Last summer, plans were coming together for a September 2022 art exhibit at the Princeton University Library, tied to the impending publication of a scholarly book on Jews in Gilded Age America. A longtime University donor was funding the show, an art historian had been hired to curate it, and a Firestone Library exhibit space had been chosen.
But by December, the project had fallen apart amid disagreements over how to handle the work of two Jewish American artists with ties to the Confederacy, one of them a lifelong apologist for the South. When news of the dispute surfaced online nearly two months later, Princeton faced criticism for reportedly refusing to exhibit artists with unsavory political opinions. The University was accused of surrendering to “cancel culture” and sidestepping its responsibility to acknowledge historical complexity.
But in an April interview — his first about the issue — President Eisgruber ’83 framed the dispute as a matter of defending the library’s academic freedom in the face of pressure from donor Leonard L. Milberg ’53 to structure the exhibit according to his preferences. Over the past four decades, Milberg has given the University thousands of prints, manuscripts, and rare books; has endowed two Princeton professorships; and has paid for more than a dozen literary and historical exhibitions and associated publications.
Eisgruber insisted that the library never sought to exclude from the planned exhibit the work of the two artists with Confederate ties — painter Theodore Moïse, a one-time officer in the Confederate Army; and sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran who became a leading proponent of the pro-Southern “Lost Cause” school of Civil War interpretation.
“The question was how to broaden and contextualize this art,” Eisgruber said. “This isn’t about whether Princeton will display controversial art. It’s about how that art gets displayed and who has the editorial control.”
Milberg, who met with the president in December and says he pulled his funding for the exhibit after library administrators insisted on the exclusion, called Eisgruber’s account “categorically false.”
Exhibit curator Samantha Baskind, a professor of art history at Cleveland State University who is writing a biography of Ezekiel, said she had always planned that the exhibit’s text labels would highlight the artists’ complex, contradictory political and religious commitments. Baskind said that in a conversation she had with University Librarian Anne Jarvis, Jarvis declined an opportunity to review the curator’s proposed presentation of Ezekiel’s work.
“The library told me that the Confederate artists could not be in,” Baskind said. “They never asked for the contextualization — and it was offered.”
Instead, Baskind said, library officials proposed reorienting the exhibit around a slightly later historical period and provided a list of artists who could be included. According to Baskind’s contemporaneous notes, officials said the new chronology offered a way to “get us away from some of the artists who have a Confederate background, which is not something we want to foreground.” Before Baskind could respond, however, Milberg withdrew his funding.
A University spokesman said Jarvis has no recollection of Baskind at any stage offering to discuss the proposed presentation of Ezekiel. Both Jarvis and Michele Minter, the vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, who was also involved in conversations about the exhibit, referred requests for comment to University spokesman Michael Hotchkiss, who arranged the Eisgruber interview.
According to Milberg and Baskind, library administrators said they feared that an exhibit featuring Confederate-linked artists might draw both protests from anti-racist students and unwanted approbation from white supremacists. But Eisgruber denied that such considerations came into play. “It wasn’t about the reactions,” he said. “It’s about making a presentation of the material that speaks to the intellectual issues that are involved.”
The controversy left some shaking their heads. “Princeton is a place committed to helping students understand the complexity of the past,” said history professor Martha A. Sandweiss, who directed extensive research into the University’s historical entanglement with slavery but had no involvement with the planned Milberg exhibit. “Libraries should not be in the business of limiting access to the materials that reveal the past in all its messiness.”