In mid-February, Memphis artist Tommy Kha shared an Instagram post celebrating the fact that one of his pieces was included among the artwork installed at Memphis International Airport as part of the newly reopened Concourse B.
“Termin[inal]s of Endearment,” the Asian American artist and Elvis fan wrote, “still kinda stunned to be part of this collection…”
The artwork, a self-portrait depicting the artist dressed as Memphis icon Elvis Presley, was one of 61 new art pieces Memphis pubic art non-profit UrbanArt Commission helped choose for the new terminal.
But at the beginning of this week, Kha was back on social media. This time sharing a photo of the empty wall at the airport where the artwork had been.
“Apologies to those who wished to see this piece: it is no longer on display,” he wrote. “After some disturbing complaints about my work, it was decided, and without my knowledge, the pictures were removed.”
Why was it removed?
In a statement shared with local media, airport president and CEO Scott Brockman said that after receiving “a lot of negative feedback” from Elvis fans, and a “small number” of complaints that referred to Kha’s race (and which MEM officials said were “completely inappropriate,”) the airport had decided to temporarily remove the piece.
“When the airport created its art program, our goal was to purchase and display artwork that did not include public figures or celebrities,” Brockman said in his statement. “Our selection committee made an exception in the case of Tommy Kha’s piece and recommended its purchase.”
As you may imagine, the decision to remove the piece didn’t sit well with art fans and many members of the community. Nor with the Urban Art Commission, which said on social media that it had worked with the airport authority and selection committee to curate “an art program that speaks to a diverse and authentic creative community representative of Memphis.”
“We are opposed to Tommy Kha’s installation being removed from display, especially considering the openly racist comments made online in the development of this situation,” the group added.
Good news: the airport authority listened and will reinstall Kha’s work
In a “doing the right thing” move, the airport has quickly decided to apologize to the artist and reintall the artwork.
Here’s the statement – and apology – from Memphis airport authority President and CEO Scott Brockman:
Over the past 24 hours, we have heard from many in our community regarding the temporary removal of Tommy Kha’s artwork in the new concourse. The Airport Authority appreciates the support that the community has shown for Tommy and we have made the decision to reinstall the artwork. We apologize to Tommy for the effect that this ordeal has had on him.
As stated yesterday, when the airport created its art program, our goal was to purchase and display artwork that did not include public figures or celebrities but made an exception in this case.
The Airport Authority will continue to emphasize local artists, diversity, and inclusion with this art program, and we will explore additional best practices to address how we handle complaints and public feedback about our artwork.
Pitchfork has more on this story, along with some comments from Kha.