Heil to the Chief

Curators at the Arizona State University Art Museum are planning an exhibition of contemporary art titled "Democracy in America," just in time for the presidential election this fall. And, not coincidentally, just in time for the third and final presidential debate, scheduled to take place just hundreds of feet away, at Gammage Auditorium on October 13.

While the show is still being pieced together, thus far just one work in "Democracy in America" satirically lampoons John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Most of the exhibition's more highly charged pieces focus on President George W. Bush. There's a cartoon of Bush as a "poor little oligarch" in a satire of Richie Rich, standing on mounds of cash via Big Oil and the war in Iraq. A painting portrays our fearless leader as King George being coronated by the U.S. Supreme Court. And there's a sculpture of 98 papier-mch pulp United States senators, standing at attention in rows of infantry, saluting the passage of the Patriot Act with a robotic Sieg Heil!

You get the picture. The show's organizers are still trying to get more work about Kerry, they say, but there aren't so many neo-conservative contemporary artists out there.

In any case, "Democracy in America" promises to be an impressive and flat-out ballsy collection of paintings, prints, mixed-media works, ceramics, photos and documentary film

That is, if anyone gets to see it.

The show should have a wide audience. Perhaps the whole world. While Kerry and Bush might find it hard to make time to scurry over to the museum to sneak a peek at the exhibition, the museum curators can be sure that -- with the presidency on the line and the media spotlight shining on Tempe -- visiting dignitaries, high-ranking Republicans and Democrats, as well as an international press corps, will put the ASU Art Museum on their "must-see" lists.

Maybe that's why ASU administration officials are refusing to grant interviews with President Michael Crow and even threatening that there may be no show at all. University spokeswoman Nancy Neff says, "There is no 'exhibit' at this stage of the process." Stacey Shaw, the Herberger College of Fine Arts director of communications, echoes the sentiment.

"We clearly understand our responsibility as a state-funded institution to have an exhibition to reflect balance and a variety of differing points of view," Shaw says. If the show isn't balanced, she adds, "Democracy in America" will not happen.

But it doesn't appear as though "Democracy in America" was ever intended to be balanced -- at least, not according to a fact sheet museum curator John Spiak provided New Times in mid-June. At the time, Spiak also offered up a list of participating artists. New Times was able to reach 10 of the 26 artists, none of whom indicate that they were told the show was to be balanced, either. Unlike some ASU Art Museum officials, including Spiak, who stopped returning calls several days ago, many of the artists contacted provided details of the soliciting process, the work they've submitted to the museum's curators, and electronic versions of those pieces, and who frankly acknowledged their disdain for Bush, his policies, and the war in Iraq.

And their concern over what might happen next.

"If you publish your story now," says Houston artist Lynn Randolph, whose work is slated to appear in the exhibition, "I'm afraid [ASU] will shut it down before the art is even hung."

On a warm June Monday, John Spiak graciously emerges from his office in the cool concrete museum to quickly paint a picture of the exhibition he's been planning for several months.

"So, the exhibit will run in this space right here," says Spiak, tall, slim and bespectacled, motioning toward the museum's vast and southernmost gallery. Along with the museum's director, Marilyn Zeitlin, senior curator Heather Lineberry, and the museum's ceramics curator, Peter Held, Spiak is preparing for "Democracy in America" to open August 31, as part of a "Welcome Back Students Party." They've set a date for the formal public reception -- October 22, from 7 to 9 p.m. They also have the closing date established -- November 19, a little more than two weeks after the presidential election.

"And over here," Spiak says, pointing to the foyer outside the gallery, "will be the 'Kids Voting' booth to educate kids about voting. That's really what the whole exhibit is about -- making people aware of the political process and trying to get them involved in that process."

In further detail, the release Spiak forwarded to New Times (which now has been deemed "unofficial" by ASU personnel) states that "Democracy in America" includes artists -- both regional and nationally known -- who will "explore what are current images of the United States and of democracy."

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Joe Watson