying on campus late Wednesday afternoon, capping a day of outrage and counter-outrage over the exhibit. KU said it would relocate the piece to a museum, but didn’t indicate whether it would be on public display.

The piece — “Untitled (Flag 2),” by German-born artist Josephine Meckseper — is part of a nationwide public art project called “Pledges of Allegiance” being displayed by KU’s Spencer Museum of Art. It features an American flag combined with a black-dripped painting resembling the outline of a divided United States.

In addition to the abstract shapes, the flag also shows a small black-and-white sock, which is meant to represent “the recent imprisonment of immigrant children at the border,” according to the artist.

Colyer spoke with KU Chancellor Douglas Girod on Wednesday, said Kendall Marr, a spokesman for the governor. The flag came down a short time later.

“The disrespectful display of a desecrated American flag on the KU campus is absolutely unacceptable. Men and women have fought and bled for that flag and to use it in this manner is beyond disrespectful,” Colyer said in a statement.

In a letter posted on KU’s website, Girod cited “public safety concerns” in removing the flag.

“While we want to foster difficult dialogue, we cannot allow that dialogue to put our people or property in harm’s way,” Girod wrote. “We have begun the process of relocating the exhibit to the Spencer Museum of Art, where we can continue the important conversation it has generated.”

Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, director for news and media relations at KU, said earlier in the day that the project was privately funded and “designed to encourage conversation about the current political climate.”

An empty flagpole remained outside Spooner Hall on Wednesday afternoon where the flag had flown. A lone protester, graduate student Joe Hams, stood nearby surrounded by news crews.

The flag, on display since July 5, was removed “because one man, one white, powerful man stood up and said ‘I want it gone,” Hams said. “It’s a privately-funded piece of art that he was offended by or scared by.”

The flag, which has been on display since July 5, drew harsh criticism on social media and elsewhere over the past two days. The controversy appears to have begun percolating after Steve Watkins, a Republican congressional candidate, drew attention to the flag on Tuesday.

By Wednesday, it had reached the governor’s race. An opinion piece posted on Fox News’ website on Wednesday morning quoted Kobach calling the display outrageous. Early in the afternoon, Colyer released his own condemnation.

“I think most Kansans would be deeply disappointed to learn that KU is flying a desecrated American flag and calling it art,” Kobach said. He said he learned about the flag when he got a text about it early Wednesday morning.

“My initial thought was, a state university couldn’t possibly be intentionally flying a desecrated American flag,” he said.

“Then I found out the facts about how its being described as an exhibit and being described as art, and I think that’s a very poor fig leaf for what’s really going on here — it’s a political statement that involves desecrating the flag.”

University officials said the flag is the last of a series of pieces that have flown on the Lawrence campus as part of the national art project. The work, which was funded with private money, is being displayed at 13 locations nationwide.

The project began on Flag Day in June 2017 and was scheduled to run through this month.

Some other Kansas officials voiced dismay with the exhibit on social media Wednesday, including U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall.

The Spencer Museum of Art partnered with The Commons to host the project at KU. The Lawrence display began with the sixth flag in the series, “Imagine Peace” by multi-media artist Yoko Ono. The flags are being displayed outside The Commons at Spooner Hall, at 14th Street and Jayhawk Boulevard.