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Herberger Censorship Will Have Long-Term Impact

It's canceled.

That's what a box office clerk told artist Ronnie Ray Mendez on Friday, August 30, when he arrived at Herberger Theater Center to pick up promotional postcards for the exhibition "Prime Example," a group show curated by local gallery owner (and longtime New Times contributor) Robrt Pela and scheduled to open less than a week later, on September 5.

"An e-mail would've been nice," Mendez says.


Herberger Theatrics: How the Phoenix Theatre Centre Got Accused of Censorship

Later that Friday, Herberger did send out an e-mail to its subscribers. The e-mail reiterated that "Prime Example" was canceled. Instead of the new exhibit featuring works from Mendez, Mike Ford, Suzanne Falk, and Geoffrey Gersten, "Show and Tell," curated by Phoenix artist Peter Bugg, would continue through early October.

Slideshow: Artists Protest Herberger Theater Center's Censorship

The e-mail offered no further explanation, and the arts community cried foul.

"Welcome to Phoenix, where censorship is okay," Pela wrote on the show's Facebook event page. "And where corporate gallery owners apparently don't care that artists have spent months creating art for an upcoming exhibit."

Although it took a few days for all the details to come out, it's clear that "Prime Example" was canceled because Herberger objected to the content of some of the artwork Pela had chosen. Herberger officials have denied in multiple statements that this was an act of censorship, offering three different explanations as to why the show, which was on the books for two years, was abruptly called off.

And what's happened since?

There was a small anti-censorship protest outside the Herberger in early September, and several artists and a curator have withdrawn from commitments to Herberger's gallery, guaranteeing that the impact of this action will be felt for a long time.

Outrage came from another somewhat unlikely source, as well: the Mayor's Office. Lawyer Brendan Mahoney, Mayor Greg Stanton's senior policy adviser and an LGBT rights advocate, is unsettled over what happened.

"The bottom line is this: Censorship is unacceptable. Period," Mahoney says.

But there's not much he can do about it.

Turns out the city of Phoenix actually owns Herberger Theater Center. But because Herberger's board is deemed independent by an agreement with the city, the city has no say in decisions involving content. This obviously was done to keep government from censoring artists. But in an odd role reversal, the Mayor's Office has become involved as a mediator, arranging a conference call between Pela and Herberger president Richard Bowers to sort out the situation with Mahoney and Ginger Spencer, who is the temporary special assistant to city manager David Cavazos and works closely with the city's Office of Arts and Culture.

The conversation didn't result in much apart from Pela declaring that he does not wish to work with Herberger again.

Herberger's gallery is easy to miss. Away from most of the theater's indoor foot traffic, it's located on the second floor and accessible via a rotunda staircase (or an elevator in a hallway behind the restrooms). The secluded art space shares about 2,600 square feet with a lounge and bar area, called Bob's Spot, which opens to a balcony with views of the theater's courtyard. The area, which holds about 300 people, was designed to serve as a hangout for patrons before and after performances. There's a much more accessible bar on the first floor, though balcony ticketholders do have to go to the second floor to get to their seats.

Many people — even those who regularly attend Herberger productions — don't even know the gallery is there.

Censorship and art have coexisted pretty much since art's inception. Typically, governments and other influential institutions censor artists by refusing to display their work, thereby suppressing their right to free speech. It's rare that arts organizations, including theaters, practice censorship.

A recent and highly publicized case of censorship involved the Chinese government and political activist and artist Ai Weiwei. Throughout his career, Ai has questioned and criticized the Chinese government and, in turn, he's been placed under house arrest, had his studio demolished, been beaten by police, and garnered international attention for his work, which continues to be suppressed in China.

Other notable examples of censorship include reactions and vandalism to Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist's urine, and the removal of Dayton Claudio's Sex, Laws, and Coathangers, a 1992 painting that references the politics of abortion, from a government building in North Carolina.

Phoenix has seen its share of censorship in the past few decades.

Last year, Randy Slack's "Chaos Theory 13" faced accusations of censorship after Slack declined to display a work by Suzanne Falk (the same Falk who was to participate in "Prime Example") titled in heaven, everything is fine, which portrayed a group of men in a circle jerk. Slack chose not to display the work because his event was family-friendly and, he says, he didn't have enough notice to display the work in a booth because Falk brought it to him two days before the show opened.

