The City of Mesa brusquely postponed every exhibition in the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum’s fall 2023 calendar. A major free speech organization, a civil rights group, and artists allege censorship.
PHOENIX—The City of Mesa, Arizona, is facing accusations of art censorship after four solo exhibitions and one group show were abruptly pulled last week from the fall 2023 lineup at the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, which is located at the city-owned and -operated Mesa Arts Center.
As details trickle out about how and why objections to a single artwork by an internationally renowned artist led to the gutting of an entire museum season, artists and community members, along with major free speech and civil rights groups, are decrying the city’s decision to postpone the shows.
“I was really shocked to see this happen,” says Mesa-based artist Sunnee O’Rork, who served for many years as director of the nearby i.d.e.a. Museum. “Art is a barometer of the times and this is a contemporary art museum so they are going to show art that provokes controversy,” she says of MCAM.
The National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona tackled the issue in a joint letter to the city on August 10. “We urge you to revert to the vibrant schedule of exhibitions that were originally planned, and recognize the City’s duty to uphold freedom of artistic expression,” they wrote.
By the organizations’ account, the city asked museum staff to remove My Florist is a Dick (2015) from a traveling exhibition of protest art by Shepard Fairey, an American street artist who’s perhaps best known for his 2008 “Hope” poster of Barack Obama. Fairey’s piece that was to be displayed in Mesa depicts a police officer with a skeletal face whose riot gear includes a baton sprouting a flower.
“The City’s requests to censor an artwork critical of police brutality were met with resistance,” reads the NCAC and ACLU letter, which goes on to say that the city decided to replace the exhibitions “when the arts center staff would not comply.”
The city’s official statement explains the decision to postpone the shows.
“Six weeks before the opening of the fall exhibits at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum[,] artists’ contracts had not yet been finalized. There were also questions about the potential impact of text in one of the works that could be disparaging toward some City of Mesa employees.”
Mayor John Giles and Mesa city manager Chris Brady declined Southwest Contemporary’s interview requests. Councilmember Jenn Duff, who represents the region where MAC is located, expressed a desire to balance the concerns of all parties.
“I’m trying to construct ways we can begin bridging this conversation,” Duff tells SWC.
Tiffany Fairall, chief curator for the museum since 2019, hasn’t commented on the dust-up, leading some artists to speculate that the city isn’t allowing museum staff to address the issue. Artists say communications are coming from the city rather than museum officials.
In place of the scheduled exhibitions, the city plans to highlight projects related to its recent 2023 All-American City Award presented by the National Civic League, a Colorado-based organization that promotes civic engagement. In an odd twist, that was the very theme of the since-postponed Just Cause: The Power of Contemporary Art in Civic Engagement, an MCAM group show that would have showcased more than a dozen artists, including Arizona-based artists Aaron Coleman, Annie Lopez, and Jacob Meders (Mechoopda/Maidu).
Solo exhibitions for Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Tohono O’odham) and Douglas Miles (San Carlos Apache, Akimel O’odham)—both prolific Arizona artists whose work spans fine art to street art well beyond the Southwest—were also bumped.
“We have a mutual feeling this could be an attack on Native culture and identity,” says Marcus. “It’s a massive sign of disrespect for artists, and it feels like flat-out racism.”
A solo exhibition of previously unexhibited works by well-known Brooklyn-based artist Caledonia Curry (AKA Swoon) got nixed as well. New Mexico gallerist Tonya Turner Carroll, who curated the Swoon exhibition, dismisses the City of Mesa’s claims that the shows were simply postponed because city officials haven’t provided new dates for the shelved exhibitions. “They really should have said it’s canceled because that’s what happened,” Turner Carroll tells SWC.
“This is happening all over the country,” adds O’Rork, the former director of the i.d.e.a. Museum, which is a City of Mesa–owned art space.
Hyperallergic recently reported on allegations that a banner by an Indigenous artist reading “Defund the Police, Decolonize the Streets” was removed from an exhibition before the show opened at the nonprofit Chehalem Cultural Center in Portland, Oregon, an art center housed in a building owned and maintained by the Chehalem Park and Recreation District.
In Mesa, the controversy comes amid a shifting arts ecosystem.
The city has been seeking a new director of arts and culture and executive director of MAC since Cindy Ornstein, who held the position for more than a decade, retired in June 2023. Also this summer, the city invited people to “help shape the future of Mesa arts and culture” by completing an online survey, but results haven’t been released.
For now, it appears that Mesa isn’t moving forward with a museum proposal that would have brought Shepard Fairey’s first Arizona mural to MAC during his exhibition’s run.
Rob Schultz, who retired as assistant director of Mesa’s Department of Arts and Culture and MAC in 2020, wonders what all the fuss is about, given that the museum, which opened in 2005, has presented plenty of controversial works.
