The conflict between the founder of the Mt Airy Art Garage and its current board members appears unlikely to end soon.
The conflict between the founder of the Mt Airy Art Garage and its current board members over alleged homophobia appears unlikely to end soon – with basic facts in the account of the dispute now in question.
MAAG co-founder and former executive director Arleen Olshan, reacting to the board’s decision to remove some artwork that she had displayed in the public event space, told the Local and other publications in recent weeks that she thought the decision was homophobic and had filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
MAAG board president Patricia Smith disputes Olshan's claim that a complaint was filed, and MAAG attorney Leon King said he called the PHRC to inquire about the complaint and was told that none existed.
“They indicated that the only thing on file was a request for information from Ms. Olshan,” King told the Local in an email. “They had no record of this form being filled out and returned.”
“Either Ms. Olshan did not file a complaint,” King said, “or PHRC gave me bad information.”
The Local can’t say for certain whether the complaint was filed because, according to PHRC spokesperson Amanda Brothman, the commission cannot confirm or deny that a complaint was filed “unless the request is from a party to the case, or a case has reached the public hearing docket.” She did say that MAAG would have received a notice, something King said the group has not received.
Smith, who told the Local that she would have welcomed the exoneration that she felt an investigation would bring, denied Olshan’s characterization of their decision as homophobic.
According to Smith, the art was removed from the public space because Olshan violated MAAG rules by putting it up in the first place. Additionally, she said, the homosexual nature of the sketch, which depicts two naked women kissing, had nothing to do with why the board did not consider it appropriate.
“It wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other, if it had been a man and a woman we would have done the same thing,” she said.
Olshan herself declined to comment. In a phone call, she said she was “not at liberty” to talk about the controversy.
That controversy erupted when Olshan returned from vacation in June to find her artwork, which included the kissing sketch and another of three female nudes, removed from the event space portion of the facility. She accused the board, which made the decision to remove it, of homophobia and censorship.
Only one of MAAG’s eight board members at the time, Larry West, agreed with Olshan that the decision to remove Olshan’s work was homophobic. He said the homosexual nature of the artwork was talked about “ad nauseam” during discussions about whether to take it down.
“There were two board members who brought the issue up,” West said. “And part of the concern was because it was same-sex couple kissing.”
It’s also true, West said, that Olshan broke MAAG’s rules.
“Part of the reason it was removed was because it was two women kissing,” West said. “It wasn’t the entire reason, but definitely part of it. The other reason it was removed was because she never asked permission [to hang the pieces] in the first place. Both are true.”
West said that if it had been his call, he would have reached out to Olshan, despite her being on vacation, to consult her before removing the artwork.
“If it was a rules violation, then you do need to talk to the person and try to resolve it,” he said. “At the very least, I would give the person a heads up before they got back.”
Despite calling the decision homophobic, West was careful to note that his fellow board members are not homophobes.
“It’s not an easy situation for anyone,” he said. “People make mistakes and times change.”
Smith told the Local that MAAG came under significant attack on social media as a result of Olshan’s complaint, which prompted the organization to issue what she described as a “cease and desist” letter to Olshan on July 3.
In that letter, the board asserted that Olshan violated MAAG rules by hanging the artwork without permission, and noted that the Board did not remove it from the gallery or the gift shop, which was selling note cards that featured the piece.
“In the opinion of the majority of Board members, this is primarily an issue regarding studio regulations,” Smith wrote in the letter. “Your work is currently displayed in both [the Gift Shop and the Gallery] and there has never been an issue of acceptance. However, there are rules shared with all occupants of studios that you also must follow.”
The letter states that Olshan “frequently” took advantage of her role as founder to break the rules that she herself wrote – including smoking in the building and bringing in pets.
“You have often ignored those rules, and we have not been strict about enforcing them with you because you are the founder and CEO,” the letter reads. “But this recent issue could not be ignored.”
West said he remains hopeful that the board and Olshan, who plans to retire soon, will resolve the matter internally.
“We are currently discussing this matter,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll come up with something everybody is satisfied with.”