It's not always as simple as government coming in and censoring, particularly in a conservative city like Phoenix.

New Times art critic Kathleen Vanesian has pointed out cases of apparent self-censorship in recent years. One involved Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts' 2000 show "Looking Forward, Looking Black," which presented what the writer called "wan and watered-down works" from artists who have created more controversial offerings.

The other was Phoenix Art Museum's 1996 exhibition "Old Glory," an American flag show that stirred up controversy by including artworks that had previously been censored. Vanesian wrote that the show was a "slightly cheesy grab bag of stars and stripes" and suggested that perhaps the show's curator, David Rubin, omitted works that originally were intended to appear in the show because they may have been deemed too controversial for an Arizona audience.

Herberger president Richard Bowers and Laurene Austin, the arts venue's marketing and development director, who also manages its gallery space, have been at the fore of Herberger's self-defense since "Prime Example" was canceled because some of the works were deemed potentially offensive.

But Herberger Theater Center has hosted controversial works in the past, featuring such productions as HAIR and The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs on its stage. The theater also is home to artist John Waddell's installation Dance, which features 12 bronze statues of unclothed men, women, and children dancing throughout the courtyard.

It's clear the topic of censorship is a hot potato; nobody on Herberger's board wants to discuss it.

Requests for interviews from members of Herberger's board of directors and Bowers were not granted by the time this story went to press. The board is composed mainly of corporate executives, lawyers, Arizona State University higher-ups, and members of city-centric organizations like the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.

One notable member of the Herberger's board of directors is staying quiet on the subject.

Christopher Callahan, dean of ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, declined comment on the subject. His assistant, Carolyn McNearney, wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday, September 3, "Sorry, Dean Callahan is not familiar with the story." On Tuesday, September 10, after stories had appeared on New Times' culture blog, Jackalope Ranch, and in ASU's Downtown Devil, New Times requested comment again.

"Thanks for asking," McNearney wrote. "Dean Callahan is not available for an interview."

Robrt Pela is a freelance writer — he's New Times' theater critic and regularly writes for the paper — who recently started curating art exhibitions. He worked as Herberger's volunteer curator during 2012 without any apparent issues with the venue. He served as resident curator at Willo North Gallery and put on shows at Bragg's Pie Factory and the University Club.

His career as a curator has been short but not without drama. Pela encountered controversy after he resigned from his curatorship at Willo, a Phoenix gallery, and the arts community cried censorship over what apparently turned out to have been a business dispute.

The gallery's owner, Kristin Shears, canceled "The Joe and Jan Show," a provocative exhibition of works inspired by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Jan Brewer, just three days before it was set to open in January 2013 and shortly after Pela had let her know he intended to resign after the show. Pela relocated the show to a space where he now has his own gallery, R. Pela Contemporary Art.

But there's little question among many that censorship really was at play last month at Herberger.

Although he now books shows monthly at his own space, Pela had agreed to reprise his curator role with an exhibition at Herberger in September 2013. Returning for a one-month show the year after a curatorship is completed is standard practice for Herberger's guest curators.

The contract Pela agreed to stated that the follow-up show at Herberger in 2013 would include Pela's own artwork. Typically, Herberger curators also are visual artists and this is not an issue.

However, Pela contacted Herberger's Laurene Austin via e-mail on Wednesday, June 26, and said he would prefer to curate a group show instead of presenting his own artwork, which he has never shown in public. Austin agreed to the show and sent contracts on Wednesday, July 24, to the artists Pela chose: Mendez, Falk, Ford, and Gersten.

"Prime Example" was set to open as Pela had planned, until Thursday, August 29, when things fell apart.

Here's how the show got canceled:

Along with the contracts, Austin sent along information, including installation and tear-down dates, and requested that each artist send her images of all their artwork for the show, either on a mailed CD or as e-mailed JPG files, along with title information and prices. Pela was CC'd on those messages. She didn't mention whether the work would be reviewed for content, just that the images would appear on Herberger's website.

She says none of the artists complied with her request. Ford and Mendez say that she didn't press the issue. E-mail correspondence turned over by Pela shows that Austin never asked him to send her all the images of works that would appear in the show. Again, content was not discussed.

Pela e-mailed Austin on Friday, August 9, that he wanted to make the text cards for the show, instead of Herberger making them. Text cards are posted next to works in the gallery and provide information including the work's title, medium, and price. He wrote that he'd like the artists to send him that information. Austin asked that Pela send her the text card information as well, because she would need it for the Herberger website.

