Wednesday's panel discussion was a full house as panelists and the audience discussed both the recent cancellation of an exhibition of large nude paintings by artist Anna Stump at the Martha Pace Swift Gallery and the larger issue of censorship and the San Diego art scene in general.
For the last few days, I've been thinking about the presentations and the audience comments. I've come to the conclusion that I wouldn't call the decision to cancel Stump's show "censorship" per se. I do, however, consider it a bad decision on the part of NTC Foundation executive director Alan Ziter.
The building that was to house the nude paintings is owned by the city, leased by the NTC Foundation and contracted out to the Expressive Arts Institute, which is charged with curating and managing the gallery. Yes, there is a vetting process written into the contract, as Ziter pointed out. And, yes, he absolutely had the right to cancel the show. But his reasons for the cancellation, as far as I understood, were to protect the fellow tenants in the building and the families and kids who would potentially see the art against their will.
The Martha Pace Swift Gallery is a public-space gallery, which means it's housed in the hallways, stairwell and lobby of a building at the Naval Training Center. And, yes, some people might take offense to nudes. But I don't think the majority would. In my mind, most people wouldn't find these paintings challenging at all. Not in the least bit.
And just as L Street Fine Art Gallery seems to have given up its artistic integrity because of a couple of complaints, I don't think we should make decisions based on what a few people might think.
If you are going to make the decision, don't do it in a vacuum. Why not ask the public—the very people you're protecting—first?
Plus, there are larger repercussions than just one artist losing one show and yet another gallery losing its edge. When Ziter, the man leading the charge to build a new center for the arts in San Diego, cancels a show of nude paintings, it sends a message. It sets a tone. It tells local artists that, in an already notoriously conservative city, they might benefit by toning things down even more. Keeping things even safer. Making work that won't push the envelope at all.
Is that really what we want?
Last night, I said goodbye to Jocelyn Duke, another San Diego artist who's moving to Los Angeles because the art scene here isn't supportive enough. And she's right, her work will likely be more welcome in L.A. than it ever was in San Diego. She sometimes uses words like "penis" in her paintings, after all.
Since posting the story about the cancellation of Stump's show, I've received several emails from San Diego artists who feel their work has been censored or compromised by gallery or property owners. I will continue to look into it, but the truth is, these are mostly private spaces, and they have every right to decide what work gets hung on their gallery walls. Artists could just find other, more experimental venues, right?
Yep, they sure can, but likely those other venues will be in other cities. There are a handful of galleries here that show work with some edge and integrity, but, in my opinion, not enough. And I don't think galleries or art spaces that pretend to be fine-art galleries while gently nudging artists to do "safer," more "family-friendly" work are doing the city any favors. We've got enough vanilla-flavored venues in town.
I'll end my rant and leave you with more highlights from Wednesday's discussion:
- Kevin Freitas, in his intro to the talk: "Shit happens, but it’s better to know why it happens—the root cause—for the benefit of both artists and the public. So let’s talk about it. It is always better to know than simply throw our hands up in the air in revolt. Ignorance is not bliss."
- The daughter of Martha Pace Swift and the main donor that helped fund the gallery stood up toward the end of the talk and said she was ashamed to have her mother's name associated with the cancellation of the show. She said that if she knew something like this would happen, she never would have donated the money in the first place.
- Judith Greer-Essex and Wes Chester of the Expressive Arts Institute both made eloquent arguments. Greer-Essex said that as far as she knows, no child has ever been damaged by looking at a nude painting. Chester started off his talk by pointing out all the nude sculptures and carvings permanently on public view at Balboa Park. The NTC, he said, was not on its way toward becoming the so-called "New Balboa Park."
- Alan Ziter said that if Greer-Essex and Chester had followed procedure and talked to the fellow tenants to get approval, the nude paintings may have been allowed to hang on the gallery walls.
- Scott Davis, director of exhibitions at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, said everyone is forced to censor work from time to time. It's how you handle it that counts.
- Alan Ziter asked me if CityBeat runs nudes on our cover. I've seen a few illustrative breasts make their way onto our front page, and we regularly run them inside, but, ultimately, we're a newspaper, not a gallery and I don't think I'd be able to get my bosses to run one of Stump's nudes on the cover. But we didn't take donations from people and tell them the money was going toward a public-space gallery, did we? We rely on free distribution and have been kicked out of businesses for racy back-page ads or naughty words in our editorial content. Should we push the envelope even more by putting a nude on our cover? I'd love to, but that likely won't happen. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe.