Censored: Feds Force Closure of Global Warming Show in First 'Green' Federal Building


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.



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.


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.


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.



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.

News in the News Pt 2: The Once and Future Chronicle

For years I'd been considering painting the San Francisco Chronicle building at 5th and Mission. I 'd hesitated because the location seemed so difficult. When the Hearst Corporation announced it was shutting down the Seattle Intelligencer and eying the San Francisco Chronicle for closure, I hurriedly set up my easel on what Leah Garchik would describe as a “boomerang shaped traffic island”. This was one of the busiest sites at which I've worked. It was also one of the most interesting.

Storm Clouds over the Chronicle

I started Sunday, March 15 . There was a strong wind and heavy clouds. I got soaked and my easel very nearly blew over into the traffic but I managed to block in an ominous sky.

Monday, I'd just started painting when I caught sight of Joel Selvin striding towards me in a maroon overcoat. Like everyone that I would talk with, Joel was concerned about the future of the paper, but, unlike most, he was not upset about leaving. “I'm 59 and I have a book deal. So I'm taking a buyout. I started here as a copy boy when I was seventeen. It was so different then. You know, the presses used to be down there.” He pointed to the far end of the building. “When they started to roll the building would rumble and shake. You felt the building lurch and you knew we were going to press. There were grates over those windows. Hot air would be driven out by the machinery. After work I'd stand on the street below inhaling the smell of the presses.”

Over the next few weeks, as I talked with reporters, columnists, editors, copywriters, and teamsters about the crisis, I had the sensation that I was standing in the eye of a storm. Of course, the Chronicle's drama was unfolding against the backdrop of collapsing economic institutions, and the huge brouhaha over "retention bonuses" at AIG which added a surreal dimension to this local event.

An insurance agent “between jobs” stopped to chat. Referring to AIG, he volunteered his opinion of management in the insurance industry. “These guys at the top, four rungs above me, with their Yale and Harvard degrees, all they know how to do is play golf, walk around in expensive suits, and tell you where to eat that'll cost you $ 300 or more. They couldn't run a hot dog stand!” When I asked him about his chances of finding another job. He replied confidently.”Oh I'll find another job. I know how to talk.”

Chronicle writers and staff were less sanguine. Being in the newspaper business they had a sense of the “big picture” and they could see that that if they took a buyout or were laid off they would probably never have a job like this again. I became aware of a real esprit de corps which in the current circumstances was accompanied by gallows humor: I was told that the joke making the rounds was that the paper must be going under because it was having its portrait painted.

Photo courtesy of Maryly Snow, www.snowstudios.com/artist.htm

Kenneth Baker passed by on several occasions. One day he remarked on the ominous clouds in my painting. I told him that they had taken this form almost by accident. That I was pleased with the 'fissure' in the clouds falling diagonally towards the silhouetted Chronicle building. “More like slow lightening.” he replied.

Just about every afternoon, around the time that I put on the clock, the Executive News Editor, Jay Johnson, would stop on his way to work. One afternoon, observing his long face, I asked him how he was doing. “Not so well. Last night I had to say goodbye to a hundred and twenty employees.”

Friday, March 3, was the last day for many of the 120 who'd opted for buyouts. Steve Rubenstein and a number of other reporters paused to chat with me on their way to a final lunch. Steve posed for a photo next to my painting. An associate told me that Steve was brokenhearted to be leaving, but that staying was too risky.

This last observation was reinforced by a younger reporter, Jonathan Curiel, with whom I had a stimulating conversation about the Middle East and about Robert Fisk whom he had interviewed. I inquired if he had taken a buyout. “No, but maybe I should have. The paper needs to shed another 30 people. They could fire me next week.”

Shortly after he left, a gentleman stopped whose wife was completing her last day at the paper. “Who's going to monitor our local and national government if we lose our newspapers?” He asked, “ It's newspapers that generate most of the investigative reporting. I don't think Americans realize what the loss of newspapers will mean for our democracy.” “A democracy that we barely salvaged in the last elections.” I added. He nodded grimly and crossed the street to meet his wife at the entrance on Mission.

A lifetime subscriber, who'd overheard him, shared her concern. “ I'm so upset. Every time I receive my paper it's a little thinner. It's like watching someone on chemotherapy. I just hope it survives and recovers.”

Those who remain at the Chronicle, and many good people remain, must strive that much harder to reinvent it. To somehow link it effectively into cyberspace while remaining a tangible paper of record. Non profit institution, investigative reporting by subscription, these and many other ideas swirling around probably need to be explored.

Whatever our criticisms of the paper (and Chronicle readers are a diverse and critical bunch) the paper functions as our public square. It is a place. It leaves a permanent record. The mercurial internet is everywhere and nowhere. Words cut into stone in the ancient forum. Words printed on paper today. Ok, so I can print words from the internet and pass them around to my friends. But will they be in news stands on the street, in coffee houses, on breakfast tables all over town? Will they remain as part of the common historical record in ten or twenty years?

Friday, April 10 my last day on the street I spoke for a few minutes with Deputy Editorial Page Editor, Lois Kazakoff. She had no doubts as to the value of the Chronicle. “ It tells our stories.” she declared.

Like it or not, over the years the Chronicle's reporters, editors, columnists have laid the cobbles or bushwacked the trails that constitute much of the intellectual landscape that we navigate in the Bay Area. We should all work to keep this institution alive.

I am offering a special of $5 Shipping & Handling on all prints on paper. Prints on canvas are also available online. To purchase the original painting please inquire: [email protected]