Some community members are outraged that the City of Berkeley-run Addison Street Windows Gallery decided not to display posters from a national series of exhibitions called the Art of Democracy on the basis of curatorial judgment, and instead replaced them with pottery during election week. While supporters of free speech called the decision “censorship,” Carol Brighton -- the curator of the gallery -- and the city’s Civic Arts Coordinator Mary Ann Merker denied the allegations, explaining that it was not uncommon for public agencies to refrain from showing work which depicted violence or nudity.
The posters were scheduled to go on display from Oct. 20 through election day, until Nov. 29, but never went up, Merker said, because the organizers decided to include work they had initially agreed not to.
Organized by artists Art Hazelwood and Stephen Fredericks, the Art of Democracy is a national coalition of political art shows taking place this fall, leading up to the U.S. Presidential elections.
It includes more than fifty shows all over the country, with fourteen exhibitions in Northern California, from Davis through the Bay Area and down to Santa Cruz and Monterey.
“Berkeley has a censorship issue!” Hazelwood wrote in his email to various members of the Bay Area art community Sunday, explaining that four posters from the Art of Democracy series had been “censored” in Berkeley at the Addison Street Windows Gallery.
“The curator invented guidelines which she attributed to the Berkeley City Arts Commission. No other venue among the fifty Art of Democracy exhibitions around the country have censored the show. Only in Berkeley, which ironically just erected a monument to free speech, has this show been censored.”
Merker dismissed any role of censorship in Brighton’s decision-making process, saying that Brighton was under contract with the City of Berkeley to select artwork for the Addison Street Windows Gallery.
“We pay her for her curatorial judgment,” she said. “I believe the curator [Brighton] made it very clear to Mr. Hazelwood that in her judgment she was not going to show any violence in the windows because of the site being on an open street across from children’s classrooms.”
The windows of the Addison Street gallery face the Berkeley Repertory Theater and the Berkeley Jazzschool.
“The windows are in the middle of an open downtown art district,” Merker said. “It’s not like having the artwork in a closed room where you can choose to go. I am willing to bet that the earlier locations displaying the posters are not on an open store across from a children’s school.”
Merker said that Hazelwood agreed to Brighton’s guidelines last January, but when the time came to display the art he brought different work, including the four posters depicting guns, violence and weaponry which he had agreed not to show.
In a telephone interview to the Planet Tuesday Hazelwood said that Merker’s claim was false.
“The show did not exist when Carol Brighton agreed to host the show,” he said. “She knew that the posters were being made. I did not give any guidelines of censorship to the artists. The Art of Democracy asked artists to make political art and that art would be displayed in 50 venues around the country. The work was being made up to the last minute.”
Hazelwood said Brighton had informed him that there were guidelines about no violence but that when he brought the finished work to the curator he had assumed she would look at the artwork and judge it on its merits instead of “some arbitrary rules that she created on her own.”
“Just because the posters have guns doesn’t mean they are violent,” he said. “Following her decision to censor the show I asked the 40 artists involved what they wanted to do. It doesn’t matter what I wanted or didn't want. I was not going to censor for the curator. The artists agreed that they would only show as a group.”
In a voicemail message to the Planet Monday afternoon, Brighton—who is herself a Berkeley-based artist -- defended her decision, calling it an “issue of curatorial judgment.”
“Very much the same as all museum curators and gallery curators exercising curatorial judgment and it’s particularly sensitive to this site,” she said.
“The use of censorship is simply mistaken. Every curator judges stuff out of a show.”
Dave Blake, a member of the city’s Civic Art Commission, said that Merker had told the commission on several occasions that the commission had a rule barring the depiction of guns in works of art.
“The curator’s position is it’s not censorship to tell people in advance that certain things are not allowed,” Blake said. “My position is that it is pre-censorship. It’s the job of a curator to assess the value of a piece of art and then decide if it’s offensive. To have a categorical rule is censorship.”
Artists whose work Brighton objected to included Tony Bergquist, Anita Dillman, Doug Minkler and Jos Sances, all of whose posters had guns on them.
Sances’ poster depicts the threat of violence and shows a Native American, a South East Asian, an African American slave and a Central American as victims of state terrorism, with guns pointed at their heads.
“The poster is more than a gun being pointed at them,” Sances, who has served on Berkeley's Civic Arts Commission for six years, said.
“It shows how things are being taken from them by an imperialistic oppressive state. I was very surprised by the city’s decision. My poster went up in 50 different places all over the country, including the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco, which used it in their mailers and never had any problems. It’s peculiar that they would be censoring the poster in Berkeley, home of the free speech movement.”
The poster by Dillman has a picture of the 2008 presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain with the words “Vote Issues Not Image” and has pictures of an impoverished mother and her child, a rifle presumably standing for violence and wind power among others.
“She [Brighton] is basically banning guns,” Sances said. “I think the city wants to control what kind of images are up on the window. I think it should reflect the people of the city and honestly, most people in Berkeley would not be offended by these images. The city is afraid of censorship and wants everything to be nice and sweet. Unfortunately art doesn’t work that way. Art is often dirty and tough. Now I have a better understanding of why in the last few years the artwork on the Addison Street gallery has been so boring.”
The city’s original press release for the exhibition draws attention to the fact that the posters include a wide range of commentary on the American political scene, with some posters encouraging voting and others discounting its value.
It includes examples of a poster by Fredericks proclaiming, “Vote, like your life depends on it … because it does,” and another by Nicholas Lampert of Milwaukee which depicts a portrait of Emma Goldman with a quote from her: “If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal,” and notes that other images address issues such as immigration raids, police surveillance and lost liberty.
The literature also acknowledges that historically artists' posters have played an important role in political and social movements.
Following Brighton’s decision not to showcase the four posters, the exhibit’s organizers scheduled an alternate viewing for the entire series at the Pueblo Nuevo Art Center, 1828 San Pablo Ave., from Nov. 8 to Nov. 20.
“I think people need to be open minded about what public art is,” said Ione Eliof, a member of the city’s Civic Arts Commission.
“People have to be in conversation about political art and what it means. It’s difficult because people have different ideas about freedom of speech and these posters are tough. It’s particularly interesting because this is happening in Berkeley, a city which is founded on free speech.”
The city’s original press release can be found here . Information on the City of Berkeley’s Guide to a Public Art Process can be found here . Copies of the guide book can be requested from Mary Ann Merker at (510) 981-7533 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the exhibition visit the Art of Democracy website .