How does a Federal agency censor art without appearing to? They cite permit irregularities. This is what GSA Management did when the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Leah Garchik inquired about the cancellation of the reception for my “San Francisco and Global Warming” exhibition in the new San Francisco Federal building, 90 7th St., and its forced closure three weeks early.
Imagine being invited by the management of the first green Federal Building in the country to show your work. You put together an unusual show highlighting the issue of climate change which is warmly received by the tenants of the building. Now imagine arriving to attend your reception and being ordered by a bureaucrat you’ve never met to take down your show immediately. This, in a nut shell, is what happened to me on Friday, May 7th.
EVENTS OF MAY 7th
When I asked this official, whom I will refer to as ‘Jones’, why my work had to come down he explained that the permit for the show had not been renewed in a timely fashion. Building management was obligated to clear ongoing events on a monthly basis with GSA management. I responded that the show was advertised as continuing until June 1. It was listed on my website, on the Britweek Website, and on cards which building management had made available to the public. He was unmoved. He indicated that the show was more than two weeks beyond its permit.
This is an abbreviated version of our conversation:
“If its more than two weeks in arrears, one more day won’t make any difference. You should at least allow me to have my reception. It’s been widely advertised.”
“I’m ordering you to take it down now.”
“I don’t take orders from you!”
“Don’t raise your voice with me.”
“You’re disrespecting me and my work so I will raise my voice. I will not take this work down.”
“Then we will.”
“If you value your job, you won’t touch my work.”
I turned and walked out of the building.
About an hour later, after a conversation with Kenneth Baker at the Chronicle, I returned and, through the windows, observed that my work was still on display. I entered the building but was detained by the head of security.
“Why am I being detained?”
“I ‘m contacting ‘Jones’ ”
“I’ve already spoken to him. I have nothing more to say.”
I left the building and went home where I received e-mails from people who had come to the show and were puzzled by my absence.
I later received an e-mail from ‘Jones’ giving a new reason for disallowing the reception. “Your application request to greet 30 to 150 guests from noon to 5:00 pm and show them your artwork will interfere with access to the area in which it is displayed as well as disrupt government business…”
‘Jones’ had not mentioned this to me in our conversation.
It was an absurd reason. Friday is a furlough day so half the tenants are absent. Besides, I attended an Earth Day event in this same space on Thursday, April 15, where a dozen tables were set up and hundreds of people milled around without any problem.
HOLES IN THE OFFICIAL STORY
The GSA spokesperson led Leah Garchik, of the Chronicle, to believe that I’d been tardy in filing a permit and that the show had been slated to come down the end of April. In fact permitting was an internal affair. Building management passed all documents by me and then filed them as they were due. Upper management was aware that the show was going to be up until June 1st 2010 and had verbally assured building management that I could receive the public on May 7th as part of Britweek, an event sponsored by the British Consulate.
THE REAL STORY
All along there was some tension between upper management and building management. Building management was generous and friendly. I admired their determination to bring art into the building. GSA management had originally refused to let me show the Global Warming paintings until I wrote a letter explaining that these were works of the imagination not statements of fact. They later refused a request from building management for me to talk on Earth Day about the genesis of these paintings. They were monitoring every aspect of the show, including my website. On one occasion they asked building management to have me alter information on the website.
Given this level of scrutiny, GSA management must have been aware that permits were in arrears by almost three weeks. Maybe they didn’t care until it provided them with a pretext to take down the show.
A PLAUSIBLE MOTIVE
Clearly upper management was uncomfortable with the show. But why yank it? Several observers have suggested that my painting “Oakland Global Warming # 2”, with its depiction of oil burning on water, became uncomfortably relevant after the massive BP disaster in the Gulf. Maybe, in the minds of upper level bureaucrats, this painting had left the realm of fantasy and was pointing an accusing finger at the Federal Government.
If GSA management truly liked my work, it would have allowed my reception to take place, stored my work for a few days , expedited the permits and rehung it until June 1st. These permits are in house, after all. Or if they felt, for legal reasons, the work had to come down immediately, they could have offered me a rescheduled reception date. Their behavior clearly indicates that my work, not permits, was the issue.
Apart from the fact that a federal agency should not be engaged in censorship, we all need to ask why GSA is attempting to stifle public awareness of climate change and environmental disaster precisely when these are the most urgent issues of our time.