Herberger Theater Center stirred up local controversy by abruptly canceling the art exhibition "Prime Example" in August because of its content. Now the arts organization, which is owned by the city of Phoenix, is getting national attention. The New York City-based National Coalition Against Censorship has called out Herberger for its recent act of censorship.
In an email sent to Herberger president Richard Bowers Thursday, September 26, the NCAC recommends that Herberger officials apologize to "Prime Example" artists Mike Ford, Suzanne Falk, Ronnie Ray Mendez, and Geoffrey Gersten, as well as the show's curator, longtime New Times contributor Robrt Pela. The coalition also wants Herberger to "adopt guidelines for future shows that respect principles of artistic and curatorial freedom."
"Prime Example" was canceled by Herberger after photographs by artist Mike Ford were deemed potentially offensive by Bowers and Laurene Austin, Herberger's director of marketing and development. The Sodomite was one of Ford's works that was set to appear in the show. It's an image of a man in white makeup with the word "sodomite" written in red across his forehead.
The letter from the NCAC's director of programs Svetlana Mintcheva expressed her organization's deep concern over the cancellation of "Prime Example." She wrote, "As the Herberger is, in large part, supported by government funds, the suppression of certain viewpoints by requesting the removal of artworks found to be somehow objectionable violates First Amendment principles."
Mintcheva went on: "The current incident sets an extremely bad precedent for administrators hastily imposing their own prejudices upon a show and depriving the Herberger's audience of a unique encounter with the work of local artists. We urge you to clearly distance the Herberger from that unfortunate incident by apologizing to the artists and the curator and demonstrating your commitment to artistic freedom by adopting guidelines for future shows that respect principles of artistic and curatorial freedom. We would be delighted to help you draft such guidelines."
The message can be read in full at www.ncac.org/NCAC-Herberger-Phoenix and at the end of this post. Austin, Herberger board chair Jeffrey B. Guldner, Herberger board vice chair Kenneth Sundlof, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton were all CC'd on the message.
Brendan Mahoney, a lawyer and LGBT rights advocate who works as Mayor Stanton's senior policy advisor, has been vocal in his disapproval of Herberger's cancellation of "Prime Example." According to him, Herberger has already agreed to overhaul its curatorial policies and issue written guidelines to participating artists. However, it's unclear how far along that process is. Mahoney says that Bowers has contacted officials at the Phoenix Convention Center for assistance in drafting a new arts policy for Herberger.
"That's probably the most important thing: to make sure that there are clear guidelines going forward that everyone accepts," Mahoney says. "Next on the list is, I think both Herberger and Robrt Pela were affected in their own ways by this and it would be nice to see that addressed as well." However, he adds, "That's not entirely in my control."
Bowers has not returned calls or emails from New Times as of this writing. Same goes for Herberger's board members.
Mintcheva says she will follow up with Herberger officials early next week if she doesn't get a response by then.