Bullied by coal companies and their allies in the Wyoming legislature, the University of Wyoming earlier this year caved to threats that millions of dollars in funding were in jeopardy if they didn’t remove an outdoor art installation on the university campus that Big Coal deemed offensive.
The sculpture, “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around,” was installed on the campus by British artist Chris Drury in July 2011. A spiral of logs made from trees killed by a pine-beetle infestation, the center of the 36-foot-diameter sculpture featured coal-blackened logs surrounded by lumps of coal.
The $45,000 piece was paid for by an anonymous donor and the Wyoming Cultural Trust. Drury, pictured below installing the piece, said the sculpture wasn’t intended as a political statement, but he hoped it would prompt viewers to “have a conversation about climate change,” which scientists say has exacerbated a pine beetle infestation that has decimated more than 3 million acres of lodgepole pine forest in Wyoming.
But no sooner had the piece been installed than fossil fuel executives and coal-friendly lawmakers began lashing out, implying that the university was treading on thin ice.
“While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget—I’m a great supporter of the university—every now and then you have these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from,” state Republican majority leader Tom Lubnau told the Casper Star-Tribune.
Martin Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, pointed out in the same newspaper that the university “get[s] millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas, and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me and demonizing the industry. I understand academic freedom, and we’re very supportive of it, but it’s still disappointing.”
Initially the university insisted that the sculpture would remain in place for at least two years and perhaps indefinitely as it naturally decayed. But behind the scenes, much stronger language and tactics were being used to cow university officials, as revealed by emails requested by Wyoming Public Radio and recently obtained by the Star-Tribune.
“Don, what kind of crap is this?” Loomis demanded of the university’s director for governmental and community affairs.
In an email to oil and gas company officials, civic leaders, and major donors to the university, Petroleum Association of Wyoming President Bruce Hinchey wrote: “The next time the University of Wyoming is asking for donations it might be helpful to remind them of this and other things they have done to the industries that feed them before you donate. They always hide behind academic freedom but their policies and actions can change.”
Elected officials from Campbell County, home to some of the biggest coal mines in the U.S., called for a hunt to find out which university officials knew about the sculpture prior to its installation. “We are going to get to the bottom of who knew what and when they knew it,” Rep. Kermit Brown of Laramie, where the university is located, wrote in an email to a UW trustee.
Tom Lubnau, who represents Campbell County, emailed university officials saying he was considering introducing legislation “to avoid any hypocrisy at UW by insuring that no fossil fuel derived tax dollars find their way into the University of Wyoming funding stream.”
Rep. Elaine Harvey of Gillette, also in Campbell County, emailed university president Tom Buchanan, saying, “It never ceases to amaze me how the UW invites folks that spit in the face of the very system that writes the checks to pay the bills at the university.”
Meanwhile, a joint committee of senators and representatives in charge of budget decisions demanded an accounting of art at the university, including a description of the art and how it was paid for.
The threats and fear-mongering worked. Less than a year after “Carbon Sink” was installed, the university quietly and without public announcement removed the artwork. When asked why the sculpture had been removed, school officials said it was due to water damage.
But the newly-public emails reveal that President Buchanan, who had come under increasingly heavy fire from the fossil fuel industry once they learned that he had approved the sculpture, decided the piece should be removed “given the controversy it has generated.” And immediately after the decision was made, another university official emailed coal-friendly legislators saying the piece was “being demolished.”
“The only way the University of Wyoming could have handled the removal of controversial public art piece ‘Carbon Sink’ any worse is if they would have used the coal and wood from the artwork as a pyre to roast the artist,” editorialized the Star-Tribune.
It’s tough to blame President Buchanan, who is charged first and foremost with promoting academic excellence and keeping his university a successful going concern. But it is a sorry statement that Big Coal and its allies in the state legislature are so paranoid that a piece of art on a university campus would send them into fits of apoplexy and prompt them to shamelessly quash freedom of expression by demanding its removal.
“It has always amazed me that the coal folks talk about how their industry supports the state and the University, but in reality the coal comes off of public lands and is leased at under market value to the companies,” says Wyoming-based Sierra Club organizer Steve Thomas. “The coal is public coal being sold to private companies. The bulk of the money coal generates comes from the sale of that coal. So really, the university is partially paid for by the sale of public coal not by the largess of the coal companies.”
Rep. Lubnau—he who would “never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget”—and his Campbell County colleague Gregg Bilkre have called for a sculpture of energy workers to be erected on campus.
All photos courtesy of Chris Drury.