On Thursday, August 22, Pela sent Austin four images, one from each artist: Gersten's The Bessies, a painting that re-imagines Grant Wood's American Gothic with cows; Mendez's What a Crock, a pen-and-ink portrait of a crocodile woman; Falk's The Visitation, a portrait of a woman and a butterfly; and Ford's Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, which portrays a person in a heavy coat wearing a rabbit mask, holding a gun in one hand and three baby dolls strung up by their feet like bagged game in the other. These images were to be used on the exhibition's promotional postcards and on Herberger's website.

Austin did not write that there were any problems with them. The postcards were printed and the show was listed on the site.

Pela e-mailed Austin the titles and prices for all the "Prime Example" artwork on Thursday, August 29.

Austin replied that she had concerns about Ford's photography based on his works' titles, particularly The Sodomite. She wrote that a Valley Youth Theatre show would be at Herberger for three weeks in September and that children and families would be in attendance. (The exhibition also would've been up during Herberger's Festival of the Arts, set for Saturday, October 5.)

At that point, she had not seen Ford's works, except for Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, when she wrote to Pela, "Based on the titles, I'm not sure what to expect. As you know, we are a theater first and need to be respectful of our patrons and theater companies. We may need to pull The Sodomite and others depending on subject matter."

She asked Pela if he had suggestions.

Pela wrote back that day, "I suggest that censorship is never right, and now is not the time to tell me that you may be pulling artwork from a show I've already promised my artists and the audience that they'll be seeing."

He sent her all of Ford's images that were to be included in the show, writing, "The Sodomite is a photograph of a man's face."

The Sodomite does not portray sex or violence. It shows a man in caked-on white makeup with the word "sodomite" written in red across his forehead. In biblical terms, a "Sodomite" is a resident of Sodom, a city representative of vice, deviance, and sin that God smote. In modern language, "sodomy" can mean anal or oral sex, as well as bestiality.

Austin replied about 20 minutes later that Herberger could not display Mike Ford's The Sodomite, nor could the venue show The Dolls, an image of the artist and his mother in blond wigs, kabuki-style white makeup, and red lipstick, or The Motel Room, which shows a fully clothed person posed on a bed wearing a mask. At the end of her message, she added that she had been asking for images and information since April.

Pela replied and disagreed, stating that Austin had requested Pela send her one artwork image per artist.

She responded on the morning of Friday, August 30: "Unfortunately, we must cancel the 'Prime Example' exhibit. It may well be a provocative and impactful exhibit in another space, but it does not align with the balance of art forms we must achieve at the Herberger Theater."

Then came the fallout.

Pela took to Facebook to explain that the show had been canceled. And in flooded messages from the arts community.

Tempe-based artist Travis Fields organized an anti-censorship protest in response to the cancellation of "Prime Example" on September 5, the day the show was set to open with a reception. Attendance peaked at 20 people, according to Pela. They turned up with homemade signs that read "Shame on Herberger" and "Stop Herberger No Censorship." One masked protester stuck printed green leaves on the breasts and genitalia of the nude Waddell sculptures around the theater.

Other members of the visual arts community have distanced themselves and their work from Herberger. Surrealist artist Jason Hugger withdrew three paintings from Herberger's October exhibition, "Nocturne," because of the show's cancellation.

"If they're going to do that, then I don't want to participate in it," Hugger says. "What they did was ludicrous and unprofessional. And I just feel I don't want to work with them."

Michael Allen has announced that he will not participate in any future Herberger exhibitions.

Diane Di Bernardino Sanborn withdrew as curator of Herberger's upcoming exhibition, "Balance." She wrote in a message to Austin, which she shared with New Times, "My professional reputation in the Phoenix/Scottsdale arts community is extremely important to me, and I have worked very hard over the past 24 years to establish this reputation as a top-notch artist, arts educator, and fine arts business owner."

Arizona Theatre Company's artistic director David Ira Goldstein commented on the "Prime Example" Facebook event page, "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?!" ATC is one of Herberger's two resident companies. The other is Center Dance Ensemble.

The artists who were slated to participate in "Prime Example" also were upset by the cancellation.

Ford writes in an e-mail to New Times that he understands neither why Austin would cancel an entire show after seeing just a few of the works nor why she took issue with his art in particular.

