Late last week Herberger Theater Center's art gallery canceled the opening of the exhibition "Prime Example," curated by New Times contributor Robrt Pela. Since then, the Phoenix arts community has tried to make sense of how exactly a show that had been on the books for two years could be axed so abruptly. Allegations of censorship have circulated, Herberger has offered changing explanations, and local artists have organized a protest for this evening.
After Jackalope Ranch caught up with Laurene Austin, the marketing and development director for Herberger and manager of the art gallery space, earlier this week about the controversy, Pela released to us email correspondence between Pela and Austin. Then Austin sent us her email correspondence between Austin and the artists. Now that we've looked through it all, it's clear that communication was lacking between all parties involved.
Although Herberger initially announced via Facebook that "Prime Example" was canceled because Pela had altered the show too close to the opening date, later Austin told us otherwise. She said the group show featuring work from Mike Ford, Suzanne Falk, Ronnie Ray Mendez, and Geoffrey Gersten had been agreed upon with plenty of notice -- which was obvious to those who had seen the show announced on Herberger's website.
Austin said that when she found out that one work by artist Mike Ford was titled The Sodomite it raised a question of subject matter. She had not seen the work when she expressed concern. Her concern was that Herberger has a diverse audience, with many families and children expected to come to the venue in September and early October for children's theater events and the Herberger Festival of the Arts, scheduled for Saturday, October 5. According to a press release Pela sent out, "Prime Example" was slated to run through Sunday, October 6.
She wrote in an email to Pela that she was concerned about The Sodomite and Mike Ford's other works and she wasn't sure what to expect because she hadn't seen images of all the works. She wrote that they may need to pull The Sodomite and other works depending on their subject matter. She asked if Pela had suggestions.
Pela had sent Austin four images, one from each artist, for the Herberger to use on its website and for promotional postcards. One of them was a piece by Mike Ford titled Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, which portrays a masked, armed person holding up three baby dolls tied at their feet like they're game. Austin did not object to this image. The Sodomite is an image of a man wearing caked-on white makeup with the word "sodomite" written in red across his forehead.
Pela responded to her request for suggestions with this message: "I suggest that censorship is never right, and now is not the time to tell me that you may be pulling artwork from a show I've already promised my artist and the audience that they'll be seeing."
Austin replied that Herberger could not display Mike Ford's The Sodomite, The Dolls, an image of the artist Ford and his mother in blond wigs, kabuki-style makeup, and red lipstick, or The Motel Room, which shows a person posed on a bed wearing a mask. At the end of her message, she added that she had been asking for images and information since April, which the correspondence we have does not show.
Pela replied that she hadn't been asking him for all of the images, just one per artist. The correspondence we have supports this assertion.
Then Austin wrote, "Unfortunately, we must cancel the Prime Example exhibit. It may well be a provocative and impactful exhibit in another space but it does not align with the balance of art forms we must achieve at the Herberger Theater."
Austin says that she had requested to see all images from all of the artists multiple times. Her emails to the individual artists show that when she sent them contracts to sign she did request all images be sent to her as JPGs, along with title information and prices. But she didn't mention that they'd be reviewed for content. She wrote that the images would be added to Herberger's website. She told us via email that none of the artists sent her all of their images.
Pela was copied on those messages, but according to the email conversations that he sent us Austin never directly requested that Pela send all of the images for the show to her by a certain date. Again, content of the artwork was not discussed.
Since the cancellation, Herberger has received negative feedback from the public, including a group of Phoenix artists planning to protest the cancellation of "Prime Example" from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, September 5. Participants are encouraged to bring signs, as the group will picket outside Herberger Theater Center.
Other members of the visual arts community have reacted by distancing themselves and their work from Herberger. Surrealist artist Jason Hugger withdrew three paintings from Herberger's October exhibition, "Nocturne," because of the show's cancellation.
"If they're going to do that, then I don't want to participate in it," Hugger says. "What they did was ludicrous and unprofessional. And I just feel I don't want to work with them."
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In light of recent events, Diane Di Bernardino Sanborn withdrew as curator of Herberger's upcoming exhibition, "Balance."
And Pela has announced that he will relocated "Prime Example" to his gallery, R. Pela Contemporary Art, in March 2014. The name? "BANNED BY THE HERBERGER!"