Innocent idyll or provocative pinup?
Painting of 9 beach girls rejected by state exhibits

Liz Halloran

Courant Staff Writer

When Hartford artist Marc Simmons stands back from the large, vibrant painting of his daughter and her teenage girlfriends in swimsuits and sunglasses, he sees a celebration of innocence and beauty.

But when some state employees saw Simmons' 4-8-foot work ready to go up in their office reception area this week, they saw something else.

Administrators at the state Workers Compensation commission office pulled Simmons' painting from an exhibit of works by Connecticut artists after several women on the staff complained that the painting --an acrylic-on-canvas depiction of nine young women -- was inappropriate and demeaning.

"Mr. Simmons is looking at this as a painting of children.  Our staff is looking at it as women in bikinis," said Sandra C. Cunningham, personnel director at the commission's Oak Street office.

"It's just not appropriate," she said.

Cunningham and the commission's chief administrative officer, Marvin L. Smernoff, say they are simply responding to employees' concerns -- and moving now to avoid sexual harassment complaints latter.

Simmons is claiming censorship.

"I don't understand what the problem is --it's not even slightly obscene," Simmons said Friday morning, as he arrived at the commission's office to fetch his painting. "It's an American scene."

Smernoff met Simmons in the commission's fourth-floor reception area -- directly in front of the bare wall where "Girls on the Beach" was supposed to be hanging.

"We're sorry that this happened," Smernoff said to Simmons, who also decided to remove two portraits -- one of himself and one of his wife--that he had submitted in addition to the beach work.

"I'm not judging whether it's a nice painting or not; it's just inappropriate in a public office," Smernoff told Simmons.

Smernoff then invited the artist to submit an alternative painting.  Simmons declined.

"He couldn't describe to me what's appropriate," said Simmons, an accounting and finance manager at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Simmons was to be one of seven artists featured in the exhibit and to be honored at the reception next Wednesday at the commission's office.

Artists were chosen after commission officials went to The Connecticut Commission of the Arts and reviewed slides of work by 2,500 state artists.  The exhibit is one of many held periodically in state buildings through the Connecticut Artists Showcase program.

STATE WORKERS DEEM 4 BY 8 PAINTING OF BEACH GIRLS TOO RACY IN 9 TO 5 WORLD

After he was picked, Simmons was asked to select three paintings for the exhibit, and he delivered the works Monday.  almost immediately, Cunningham and Smernoff were hearing complaints.

Smernoff said the situation forced him to make a decision that many managers now face as workplaces become more sensitive to issues involving sexual harassment.

"We're trying to have a harmonious office environment where everyone is comfortable," Smernoff said "It was my call.  Was it right or wrong? I think it was right."

"But management still has a problem in these gray areas," he said. "Can I give you an absolute answer? No."

Smernoff said his decision was sealed when he first suggested that the painting e moved to an interior office, and a male staff member enthusiastically offered to hang the work in his office so he could look at it more frequently.

Cunnigham defended the choice: "We're a state agency that essentially carries on a judicial process.  We're not a museum or an art gallery."

Simmons said he finds it difficult to believe that a painting of "girls sitting on a beach, sun tanning and talking to their friends" has raised the issue of sexual harassment.

"An individual employee could say they could find it offensive, but just because they say it is, is it?" he said. "It's got to get to a point where one person is not able to stop the whole show."

Joseph Grabarz, executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, said the situation is a difficult one because the state, as an employer, has the obligation to provide an "environment free of perceived sexual harassment and intimidation."

"It's a workplace.  They are an employer," he said.  "But there also exists the right of an artist in a fairly judged and outline procedure to have your work exhibited."

The workers compensation commission should have outlined what types of work would not be acceptable for the exhibition before choosing the artists.  Grabarz said.  He suggested that the state and Simmons talk about another venue where "Girls on the Beach" could be shown.

At the state's Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, spokeswoman Barbara Popopowitz said Smernoff was within his rights to ask that the painting be removed.

"The workplace is not a public gallery or a museum," she said. "It is a workplace covered by policy, and the employer has the right to decide what's appropriate and what's not appropriate."

Popopowitz, however, agreed that "woman saying that they felt uncomfortable is sort of a gray area."

That threshold of sensitivity, unfortunately, can't be measured in numbers," she said. "But everybody's entitled to come to the workplace and do the work they were hired to do in a hostile=free environment."

Cunningham said the commission was forced to answer a difficult question: "Is it art, or is it harassment?"