"Personally, I don't see what she found objectionable about The Dolls or The Motel Room, which were two of the three pieces to which she objected," he writes. "I can understand to a point potential concerns about The Sodomite, although I find those concerns to be a little silly as well."

Ford continues: "From the e-mails, it appears that there was never an attempt at compromise. It was never suggested that perhaps I substitute different images. It was simply decided that my work wouldn't have an opportunity to be shown in that space, with no explanation given as to why. I think that's where the censorship issue comes into play. As I said, I understand that different venues have different guidelines. What I find troubling is that there was no discussion about how, exactly, my work was objectionable. Had there been a discussion, I could have responded to the objections and a potentially useful dialogue could have taken place. But I wasn't given that opportunity. The cutting off of all discussion is what I see as censorship."

As for the other artists, Ford writes, "I think they were censored in that they were prevented from displaying their work sight unseen. That, really, is more troubling to me than someone finding my work disturbing or objectionable."

Mendez writes in an e-mail to New Times, "The silver lining is that I have new additions to my body of work, but the disappointment is that the contract I signed will not be honored. This is not based on the work I created for the exhibit but on the inability to communicate and compromise.

"As artists we are free to express ourselves and our views on society. I do understand the need for guidelines and parameters in certain instances, but unfortunately in this case, no such parameters or guidelines were ever stated or communicated."

Meanwhile, Herberger has maintained that the cancellation was not an act of censorship.

Herberger posted an unsigned, confusingly written message to its Facebook page on Saturday, August 31:

"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."

In an interview with New Times, Austin says otherwise.

"It's not that he changed the lineup last-minute," she says. (This point was obvious to anyone who had seen the show announced on the Herberger website, complete with a few images and artist information.) "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."

She adds, "I talked it over with our president. We didn't feel comfortable. At this late date there was nothing to do but cancel the exhibit . . . It wasn't a negative statement against any of the artists."

Austin says that if she had received images of all the artwork from the artists, which she says she requested multiple times (although e-mails that Austin and Pela turned over to New Times do not show that she did), then perhaps a settlement could've been reached.

On Wednesday, September 4, Bowers offered a new explanation for the show's cancellation, via Facebook:

"It is fine to disagree on an issue, but labeling it with an inflammatory word and misrepresenting the facts is something else entirely. The Herberger Theater Art Gallery has had a well-defined process for themed and exhibition art selection since its inception in 2002. The process has been shared with every volunteer guest curator, and allowed us to fairly showcase hundreds of talented Arizona artists over the years and raise funds that benefit local Youth Outreach programs. In this case, many elements of our process were not adhered to and the reason 'Prime Example' was cancelled."

This explanation came after representatives from the Mayor's Office organized a phone call for Bowers and Pela to discuss the situation with Mahoney and Spencer. Mahoney says that the goal of the call was to work with both sides to reach an agreeable solution. Pela and Bowers agreed to have follow-up discussions, Mahoney says. It's unclear what their outcome would be.

In his notes on the call that were posted on Facebook, Pela wrote that he explained to Bowers and the others that he was unwilling to risk working with Herberger because it treated artists and curators so badly and practiced censorship. He also wrote that he did not wish to "place artists in harm's way" by asking them to work with Herberger in any capacity. Bowers and Pela did agree that Herberger needs to streamline and clarify its policies to artists and curators to prevent something like this from happening in the future.

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Mahoney says that Herberger needs to have in place standards for curating that conform to national policies, including giving viewers the opportunity to see a controversial work and providing a disclaimer. He says that Herberger will be asked to prepare a written policy and distribute it to artists.

Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport hosts changing exhibitions and clearly lays out its policies for art submissions on its website, along with a mission statement and programming guidelines. As of this writing, no such explanatory language exists on Herberger's site. The site does note that the gallery is a space for Arizona artists, although that has not been an argument publicly used to defend Herberger's decision to cancel "Prime Example." (Ford actually lives in Texas, but released correspondence does not show that this was ever discussed.)

"This should never happen again," Mahoney says. "We'll accept that everybody was acting in good faith. I don't think anyone had bad intentions, but we could've achieved a different outcome."

Pela has announced that the show will go on under a different banner. In March 2014, he'll display the works originally intended for "Prime Example" at his space, R. Pela Contemporary Art. The new name? "BANNED BY THE HERBERGER!"

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