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.
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
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.
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).”
“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
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.”
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.