The City of Albuquerque is taking heat for displaying artwork by a member of the New Mexico Proud Boys, an extremist group with white nationalist ideologies, in an open call exhibition.
ALBUQUERQUE, NM—A City of Albuquerque art space is facing backlash from civil rights groups and in the middle of a censorship conundrum for showing the work by a leader of the New Mexico chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed an extremist hate group.
The City of Albuquerque’s department of arts and culture, which says they were unaware of the artist’s political affiliation until after the show’s opening, has decided to take down the group exhibition a week early, citing problems with the venue’s air conditioning system.
An artwork by Bradley Burris—who directed a pro-Donald Trump “Freedom First Flag Wave” in September 2019, according to NM Political Report—was included in an open call art exhibition at the South Broadway Cultural Center, a theater and library complex owned and managed by the City of Albuquerque.
Burris’s affiliation with the hate group, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation labeled an “extremist group with ties to white nationalism” in 2018, came to light following a series of social media posts last week.
Burris didn’t respond to a voicemail, email, and Instagram message left by Southwest Contemporary.
“When I found out that they had his artwork hanging up there, I started shaking,” says Barbara Jordan, founder of PRESS New Mexico, an Albuquerque-area civil rights and social change organization. “I feel like this is another slap in the face for the Black people of New Mexico.”
Until recently, Burris ran Burris Fine Art, a gallery space located in an Old Town Albuquerque complex on San Felipe Street. Burris Fine Art appeared to be permanently closed during a visit on Tuesday—a neighboring tenant told Southwest Contemporary that Burris moved out some time ago.
“My wife and I are relocating the art gallery from the blue city of Albuquerque and relocating it to a county where our tax dollars won’t go to rainbow crosswalks, BLM, and planned parenthood [sic],” reads a July 7 post by Burris on Gab, a social network that The Intercept describes as “an online safe space for white supremacists and other extremists.”
According to a post earlier today on Gab, Burris, who calls himself “the most banned oil painter on social media” due to his Christian beliefs, says that he hasn’t been involved in the Proud Boys for two years.
In a July 3 Facebook post, Black Lives Matter ABQ New Mexico condemned the city and mayor Tim Keller for showing Burris’s work due to his involvement with the group that labels itself as “Western chauvinists.” Proud Boys members were involved in local demonstrations against a statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate that resulted in the shooting of a protester on June 15, 2020, reports the Albuquerque Journal.
“When you allow violent white men into these spaces into our community you are telling us you don’t care about us,” reads the Black Lives Matter statement in part. “You are telling us that you support the same ideologies of hate and acts of violence that these types of individuals are involved in but never held accountable for.”
The City of Albuquerque’s department of arts and culture responded to the controversy in an emailed response from marketing manager Tanya Lenti.
“While [the city] currently reviews submissions of artwork rather than artists’ backgrounds, we would never intentionally promote racist ideologies.” In addition to the South Broadway Cultural Center, the city also owns and operates the KiMo Theatre art gallery.
The exhibition, which opened June 3, had been scheduled to end with a closing reception on July 16. However, the department of arts and culture told Southwest Contemporary on Wednesday that the exhibition would be coming down after close of business today, Thursday, July 8, due to “urgent facilities repairs.”
“The largest air conditioning unit at the cultural center completely broke down on June 30 and has to be replaced, and the air conditioning unit in the library is also failing,” writes the department of arts and culture.
City of Albuquerque gallery curator Augustine Romero and New Mexico artist Virgil Ortiz co-curated Our Existential Space, which included works by approximately forty artists.
Burris’s piece in the exhibition, an innocuous oil on canvas, doesn’t include overt references to any political ideologies. The artwork hung next to Red Planet Rising, an acrylic-on-paper work by Indigenous artist Haley Greenfeather (Ojibwe). (Greenfeather didn’t respond to a phone call and text message.)
City officials explain that the public art division doesn’t conduct background checks related to criminal histories, political affiliation, and racial identities for artists submitting artwork or proposals to open calls. The department of arts and culture, led by director Shelle Sanchez, says co-curators Romero and Ortiz chose to include “all works that addressed the theme of the show.”
Romero, citing city policy, declined comment when reached by phone.
The City of Albuquerque recently shifted from curated exhibitions to an open-call format, according to a June 2 Southwest Contemporary report. ABQ Art Workers, in an October 19, 2020 open letter, alleges that the city has mistreated Romero, a Chicano man and City of Albuquerque curator for fifteen years.
Jordan of PRESS New Mexico says that she supports free speech in the arts, but not inside of a city-owned, taxpayer-funded venue.
“You can have free speech in your artwork… but have him hang it up at a Proud Boys camp or one of your little low key triple K meetings that you like to have,” Jordan says. “Do not hang it in the cultural center where tax dollars are being spent.”
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