Photo credit: Grand Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau
If you attended the final day of the QuiltWeek show on August 13 in Grand Rapids, Michigan this year there were two quilts you didn’t see. Made by artist Kathy Nida, the quilts contained imagery of the human body. After receiving complaints about the subject matter American Quilters Society (AQS) removed them from the show even though they’d already been on exhibit for months.
Nida’s quilts were part of a special exhibit entitled People & Portraits organized by the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA). The exhibit, including Nida’s quilts, had traveled with QuiltWeek to five cities beginning in mid-February before the Grand Rapids show.
The first quilt that AQS singled out as objectionable was titled “I Was Not Wearing a Life Jacket,” a piece Nida made to help process a recurring nightmare in which she was losing things in a stream and nobody was coming to her aid. Nida was shocked and dismayed that her quilt was removed from the show and was further disheartened when she didn’t hear directly from AQS about the decision.
“They haven’t contacted me at all…not on FB, my website, by email, or by phone,” Nida told me in an email.
Instead she heard the news from a SAQA board member. “The SAQA exhibition team called me Friday and said, ‘Hey, AQS is thinking of pulling Life Jacket because a viewer complained about a penis,’ and two of the committee members had spent an hour going over a picture of the quilt and couldn’t find it. They were trying to persuade AQS to leave it in the show and were just letting me know this was going on. I said, ‘There’s no penis.’ They said, ‘we know.’”
Her second quilt, “Fully Medicated,” was also pulled seemingly because each artist had two quilts on display in the special exhibit and having just one was not allowed.
Censorship is a central part of this story, and a vital topic for discussion among the art and craft community, but I think there’s another story here and that is about how companies respond to critical feedback online. Nida is a blogger. She publishes posts almost daily and on August 13 she wrote about what happened to her quilts in a post titled, “You Won’t Find a Penis at AQS Grand Rapids…” The reaction among quilters online was immediate and strong. Nida’s post was shared thousands of times on Facebook and inspired several strongly written and heavily shared blog posts by other quilters as well.
“I Was Not Wearing a Life Jacket” by Kathy Nida
Photo courtesy of Kathy Nida
Community leaders such as Pokey Bolton, the founder of Quilting Arts magazine and founding host of Quilting Arts TV, pleaded publicly with AQS to explain themselves. “In all my experience in this industry over the last nearly 20 years, this takes the cake,” Bolton wrote in an August 18 blog post. “I am not a contentious person, I don’t normally post such grievances (this is the first), but for this…I just don’t get it, and as an advocate for quilt artists, I can’t be quiet on the sidelines. AQS, if you are reading this, please address this issue.”
But for a long while, AQS didn’t. The AQS Facebook page continued to publish posts about their publications, patterns, and courses as though nothing had happened even when supporters of Nida flooded the page leaving critical comments and reviews, all of which were publicly visible like this 1-star review from Kathleen Tipton Sigg: “You should be ashamed of yourselves. To pull an ART quilt from a show is censorship in its worst form. What part of art wasn’t understood?”
Perhaps AQS was hoping the incident would fade away if they didn’t acknowledge it publicly, but their silence seemed to have the opposite effect. Quilters began expressing outrage on their own Facebook pages. AQS member Dierdre Abbotts took a picture of her membership renewal application on which she’d crossed out the renewal form and wrote, “I support Kathy Nida!” and added “censorship” to the list of the member benefits. She posted the image to her Facebook page where it got dozens of shares and comments. Still, AQS remained silent.
Emails to AQS requesting a statement, including my own email, went unanswered.
A week after the incident, Grand Rapids journalist and craft podcaster, Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood, reached out to AQS and Kathy Nida to record an episode of the Craftsanity podcast in an effort to tell both sides of the story. “No one likes bad press or complaints swirling on social media,” Ackerman-Haywood told me in an email. “It’s stressful for everyone involved. So the best thing an organization can do is get out in front of the story and attempt to quickly and concisely explain the challenge of the situation and the decision that was made. And even if the decision was unpopular and perhaps regrettable in hindsight, expressing this honestly is a good idea, too.” Her attempt to allow AQS to do just that was denied. Nida agreed to the interview, but AQS declined.