The 2015 MCAM exhibition Artillery included artwork by convicted serial killer and sex offender John Wayne Gacy as well as a Fairey screenprint titled Obey Molotov (2005). The 2020-21 show History Repeats displayed Ann Morton’s Original Sin (2020), which incorporates bars of Ivory soap carved with an image of Jesus. Two years ago, MCAM opened The Beyond Within featuring works by Alex and Allyson Grey, who draw inspiration from experiences with psychedelic drugs.
“It’s easy to put up a sign telling people there’s sensitive material in an exhibit, so the onus is on [the viewer] to decide whether they want to see it,” says Schultz.
So, what changed?
Turner Carroll suspects the Mesa incident reflects the rise of anti-woke ideology within American political life, with a focus on banning books and curricula, controlling others’ bodies through legislation, and denying rights to people in marginalized communities.
“I feel like they’re just thinking that nobody will care or understand that they are censoring these shows,” says Turner Carroll. “It’s really crossing a line, just like the attempt in Florida to keep students from seeing images of Michelangelo’s David sculpture.”
In terms of what happens next, artists and others are floating a range of ideas.
Miles offered suggestions during a recent Arizona Republic interview, saying the museum should invite artists impacted by the City of Mesa’s decision to participate in large retrospective exhibitions, and for the museum to buy their work for the center’s collection. Marcus hopes the four artists previously scheduled for an artist panel at MCAM will pivot to another venue and adjust their topic to match the moment.
Some artists have called for protests or encouraged people to contact Mesa officials to express their opposition. Making protest art is an option, but impacted artists aren’t sharing their plans at this point. As Marcus says, “Stay tuned.”
Update 9/21/2023: Today, the City of Mesa announced that the following shows will open at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum on October 7, 2023:
- Shepard Fairey’s solo exhibition Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent will run through January 21, 2024.
- Swoon’s solo exhibition Gift in the Rupture will run through January 14, 2024.
- The group exhibition Just Cause: The Power of Contemporary Art in Social Engagement will run through December 10, 2023. The show will feature artworks from Russell Biles, Christian Black, Aaron S. Coleman, Sarah Conti, Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Michelle Erickson, Patrick Earl Hammie, Josh Keyes, Kris Kuksi, Annie Lopez, Narsiso Martinez, Jacob Meders (Mechoopda/Maidu), Gabriel Garcia Román, and Alexi Torres.
Update 9/7/2023: On September 6, artist Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Tohono O’odham) informed Southwest Contemporary that his solo exhibition, Shape Shifter, will not be shown at MCAM. “They won’t meet my requirements,” Marcus wrote. “I’m out of the show.”
Meanwhile, MCAM will show forty-four Shepard Fairey artworks, including all pieces originally planned for his solo exhibition, plus additional works, according to a statement the City of Mesa sent to SWC on September 7. The statement also says that the museum is “working through details on the [proposed Shepard Fairey] mural” and “will announce dates once we finalize delivery and installation logistics.”
Update 9/6/2023: The City of Mesa announced today that a fall 2023 group exhibition postponed amid censorship allegations at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum will be shown this fall, adding that it expects to announce the opening date for the Just Cause: The Power of Contemporary Art in Civics Engagement in the coming days.
The press release does not mention the status of four solo exhibitions that had previously been planned for the fall 2023 line-up, which included the traveling exhibition Facing the Giant – Three Decades of Dissent: Shepard Fairey that would have included the My Florist is a Dick artwork at the heart of the censorship allegations, and solo exhibitions featuring works by Swoon (The Gift in the Rupture), Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Tohono O’odham) (Shape Shifter), and Douglas Miles (San Carlos Apache, Akimel O’odham) (You Are Everything).
Southwest Contemporary is working to confirm the status of these solo exhibitions and will provide updates as warranted.
Update 8/14/2023: The City of Mesa shared the following update with Southwest Contemporary:
[The Mesa Arts Center] staff has been contacting artists. While emails have been personalized depending on which show or work was involved, they have all included the paragraph below.
“We apologize wholeheartedly for the last few weeks and its inconvenience and impacts. The City of Mesa and its Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum are exploring ways to strengthen our internal policies and processes for better coordination and to ensure this never happens again. All of us, especially our City Council, want to get you back at the Museum as quickly as possible. In support of that intention, the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum will no longer be hosting the [All-American City] exhibit and is able to host your planned exhibit this fall, but the opening will be slightly delayed until late September. Our curatorial team will reach out to you this week to discuss your exhibition. We hope you are willing to continue our partnership, as we are still very eager to have you here. In the meantime, please do let us know if there are ways to help you be able to return.”
SWC is working to confirm which artists received an email with this language, whether the city plans to exhibit Shepard Fairey’s My Florist is a Dick, and which artists have accepted or declined the museum’s invitation.