Herberger cancels art exhibit because of 'subject matter'; artists respond with protest

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(Alexis Macklin/DD)

Gallery owner and art columnist Robrt Pela put together the show “Prime Example” that was canceled by the Herberger due to concerns about certain controversial art pieces. (Alexis Macklin/DD)

An exhibit slated to open Thursday at the Herberger Theater Center Art Gallery was canceled last week, resulting in some artists’ withdrawal of involvement at the Herberger and in a protest scheduled for the day the show was set to run.

The exhibit, “Prime Example: New Work from R. Pela Contemporary Art by Geoffrey Gersten, Suzanne Falk, Mike Ford and Ronnie Ray Mendez,” was a group show put together by Robrt Pela, owner of R. Pela Contemporary Art and art columnist for the Phoenix New Times.

Pela has had shows canceled before. “The Joe and Jan Show,” a show Pela curated of artwork featuring Joe Arpaio and Jan Brewer, was cancelled at the Willo North Gallery in January.

Pela, who served as a guest curator at the Herberger for the 2012 season, was originally given a solo show for the following year, as is customary for all guest curators. In June, he decided he would rather curate a show of others’ work, saying he does not show his own artwork publicly.

The show was canceled Friday, Aug. 30, in a brief email sent to Pela by Herberger Director of Development and Marketing Laurene Austin following concerns about some of artist Mike Ford’s photography that was lined up to be in the show.

Throughout their email correspondence, Austin had only seen images Pela had sent her for promotional materials, which consisted of one image from each artist.

Austin expressed concerns on Aug. 29 via email about the title of one of Ford’s pieces, “The Sodomite,” writing, “I have concerns about Mike Ford’s artwork. … Based on the titles, I’m not sure what to expect.”

The email continued, “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.”

Pela responded by sending Austin the pieces Ford had submitted for the show, including the message that “now is not the time to tell me you’ll be pulling artwork from a show I’ve already promised my artist and the audience that they’ll be seeing.”

After reviewing the pieces, Austin told Pela that the Herberger could not show three of Ford’s pieces: “The Sodomite,” “The Dolls” and “The Motel Room.” Friday morning, following Pela’s response, Austin sent an email informing Pela that “Prime Example” had been canceled.

On Saturday, the Herberger released a statement on Facebook, saying “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.”

Austin said the show was cancelled because she had “continually asked all of the artists” to provide her with artwork. Pela said it was never made clear to him that Austin needed images of all the artwork for the show to go forward.

“Instead of saying to me at any point … ‘Hey, we need to see what you’re showing,’ she just said, ‘Hey, we’re canceling this,’” Pela said Saturday. “She’s never seen 90 percent of the images. So I am thrilled to hear that the position they’re taking is ‘we can’t show art sight unseen.’”

Austin acknowledged that she never explicitly asked for the images in order to review them but said Pela knew the Herberger’s process after having curated for a year.

“The Dolls” by Mike Ford features Ford and his mother, who asked to be part of one of Ford’s pieces. (Courtesy of Robrt Pela)

The objection to Ford’s artworks was not specifically referenced in the statement from the Herberger or Austin’s explanations for the cancellation of the show. The statement released by the Herberger did state that “the cancellation of ‘Prime Example’ was not an act of censorship.”

Austin later said the theater could not show his pieces “because of the subject matter, and we were looking out for the theater. We just didn’t know what to expect from any of the other artwork.”

The situation has upset a number of artists in the community, who have been responding by acting in protest against the theater.

Jason Hugger, an artist whose work was to be in the Herberger gallery’s upcoming fall show “Nocturne,” said he withdrew his pieces from the show.

“They shouldn’t have censored him in the first place, but they did. They canceled the entire show,” Hugger said. “I don’t want to be associated with a gallery that supports this censorship.”

Travis Fields, founder of the Arizona Artist Collective, organized an “Uncancelled” protest in front of the Herberger for Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., when “Prime Example” was scheduled to open. Fields said his hope at first was to reverse the cancellation of the show, but it transformed into a desire to “find out what was going on.”

“At this point, I’ve received no replies from Herberger Theater at all about why they canceled the show other than a brief and undetailed posting on their Facebook page. It really didn’t address issues that had arisen about why it happened,” Fields said on Sunday.

Ford said that he was disappointed for the other artists who were scheduled to be in the show and that what upset him most was the lack of communication between the Herberger and Pela or the artists.

“The way it was done was so ham-handed. It just prevents any kind of dialogue from happening, and that’s the real problem. There’s just no opportunity for a dialogue about any of this,” Ford said.

Pela said that while he was frustrated by the cancellation of the show, he was not surprised when he received the email.

“I wish I could tell you I was stunned,” Pela said. “I’ve lived here for a half century. … I know how profoundly conservative and how profoundly uninformed the people who often call the shots happen to be.

“They find their art at Wal-Mart. It’s there to match their curtains.”

Contact the reporter at molly.bilker@asu.edu