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.

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was a small anti-censorship protest outside the Herberger in early September, and several artists and a curator have withdrawn from commitments to Herberger's gallery, guaranteeing that the impact of this action will be felt for a long time.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

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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