The airport removed the work purchased from local artist Tommy Kha after “a lot of negative feedback from Elvis fans,” the airport said. Kha and the UrbanArt Commission opposed the removal of the work, in particular, because of anti-Asian comments made about the work on social media.
“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 UAC said in a social media post. “Airport leadership has chosen to remove an artwork from a Memphis artist, for reasons that we adamantly disagree with.”
In a statement, Scott Brockman, president and CEO of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority, said a “small number of comments” mentioned Kha’s race and that he found those comments unacceptable. He said those anti-Asian comments were not the basis for removing Kha’s piece from the concourse.
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“The Airport Authority does not support those comments nor does it form the basis for the Authority’s decision regarding the piece. MSCAA has been very intentional to emphasize local artists, diversity and inclusion with this art program, and we will continue to do so,” he said.
As part of the modernization and reopening of Concourse B, the airport purchased more than 60 pieces from local artists. All those pieces came from artists who are from or have a strong connection to Memphis, airport officials said.
Brockman said the removal of Kha’s piece was not due to racist feedback and that the airport initially did not want to display pieces depicting celebrities or public figures. An exception, he said, was made for Kha’s work.
“While we understand that the artist created the piece as a tribute to Elvis, the public reaction has been strong,” he said. “As a result, the airport determined it was best to temporarily remove the piece while we determine our best path forward.”
Brockman said the airport authority was open to commissioning a new piece from Kha.
“The removal of an artwork is a very big statement. And one that definitely should not be taken lightly,” UAC president Lauren Kennedy said.
Corinne S Kennedy can be reached via email at Corinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com