Herberger Weighs in on Cancellation of "Prime Example"

Herberger Theater Center's art gallery encountered controversy when it canceled this week's scheduled exhibition "Prime Example," which was curated by New Times contributor Robrt Pela.

After discussing the drama with Pela, Jackalope Ranch talked with Herberger's Laurene Austin about what led to the cancellation.

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

Since the cancellation was announced Friday, August 30, the arts community has voiced concerns over censorship and organized a protest. A message posted on Herberger's Facebook page noted that it wasn't a case of censorship. It stated the show wouldn't go up because Pela had changed up the artist lineup too close to the opening date, set for Thursday, September 5. Pela says that wasn't the case -- the group show wasn't a last minute decision. And Austin agrees on that point.

Austin says the problem arose when Pela sent her the text cards Thursday, August 29. Based on its title, a photograph called The Sodomite by Mike Ford raised a question of subject matter. "We're an arts venue with a diverse audience," she says. "I expressed concern to Robrt about that."

Austin hadn't seen The Sodomite when she initially expressed concern. She says she had requested multiple times that Pela and the artists send along images of all the works that would be in the show. Pela says that no one from Herberger requested to see images all of the pieces. Austin had seen one image from each of the four "Prime Example" artists, Geoffrey Gersten, Suzanne Falk, Mike Ford, and Ronnie Ray Mendez.

"It's not that he changed the lineup last minute," Austin says. "We can't put artwork up sight unseen. We're a theater first. And we really have to respect the patrons that come in and the resident theater companies that come in and rent our space."

Arizona Theatre Company artistic director David Ira Goldstein's responded to the cancellation on Facebook, writing that it was ridiculous and noted that he put on a production of HAIR that featured live nudity.

"People are buying tickets to the show," Austin says, adding that she hadn't seen the post. "They know what's involved with the show."

The gallery, on the other hand, is out in the open. "September's going to be a month when thousands of kids and their families come through," she says. "I talked it over with our president. We didn't feel comfortable."

So, they canceled the exhibition. Instead of the new show, the Peter Bugg-curated exhibition "Show and Tell" will continue its run. Austin says that if she had seen the images a few weeks earlier, perhaps there would've been a way to make the exhibition work, to compromise.

"At this late date there was nothing to do but cancel the exhibit," she says. "It wasn't a negative statement against any of the artists."

Austin says that the cancellation wasn't personal, and Herberger's president has reached out to Pela to talk through the situation.

Pela says that "Prime Example" will be renamed and open at his gallery, R. Pela Contemporary Art, in March 2014.

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski