Bush League

After vowing publicly that no piece of art would be cut, Arizona State University Art Museum director Marilyn Zeitlin chose to "eliminate" several pieces originally slated for inclusion in the "Democracy in America" exhibition, which will open as scheduled at the museum on August 31, to coincide with the debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry on October 13 and the November presidential election.

When New Times first reported that the exhibition was being planned and included many anti-Bush works ("Heil to the Chief," Joe Watson, July 1), ASU administrators promised that the show would not go on unless it was politically balanced. More than 400 pages of e-mails and correspondence written as far back as February through July 21 between museum staff, ASU administrative officials and the artists who were asked to participate in the show reveal how this "balance" was achieved: Anti-Bush works were eliminated; Zeitlin allowed work she called "mediocre" to be included; and ASU administrators with no background as curators, including President Michael Crow, weighed in on the content.

According to the documents New Times received, Crow asked at least twice since early July to see the work to be included in the exhibition, and told Bob Wills, the dean of the Herberger College of Fine Arts, that, "I don't like surprises that seem to be potentially negative to the overall image of fairness and impartiality that we must take as [an] institution."

First Amendment advocates say a public university is under no obligation to present a fair and balanced art exhibition, and that inhibiting the museum could be construed as a violation of academic freedom. Crow and some members of his administration clearly disagree.

In advance of a coordinated preview of the show for Crow in late July, Wills told museum staff in an e-mail, ". . . I can assure you -- from concerned legislators to university administrative folks -- there is the highest level of interest and concern that I have ever seen -- in 40 years of dealing with controversy.

"We should have avoided this situation entirely, and the processes which have brought it to life," Wills continued. "And we need to devise plans . . . and agreements for how and why it will never happen again."

In late June, Zeitlin -- the lead curator of "Democracy in America" -- told New Times she wouldn't "pull any of the pieces" the museum had obtained for the exhibition, and that curators would "work to add balance." At the time, Stacey Shaw and Denise Tanguay, two spokeswomen for the Herberger College of Fine Arts, had concluded that, of 30 exhibition pieces set to run in the show, "one-third (10) appear to be anti-Bush . . . [and] almost one-third (8) are anti-war," according to an e-mail from Shaw to Zeitlin and Wills, who, as dean, granted final approval of the show. Shaw went on to say that the exhibition was "clearly one-sided."

Shaw refused to grant New Times' request to interview Zeitlin until an August 30 press preview of the exhibition. Wills declined an interview request until the preview day as well. And ASU spokeswoman Nancy Neff told New Times that Crow's schedule was booked.

But the e-mails reveal that Zeitlin and curators John Spiak and Jean Makin -- in the weeks following Crow's demands to see the show's content and an explanation of each piece -- scrambled to find art to correct the imbalance. Spiak, who originally sent out a fact sheet on the exhibition to New Times on June 16 and has since refused to comment on the show, even contacted The Late Show With David Letterman, hoping to obtain video of the show's spoof on the "Kerry-Edwards `Love Fest.'" The museum curators also agreed to add a subtitle to the show -- "Political Satire, Then and Now" -- so that the show could include political cartoons. In order to create an exact "50-50" balance, Spiak searched for pro-war work as well, and Zeitlin assured Wills that "we also know of several mediocre pieces that focus on Kerry that we can add."

But after exhausting their resources, Zeitlin e-mailed this message to Makin and Spiak on July 13:

"I didn't sleep last night," Zeitlin begins. "I realize what I sent last night as the `balanced' list was still too heavy on the Bush-negative. We are going to eliminate Conal and the other two pieces that go with his. By eliminating these three, we bring the con-Bush total to SIX, with the con-Kerry at FIVE. Adding a bunch of political cartoons and counting them as one . . . we should get this thing through. Budde's pieces about oil are out, Chagoya's big piece is out and replaced by the [Ronald] Reagan piece from the collection, Ryan McNamara is out.

"I'm really sorry to have to go this route," Zeitlin concludes, "but I see no alternative."

The following pieces -- all considered critical of Bush and/or the war in Iraq, according to the curators' working checklist -- are no longer in the show: two of a series of three prints collectively called Be the Revolution by artists Robbie Conal, Mear One and Shepard Fairey; Jim Budde's ceramic piece Con Tex or Roll Out the Barrel; Road Map (F-14 Jet) by Enrique Chagoya (although, in fairness, this piece will not be included because of a scheduling conflict); Peter Kuper's scratchboard piece Richie Bush; Bitter Pill, a cooperative piece by David Attyah and S.A. Bachman (an ASU alum), also known as Think Again; and a photographic installation by Ryan McNamara called Angry Americans, a collage of eight photos of children making angry faces which Shaw and Tanguay felt was "anti-war" when presented alongside works that were overtly so, according to an e-mail from Shaw to Zeitlin and Wills.

Zeitlin's censorship of her own show might have weakened its (and certainly her own) boldness, but it hasn't entirely removed the exhibition's teeth. While most of the 60 pieces in "Democracy in America" are now neutral works, many with historical perspective, there are several pieces still blatantly critical of Bush -- including Lynn Randolph's The Coronation of St. George, Kuper's Ceci n'est pas une comic, and Conal's Read My Apocalips. (It's unknown why Zeitlin chose to keep Conal on the "Democracy" roster, although Conal signed a loan agreement with the museum for that specific piece back in June.) Pieces considered critical of Kerry in the working checklist obtained by New Times include Budde's Kerry in Idaho -- although Budde says it's a stretch to say his piece is critical of the Democratic nominee -- five digital prints from caricature artist Linda Eddy, and some editorial cartoons from the East Valley Tribune's Mike Ritter.

According to anti-censorship advocates, ASU is under no obligation to present a balanced exhibition.

"A university museum does not necessarily endorse the views of the artists it exhibits," says Svetlana Mintcheva, the arts program director for the National Coalition Against Censorship in New York City. "It would be constitutionally acceptable for the university museum to put on a show that was entirely critical of the current administration. But there is a climate of fear in nonprofit institutions and educational institutions, and they're worried about their funds and how they're perceived."

Eleanor Eisenberg, the executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, says if university administrators force a public museum to create a so-called balanced exhibition, the university is violating the curators' constitutional rights. "Not only is it a violation of First Amendment rights," says Eisenberg, "it's a violation of academic freedom."

According to the correspondence obtained by New Times, ASU administrators are more concerned about losing the presidential debate -- which will take place at Gammage Auditorium -- and its anticipated multimillion-dollar impact on the Valley. Wills told Zeitlin in a June 29 e-mail that, per the university's agreement with the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, it was imperative that ASU not endorse one candidate over the other, which he felt was a fine line that "Democracy in America" was walking, and could result in ASU's loss of the debate. "Part of the university contract regarding the debates," Wills wrote, "is that the institution will remain impartial concerning the candidates and their campaigns." As a result, he added, "the contemporary pieces need to be balanced, both in numbers and in ideas."

"They aren't curating this exhibit. They're playing politics," says Ryan McNamara, a former Phoenix artist now living in New York City, who says his Angry Americans was cut from the show last week when John Spiak called him and informed him of Zeitlin's decision. "It's almost comical that this show is called `Democracy in America.' One of the pillars of democracy is that everyone's voice is heard. And here they are, silencing those representative voices."

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Joe Watson