Copyright or censorship? Mother Teresa painting comes down

A painting depicting both Mother Teresa and the founder of Planned Parenthood, among others, has been taken down from display at The Trumbull Library.

The painting, part of The Great Minds Collection, has been taken down by request of First Selectman Tim Herbst, leading some to question if the decision was based on pressure from a few in town, including a priest, who found it offensive for religious reasons. Herbst has said he ordered it taken down only to protect the town from a potential copyright lawsuit.

The painting, described “Women United: From Abigail Adams to Gloria Steinem” depicts several famous women in history, including Mother Teresa, Abigail Adams, Clara Barton, Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan and Margaret Sanger. It was painted by Robin Morris and one of 33 on display at the library, as commissioned and donated for display by Trumbull residents Richard and Jane Resnick. Resnick spoke to The Times Monday evening about Herbst's decision.

Library Director Susan Horton said one Trumbull resident became angry last month when he visited the library and he demanded the painting be taken down. He felt it was offensive that Mother Teresa, a revered Catholic missionary, was in the same painting with Margaret Sanger, a birth control activist and sex educator in the early 20th Century. Sanger’s work evolved into Planned Parenthood.

Mother Teresa and Sanger are depicted at opposite ends of the artwork.

“The whole point of the painting is to show transformative women who have changed a lot of things over the years,” Horton said.

Following that interaction, Horton received about eight more messages, all from men, she said, including from Pastor Brian Gannon of St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church in town. Horton was later forwarded a message from The Order of Missionaries of Charity in India, claiming the painting is a copyright infringement for using Mother Teresa's image.

Horton said the library has been unable to find any proof that the painting would be a copyright infringement. However, First Selectman Tim Herbst demanded the painting be taken down last week, after getting opinion from town counsel.

“We have no proof that the copyright is valid,” Horton said. “It’s in legal hands now.”

When the first selectman asked Horton to take the painting down she said she was in a difficult position, since the Library Board does not agree.

“I work for the town of Trumbull and I was hired by the Library Board,” Horton said.

What is most surprising, according to Horton, is that this same collection was also once on display at Fairfield University, a Catholic institution.

“It is my understanding that this issue arose because a local priest objected to the content of a particular painting, which I find surprising as this and all the other paintings were on display at Fairfield University from April to June of 2014,” Horton said.

Herbst, in a statement Monday said the reason for the painting coming down is strictly legal.

“In recent weeks, independent organizations have alleged potential copyright infringement with the use of Mother Teresa’s image in one of the pieces of artwork,” a release from the town said. Absent a written agreement indemnifying the town from potential litigation, Herbst announced on Monday that on the advice of legal counsel, the town must remove the display to protect Trumbull from any potential liability, not only with respect to the copyright infringement claim but also from any potential liability should the paintings be damaged, stolen or destroyed.

Herbst said he is concerned that Trumbull resident Richard Resnick never signed an agreement with the town to display his privately owned artwork and Herbst asked all 33 of the large-scale painting be taken down until that happens. The rest of the collection is up.

“After learning that the Trumbull Library Board did not have the proper written indemnification for the display of privately-owned artwork in the town’s library, and also being alerted to allegations of copyright infringement and unlawful use of Mother Teresa’s image, upon the advice of legal counsel, I can see no other respectful and responsible alternative than to temporarily suspend the display until the proper agreements and legal assurances are in place,” Herbst said. “I want to make it clear that this action is in no way a judgment on the content of the art but is being undertaken solely to protect the town from legal liability based upon a preliminary opinion from the town attorney.”

However, Richard Resnick recently sent Horton and the town an email, stating the town would not be responsible for any legal action or damage to the paintings.

Horton said, as a librarian, protecting first amendment rights is important.

“I’m more heartbroken than anything else,” she said. “I would hate to have Trumbull known for anything so negative because it’s such a positive exhibit.”

Resnick and his wife, Jane, have said in a past interview with The Times they understand The Great Minds Collection is controversial, and they want to get a dialogue going. The collection includes many historical figures, including Karl Marx and modern minds like Oprah.

“The whole purpose of Dr. Resnick creating this collection was so people could have a dialogue about these differences and become better for it,” Horton said.