Members of the Phoenix arts community are, to put it mildly, a bit miffed about the cancellation on August 30 of a group show originally scheduled to open September 5 at the Herberger Theatre Center Gallery. Concerns were raised by the gallery on August 29 when it learned that one of the pieces by one of the four artists was titled “Sodomite.” The gallery is on the second floor of a municipally owned but independently operated performing arts facility. Rather than re-capping all that went on, I’ll point you to articles expressing first the curator Robrt Pela’s point of view and then that of the Herberger Theatre Center, via its director of development and marketing.
The situation raises a question faced by the managers of public exhibit space. Is the decision to limit content an act of censorship or stewardship?
“Censorship” is defined by multiple dictionaries as “the act of censoring,” to “delete in one’s capacity as a censor,” where censor is defined as “an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc for the purpose of suprressin parts deemd objectionabe on moral political, military , or other grounds.” The Herberger Theater Center asserts that the cancellation “was not an act of censorship,” that “As an arts venue that caters to diverse audiences of all ages, we are not in a position to display artwork sight unseen,” and that due to the residency of Valley Youth Theatre, “thousands of kids and their families come through” during the month of September.
Stewardship, in the definitions most appropriate to this situation, means the supervision “of an event or proceedings in an official capacity” and administration of “the property, house, finances, etc. of another.” In both these senses, the HTC officers are stewards. Perhaps the administration thought it was exercising responsible stewardship. The Phoenix Performing Arts Center (the official corporate name for HTC), was originally organized to manage the city-owned facility known as the Herberger Theatre Center. I bring this up because, in a sense, the HTC management is an agent of the city, complicating the issue of both stewardship and censorship.
I have seen theatrical productions in the building that feature full frontal nudity (“Hair”), incest/pedophilia (“The Pillowman”), and various other acts of violence. In those cases, I was warned in advance of the nudity or mature content and chose to attend anyway. A simple sign between the lobby area that all balcony patrons must traverse and the more separate gallery area to one side saying “This Portion of the Gallery Exhibit Contains Material that May Be Offensive to Some Patrons” or “Gallery Exhibit Contains Mature Subject Matter” would give the audience agency – which seems to me to be an alternative and effective way to be stewards of a public arts facility.
The show will be mounted next spring at the curator’s own gallery, R. Pela Contemporary Art.
UPDATE: An hour or so after publishing this, curator Robrt Pela provided this update on the event’s facebook page (published here with his permission):
Robrt Pela writes:
I just left a conference call with Herberger Theater Center president Richard Bowers, and Brendan Mahoney and Ginger Spencer, both from Mayor Greg Stanton’s office.
They asked, individually and collectively, if there was some way to rectify this mess, although Bowers admitted he had no particular idea how to do that. I explained that I was no longer willing to risk working with an agency that treated artists and curators so badly, and which practiced censorship. Also, that I was not willing to place artists in harm’s way by asking them to work with such an agency in any capacity.
Mahoney did acknowledge that this is an issue of censorship. “No one likes censorship,” he told me at the top of the call. It’s a sideways commentary, but it was an unsolicited and important acknowledgement, all the same.
I asked Bowers, three different times, how the Herberger Theater Center is planning to substantiate Laurene Austin’s bogus claim (in this morning’s New Times) that she repeatedly asked me and the artists for images of their work. Bowers had no answer.
I suggested that something good needed to come from this bungle. I recommended that the Herberger make it very clear to future curators, in writing, that they want to see the work the curator has selected well before agreeing to display it. Bowers agreed.
Finally, I told both Mahoney and Bowers that I expected them to throw me under the bus by issuing a statement saying, essentially, “We tried to make amends but he didn’t want to work with us.” Both parties assured me that they would not do this.
I expect some criticism from others about refusing to work with the Herberger. Please understand: I’m not going to align myself with unprofessional, dishonest institutions like the Herberger. The Herberger had no solution in mind, and would certainly not consent to display work that its officers consider “inappropriate.” Finally, I’d never ask any artist to work with the Herberger, after its treatment of Suzanne Falk, Geoffrey Gersten, Ronnie Ray Mendez, and especially Mike Ford.