The Berkeley Civic Arts Commission voted last Wednesday to approve new guidelines for the city-owned Addison Street Windows Gallery and introduced changes to the city’s contract with the gallery’s curator, Carol Brighton, following the public outcry that ensued when she rejected four posters from the national Art of Democracy series, citing curatorial judgment.
The commission also discussed the possibility of hosting the show in the future.
The political artwork was originally scheduled to be mounted on the gallery walls during election week but was canceled after the artists took offense at Brighton’s decision to not allow certain works and decided that the show would only go up in its entirety.
Free speech supporters cried censorship, but Brighton and the city’s Civic Arts Coordinator Mary Ann Merker called it curatorial judgment, explaining that the decision was particular to the site, which was in the middle of an open downtown art district.
The Planet reported on Nov. 6 that Brighton had informed Art Hazelwood, the organizer of the Art of Democracy series, in January that she would not show explicit sex or violence or images of guns since the gallery was open to the street and in the possible pathway of children.
According to Merker, Hazelwood had agreed to Brighton’s guidelines, but when it was time to put up the work, he brought different work, including the four posters depicting guns, violence and weaponry which he had agreed not to show.
Hazelwood said that although Brighton had told him of the guidelines prohibiting violence, he had assumed at the time he presented the completed set of posters to her that she would judge them on their merit instead of some “arbitrary guidelines.”
Until last Wednesday, the city did not have any formal guidelines for the Addison Street Windows Gallery, which was started by the late Brenda Prager more than 10 years ago.
“At the beginning I thought I was dealing with a curator who would look at work,” Hazelwood said. “At the end it turned out to be a simple act of censorship ... I am just the organizer. I left it to the artists to do whatever they wanted.”
Brighton said Wednesday that Hazelwood had stated at a Civic Arts Commission meeting that he had deliberately misled her to make his point of censorship. Hazelwood said his actions had been more of an act of civil disobedience, and that the accusation had been taken out of context. He told the commission that his action in submitting the work was comparable to what Rosa Parks did in a public bus in Montgomery, Ala. 43 years ago.
The National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to Mayor Tom Bates and the Berkeley City Council urging them to defend free expression and uphold Berkeley’s proud tradition of free speech.
“While we sympathize with the city’s desire for a world without guns or violence, the decision to put a blanket ban on all art including guns is not only unproductive, it threatens to silence important political speech,” wrote Svetlana Mintcheva, director of NCAC’s arts program, in a Nov. 7 letter to Bates. “The recent incident involving the four Art of Democracy posters, which express strong views on U.S. foreign policy, is a clear example of the type of serious political expression that the ban can suppress. To suppress political speech, which enjoys the highest constitutional protection, a government venue has to have a significant interest—in security, public safety or the like.”
Mintcheva went on to say that it was hard to see how the city could demonstrate such an interest given the guns and weaponry in war memorials, murals and film posters which anyone could see on streets all over the country, including one of Berkeley’s most iconic murals, the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue, which contains guns.
“We all want to see fewer guns and less violence in the world, suppressing a discussion of violence just because it graphically refers to violence, would not accomplish that goal,” she said.
Art of Democtacy organizers said that none of its more than 50 shows all over the country had faced any problem except in Berkeley.
The ACLU warned city officials that by creating a gallery without any “explicit limitations on what topics or images may be displayed, the city had designated the space as a public forum, where the First Amendment strictly limits a curator’s authority to exclude art based on its content.”
“Although the curator of a government-sponsored art show necessarily exercises broad discretion in determining what will or will not be displayed, that discretion cannot be used to suppress ideas or points of view with which the curator disagrees,” wrote Michael T. Risher, an attorney for ACLU. “Banning all depictions of firearms constitutes content-based censorship. Moreover, it works to suppress the view that guns, whatever one’s opinion of them, are a part of our history and our current world ... The proper role of firearms in our society is one that evokes strong feelings on all sides of the debate.”
Citing the city’s press release for the display of Art of Democracy, which promised it would address “immigration raids, police surveillance, lost liberty and war,” Risher said that to invite artists to address war, but insist that they do so without depicting a gun, was not curatorial discretion.
“It is censorship,” he wrote. “Lost liberty indeed.”
Following ACLU’s letter, the Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan called on the city’s Economic Development Mananger Michael Caplan and Civic Art commissioners Dave Blake and David Snippen to discuss the curation of the windows.
“We were advised by the city attorney that if we were actually going to have curated space, we need to have guidelines,” Caplan said. “The problem is that there had never been a standard. We learnt a lot from the whole thing and we ended up better.”
The new guidelines state that artwork would be selected on its aesthetic merits and that art would be chosen with appropriate regard for the nature of the space and the audience. It articulates that the gallery is on the public right of way and that art displayed there “must exhibit a high degree of consideration for citizen’s sensitivities to violence, sexual expression and negative portrayals of diverse populations.”
Additionally, artists and community members will now be able to appeal to the commission if they have concerns about curatorial judgment at the gallery.
Caplan said that the entire incident had raised important issues on curatorial judgment.
“We realized that there was need for the curator to not just select the artists but also the artwork,” he said.
“So it was important that her contract be amended because it wasn’t specific enough and wasn’t set up for curation. She was just selecting artists based on their quality of work. Real curatorial function involves looking at the art work and making aesthetic decisions.
Brighton’s amended contract calls upon her to select and review art work chosen to be installed and review and select work according to the new guidelines in sufficient time for review by the commission if necessary.
Brighton said that she was happy with the new guidelines and the changes to her contract. “As a contractor with the City of Berkeley I appreciate having city guidelines,” she said. “I think it’s great.”