It seems to me that AQS failed to truly grasp how powerful social media can be when it comes to amplifying someone like Nida’s voice. Leanne Pressley, founder and CEO of Stitchcraft Marketing, advises companies on how to deal with these sorts of crises.
“The vocal consumer is garnering a lot more power and control and the impact on one’s brand can be swift and profound,” she says. “In our agency we advise clients to embrace criticism and use it as a tool to create brand advocates and increase loyalty with their consumer base. Every hater is an opportunity. Of course, most companies cringe at this perspective and just want to sweep bad reviews and negative feedback under the rug and move on but that’s just not an option anymore (as evidenced by the AQS debacle).”
Finally, on August 23, 10 days after Nida’s quilt was pulled (and a second quilt of Nida’s was also taken down) Bonnie Browning, the Executive Show Director for AQS, emailed me this statement.
“After receiving numerous complaints from attendees about a quilt in the SAQA exhibit, AQS removed the quilt from the People & Portraits exhibit at the Grand Rapids QuiltWeek event. Prior to removing the quilt, the feedback AQS received was not limited to one isolated comment. Attendees reached out to AQS staff at the show and via emails and phone calls to our office. Despite the removal of this quilt, AQS was able to display more than 700 other quilts at the show for viewing by the general public in Grand Rapids.”
AQS’s response seems glaringly incomplete. What were the complaints exactly? What is AQS’s policy regarding quilts that have already been juried into a show? AQS also chose not to post the statement publicly. They had taken the in-person complaints about the quilt seriously, but the online complaints less so.
Still, weeks later, AQS has made no contact with Nida. She feels that the incident, although wrongheaded in her view, could have been significantly allayed if AQS had communicated with her and with the online community rather than remaining silent. “They should have been on social media immediately. They should have been answering every email,” Nida told me. “I said in one of my posts that they easily could have just apologized, ‘We’re sorry this happened and we are reviewing our policies for the future.’ They wouldn’t have looked as bad as they do now…But they ignored us…they had no personal contact. They pretended it didn’t happen because they hoped it might go away.”
“Fully Medicated” by Kathy Nida
Photo courtesy of Kathy Nida
“Putting your collective head under a rock and hoping the issue goes away might be one of the more shortsighted options in this day of social media,” Nida adds. “It’s too easy to get info out to the public and have it explode in your face.”
Nida is no stranger to controversy when it comes to the subject of her quilts. In February of 2011 she had a quilt in a Mancuso show in Hampton, Virginia, where “a viewer complained about a vulva that was actually in the piece” she says. In that incident the show organizers responded differently. “The Mancusos handled it much better. When Fox News showed up with a reporter, they let them do the story, left the quilt in the show, and probably made big bucks off of me. Then they left it in the remainder of the circuit,” Nida recalls.
AQS’s abbreviated and content-poor statement contrasts with the much longer and more heartfelt statement SAQA released two days later. Although late, it showed a willingness to engage with their constituents and to use this experience to reevaluate their policies. Their statement ended this way: “So artists, keep making your art. SAQA will continue to promote the art quilt through our varied exhibition program. And when the unexpected happens, we will react, reach for new understandings, and respond with improvement to our policies and programs.”
Next month the AQS show will travel to Chattanooga. Although Nida’s quilts won’t be part of the show, they will be on display at SPOOL, a quilt shop in Chattanooga owned by Maddie Kertay. Those who visit SPOOL will be able to get buttons that read, “Where’s the Penis? Censorship is ugly. The human body is not.” When SPOOL fan Robin Woods saw the pins on Facebook she remarked, “I hope there are THOUSANDS of these pins on show attendees,” summing up the hostility that this incident has engendered towards AQS.
As Ackerman-Haywood points out, “In the end, the decision to pull the quilt from the show seems more controversial than the quilt itself, and it appears that the biggest mistake was not pulling the quilt, but refusing to talk about it.”
For tips on handling negative feedback online see our one-page infographic.