Outraged University of Utah Student Speaks out after Olpin Union Authorities Infringe on Artistic Freedom

By Sage Holt

The University of Utah’s annual Student Art Exhibition is a tradition for the A. Ray Olpin Student Union. Sponsored by the Department of Fine Arts and Union Art Exhibition Committee, it still takes place today in 2019. Although, now it is held in the Alvin Gittins Gallery.

In 1961, the art show created an uproar, when several works of art from different students were removed from the exhibit. One of the artists was a young man by the name of Stephen (Steve) Beck.


Beck, pictured in the 1961 University of Utah yearbook, the Utonian. Used with permission from Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

Steve Beck was born in Salt Lake City in 1937. He graduated from East High School in 1956, attending the University of Utah later that year. Beck was a dedicated student who pursued a promising art career. He graduated from the University of Utah in 1961 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. Although Beck’s painting career started in Salt Lake City, his art was displayed in New York, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., in the United States Capitol. His works can be viewed locally at the Phillips Art Gallery in downtown Salt Lake City. Beck’s art became the center of controversy when authorities took down some of his pieces from an exhibit in 1961.

Many students became angered by the choice authorities made to remove certain works from the exhibit, without the explicit communication of an explanation. Reports of the incident flooded The Daily Utah Chronicle office, but Beck’s letter to the editor was the only one published. “Suppressed” was published on page 2 of the newspaper in March 1961. Beck wrote in response to the removal of various artworks. He called it a “curtail of academic freedom.” Students questioned this unexplained choice and in protest, Beck and other Art Club students planned a picket demonstration. But it was never held, due to public threats of  “serious repercussions” by the university president. It was then that the administration began to question the students’ rights to force artwork to the public eye.  The artwork was deemed “offensive” by the administration, yet seen as aesthetically valuable to the Art Department. Research found that the offensive artwork in question had no written or photographed record.

In the next issue of the Chronicle, March 27, 1961, another article on the issue was published. The article, “They Owe Us,” was addressed to the Board of Regents from the Editor. In this article, a full scoop was uncovered. A high-ranking university official removed various artworks from the student art exhibit deemed objectionable by Union onlookers and officials alike. Why the art was so objectionable and offensive was never revealed.

art gallery

Student Nancy Jones views an oil painting in the 1961 Student Art Exhibition.

Soon after that incident, the Board of Regents declared that the entire exhibit would be removed. Due to the screen-like walls that held up art works in the exhibit, the Union Board expressed distaste and said that the art show screens were an “obstruction of the natural architectural beauty in the hallway.” They also declared that the screens would be banned from that hallway indefinitely. The sudden change in policy without explicit explanation left students confused and agitated. Student voices raised concerns about academic freedom being extinguished for the opinions of affluent outsiders who didn’t approve of the paintings. Union authorities gave no explanation as to why these policies would be implemented.

University President A. Ray Olpin spoke to a Chronicle reporter and had this to say: The right to individual expression has not been challenged. He also gave an explanation to the students who felt confused and angered. Olpin reported that any photos taken down in the exhibit were done by an Art Department official. The administration did not even know that the two controversial pictures had been taken down. No censorship was done by the administration nor did they pass any judgment on the art,Olpin said. The president also denied that rumored threats were made to picketers. The president clarified that the ban on screens had “been in debate on campus for years.” According to President Olpin, the actions of authorities were justified, but they never alerted students of the changes. This lack of an explanation and communication is what led to students becoming angered for the choices of university officials.

The lack of communication by officials sparked anger in students in 1961. Although information later revealed that the administration had an explanation but did not speak up about it. In our society today officials, administrators and other higher ranking positions should not implement changes without communicating to the parties it will affect. This lack of communication is what angered the students then, and now in 2019 a lack of communication between university officials and students once again plagues the university. A recent group of students demanded to talk to University President Ruth Watkins so they could voice their concerns on campus safety. This came one year after the murder of student Lauren McCluskey. At a student-run protest in October 2019, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner gathered quotes from students and concerns about campus safety. Many students believed that “that campus police appear unequipped to assist us.Quotes from students at the Academic State Meeting show that there is a lack of communication between students and officials. When we’ve tried to talk to administrators, they’ve been very vague. It’s been disheartening and frustrating. They need to talk to us. It’s been a year, and we’ve had no communication on anything,” Tanner reported students as saying.

In 1961 Beck called this lack of communication a curtailment of  his academic freedom. He and other students immediately planned to protest to make their voices, concerns and anger heard. In 2019, students have called this lack of communication disheartening and frustrating. However, their protest was in the form of a walkout. Campus officials not communicating to students is an ongoing issue that leaves students angered with a lack of trust in their school.  From 1961 to 2019 this issue hasn’t changed. When will university officials learn from the past and give students the communication they deserve?

Sage Holt is a third-year student at The University of Utah. She is majoring in communication with an emphasis in journalism and sociology. 

Primary Sources

Steve Beck, “Letters to the Editor: Suppressed,” Daily Utah Chronicle, March 10, 1961, 2.

They Owe Us,” Daily Utah Chronicle, March 27, 1961, 2.

Ernest Ford, “Individual Expression Not Challenged, States Olpin; President Remarks on Ute Art Exhibit Controversy,” Daily Utah Chronicle, March 28, 1961, 2

Michael W. Kain, “Letters to the Editor: Bigotry,” Daily Utah Chronicle, March 29, 1961, 2.

A Change: Student U,” Daily Utah Chronicle, April 1, 1961, 2.

Union displays Oilpan’s Water Color Paintings,” Daily Utah Chronicle, April 1, 1961, 1.

Secondary Sources

Stephen Reid Beck Obituary,” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 24, 2002.

Tanner, Courtney. “University of Utah students demand to speak to President Ruth Watkins — and they’re planning a walkout over safety concerns,” The Salt Lake Tribune, October 16, 2019.