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In Gettysburg, a Battle Over Artworks

Exhibit of Recolorized Confederate Flags Brings Threats Against College and Artist

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page B01

GETTYSBURG, Pa., Sept. 2 -- When he proposed to "lynch" the Confederate battle flag on the Gettysburg College campus, John Sims wondered whether he'd get a thumbs down from the school's art committee.

Instead, "Oh my god, they were more psyched than I was," recalled Sims, a 36-year-old artist based in Sarasota, Fla. "I was like, wow, these are some cool white people."

He doesn't think so anymore. After complaints and threats against the artist and college officials, plans to dangle the politically charged symbol of the Confederacy from a noose atop a 13-foot gallows on the quadrangle -- near the bloodiest battlefield of the Civil War -- have been changed. Sims's exhibition, which also features a rebel flag dolled up drag-style in fuchsia satin and a feather boa, has been moved indoors, to the college's Schmucker Art Gallery.

It opens Friday under heavy guard. And Sims isn't coming.

"They put a release out like a month before the show that says, 'Artist to Lynch Confederate Battle Flag,' " he said about the work he calls "The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag."

"And then they say, 'Turn this into a teaching moment.' Get out of here."

Classes were in session and fall was in the air at Gettysburg College on Thursday as police secured the perimeter of the art gallery. Outside, a few of the school's 2,500 students wandered a quadrangle lined with red antebellum buildings. Inside, students worked beside a uniformed guard, installing Sims's "Recoloration Proclamation: The Gettysburg Redress."

The exhibit displays Confederate battle flags, but in the colors of the African liberation movement (green, red and black), along with other colors. One hangs next to voting booths used in Florida for the 2000 presidential election. And across from them is the flag with white feathers on fuchsia and silver spangly stars -- a collaboration between Sims and a friend.

The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of bigotry and hatred to many people, but to others it is a way to remember the 258,000 Southerners who died in the Civil War. Members of the college art committee had hoped to use the exhibit to foster discussion of Gettysburg's history, but officials and students acknowledge that those plans have tripped, skidded and fallen flat.

Sims "picked a hot town for this," said Elizabeth Basham, 21, a senior from Lexington. "I'm upset he's not coming to explain what he was trying to do here."

Students should get behind the artist, she said. "But I think a lot of them are scared."

In an airy office with a bodyguard outside, college President Katherine Haley Will called the experience "fascinating." She has been in the job only since June 1 and said it's been "a really interesting issue as a new president" to try to balance "artistic expression and freedom of speech and the need to secure a campus of students you're responsible for."

The reality of the second part came to her when the FBI called last month. "You really do have to take them seriously," she said about threats to harm the school, the students and the administration. "So we're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."

On Aug. 16, the school's public relations department sent out its news release with the headline "Artist to 'Lynch' Confederate Flag at Gettysburg College." It had the college's contact information and Sims's Web site address on it.

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