Herberger Theater Center Art Gallery Cancels "Prime Example" Exhibition; Protest Planned

You won't find "Prime Example" at Herberger Theater Center Steele Pavilion Art Gallery Thursday, September 5. Instead, expect angry members of the Phoenix arts community.

The gallery abruptly announced to the public via email the show's cancellation on Friday, August 30. That's less than a week before the exhibition, curated by New Times contributor Robrt Pela, was set to open. Pela calls it censorship; Herberger disagrees.

See also: "The Joe and Jan Show" Canceled by Owner of Willo North Gallery in Phoenix

The Herberger's art gallery is guest curated by a new volunteer each year. In 2011, Pela agreed to curate during 2012 and reprise his curator role in September 2013. The contract he agreed to stated that the follow-up show in 2013 would include his personal works. However, in April 2013 Pela contacted Herberger's Laurene Austin saying that he planned to curate a group show instead of presenting his own artwork, which he's never shown in public. He says she didn't object and sent contracts to the artists Suzanne Falk, Mike Ford, Geoffrey Gersten, and Ronnie Ray Mendez.

According to Pela, all seemed in order to proceed until Thursday, August 29, when he emailed Austin the show's text cards (a rundown of the titles of the works that would be on display, their media, and cost) for the exhibition. Austin objected to the title of one of the listed pieces, Mike Ford's The Sodomite.

Pela says that he then sent images of all Ford's photographs that were set to be on display, and she replied that they could not be shown. He says he responded with a terse message about how it would be inappropriate to censor the art, let alone change an exhibition so close to its opening. She replied that the show was canceled. Pela says that he hadn't sent the gallery images of any of the other artists' work.

Calls and emails to Herberger regarding the cancellation of "Prime Example" were not returned. Update: We talked with Laurene Austin of Herberger.

None of Ford's works portray violence or sex. The Sodomite shows a man in kabuki makeup with the word "sodomite" written in red across his forehead. "The Dolls" shows Ford with his mother; both appear in the same white caked-on makeup with cupid's bow red lips and blond wigs. The Bird Bride portrays a bride with hair topped by a bird's nest. The Motel Room shows a person posing on a bed wearing a mask.

Instead of "Prime Example," the space's current exhibition, "Show and Tell," curated by Peter Bugg, will remain on view through Sunday, October 6.

After Herberger sent the cancellation email, following Pela and Austin's exchange, Pela took to Facebook to spread the news, posting a message on the scheduled exhibition's event page.

The Herberger Theater Center "Art Gallery" has canceled this exhibit. The manager of the space objected to two of the pieces by one of the artists, and so -- rather than seeking a solution -- they canceled the entire show (without having seen any of the work by the other three artists).

I worked on this show for many months, and booked it in November of 2011. During that time, no requests were ever made by the Herberger for samples of work that would be shown. Needless to say, the artists put an enormous amount of time into creating beautiful artwork.

The message continued:

Welcome to Phoenix, where censorship is okay. And where corporate gallery owners apparently don't care that artists have spent months creating art for an upcoming exhibit.

A statement posted to Herberger's Facebook page Saturday, August 31, insisted that the cancellation was not an act of censorship, but due to Pela's changing the exhibition's artist lineup.

"The Herberger Theater Center has supported the rich diversity of the arts and celebrated free expression of artists throughout Arizona since its inception in 1989. Since the gallery opened in 2002, all artwork has been overseen by guest curators, including Robrt Pela, and selected by a blind jury with the exception of a few invitational exhibits. In all those years, we have never refused artwork based on its content. The cancellation of Prime Example was not an act of censorship, nor in any way a negative statement against any of the artists selected for the exhibit. Mr. Pela recently decided to feature other artists instead of showcasing his own art as was the original intention of the curator exhibit. As an arts venue that caters to diverse audiences of all ages, we are not in a position to display artwork sight unseen. Concerns for this particular venue were expressed, but ultimately we had to make the difficult decision to cancel the exhibit."

Regarding the allegation that Pela recently changed the lineup, the curator says that the group show had been in the works for the past five months. During that time, no one from the Herberger gallery voiced a complaint about "Prime Example" not including his original artwork. Promotional materials were printed by Herberger including the group show information, and details about the show were included on the gallery's web site.

Members of the arts community took to Facebook to share their dismay.

Arizona Theatre Company's artistic director David Ira Goldstein commented, "This is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. I can put 20 totally naked people on the stage of the Herberger in HAIR, who have sung a song in that show called "Sodomy", but you can't show these beautiful pieces?!"

Tempe-based artist Travis Fields was so upset by the cancellation that he's organized a protest with the help of fellow creative Jayme Blue.

"I want to draw attention to this problem of censorship and hopefully that will lead to broader conversations in the Phoenix art scene, and an end to censorship," Fields says via email.

Those interested in participating can show up at Herberger at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, September 5, when "Prime Example" was scheduled to open. Fields says the plan is to picket near the entrance of the building. For details and updates on the protest., see the event's Facebook page.

Those who have called for the show to go on at a new location might recall a similar situation that arose when Pela's "The Joe & Jan Show" was canceled by Willo North Gallery in January 2013. Offers to host the show rolled in. This time around, Pela has his own gallery, R. Pela Contemporary Art, which he opened after the "Joe & Jan" debacle. He says he's added "Prime Example," which will be renamed, to his exhibition schedule. It will open in March 2014.

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