Curators, local artists blindsided as Mesa Arts Center replaces protest exhibits

By Amber Victoria Singer
Published: Tuesday, August 15, 2023 - 11:38am

Audio icon Download mp3 (9.91 MB)

My Florist is a Dick art print by Shepard Fairey
Obey Giant
A print of Shepard Fairey’s piece, “My Florist is a Dick”

Mesa Arts Center is replacing exhibits featuring protest art by local Indigenous artists with a celebration of the city. It’s partially because of a controversy over one piece in a traveling exhibition by a world-famous artist.

Shepard Fairey is a contemporary artist best known for designing the iconic 2008 Barack Obama “Hope” poster. His work was scheduled to be on display at Mesa Arts Center in September as part of a traveling exhibit called “Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent.”

“Most members of the advisory board that I’m a part of are at least troubled by what the city management has decided to do here. Basically, they were concerned that one image … could be construed as insulting to police officers or the law enforcement community,” said Kerry Stewart Lengel, a member of the Mesa Arts Center museum and cultural advisory board

The work in question, titled “My Florist is a Dick,” depicts a police officer with a skull for a head wearing a riot helmet and holding a long baton with a red flower at the end. Under the title it reads, “When his day starts/Your days end.”

In a statement, the city says there were “questions about the potential impact of text in one of the works that could be disparaging toward some City of Mesa employees.”

“When you wield the sword and hold the shield, you should be able to take a little criticism,” Lengel said. “It might be an insult, but it’s free speech, we live in a free society.”

According to a description on Fairey’s website, it’s a commentary on police brutality and officers who abuse their power.

“They inquired about the possibilities of going forward with that show without that image and discovered probably that the legal contracts allowed for no such thing,” Lengel said.

But the city didn’t just postpone the Fairey exhibit. Three other exhibits meant to be on display at the same time were postponed as well.

“As an artist who has put blood, sweat and tears into his work, it’s infuriating. And us as artists, we demand answers because we feel the absolute disrespect from this and really, it feels almost unrepairable.”
— Thomas Breeze Marcus

“The artistic staff really seems to have been taken by surprise and blindsided here,” Lengel said. “They and their work in preparing and understanding the community and creating content for that community has been ignored and disrespected for political reasons, and that is extremely disappointing. ... The fact that the city of Mesa was offering to provide a platform for protest artists, specifically artists of protest, artists of color who protest, and then to yank it away like Lucy and the football with Charlie Brown, again, extremely disrespectful.”

The city is replacing these exhibits with a display focused on Mesa’s “All-America City Award,” which it received earlier this year. The award has been around since 1949 and is given out to 10 cities each year. This is the second time Mesa has received it. The theme this year is “Creating Thriving Communities through Youth Engagement.” Lengel says that the All-America City Award exhibit was already planned but didn’t have a home.

“It was a great achievement for the city and well deserved. But you celebrate it with an exhibit in an appropriate venue like some corner of city hall or something like that. You do not take over the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum for an exhibit that is not an art exhibit,” Lengel said.

Grandmothers’ Justice artwork by Breeze
Progress shot of “Grandmothers’ Justice” by Breeze

One of the artists whose exhibit was postponed is Thomas Marcus, who goes by Breeze. He was asked to be in the show in 2019.

“The curator, Tiffany, had approached me about it and it was pretty much the same lineup,” Breeze said. “She had said she wanted to see myself, Douglas Miles, Shepard Fairey. … This is not something that was planned two months ago, or three months ago, or six months ago. This is over four years in the making.”

Breeze says he was told there were complications with the exhibits over email.

“The initial email that went out was by Deputy City Manager Natalie Lewis, which was already a big red flag because it’s coming from the city and not the museum,” Breeze said. “There was zero conversation, there was zero approach to any of us to see how we felt, to get our take on it, to just even approach with respect to say, here’s the situation. None of that happened. ... They weren’t even concerned to see the rest of the work from the other artists.”

Breeze says he spent almost a year on his art. The paintings in the exhibit were about his own life and societal issues. The large canvases were sized specifically to fit in the gallery at Mesa Arts Center.

“As an artist who has put blood, sweat and tears into his work, it’s infuriating. And us as artists, we demand answers because we feel the absolute disrespect from this and really, it feels almost unrepairable,” Breeze said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Since Breeze is a full time artist, he says he had to move quickly to ensure his work would be seen in other galleries. Some pieces from his exhibit, called “Shapeshifter,” will be on display in Santa Fe this Thursday.

Conversion artwork by Breeze
“Conversion” by Breeze

Kyllan Maney is an artist and art educator at New School for the Arts and Academics in Tempe. She was planning on taking her students to the show at Mesa Arts Center. She says she was excited to see Fairey’s work alongside two local artists.

“Breeze and Douglas Miles ... both have painted murals on our campus,” Maney said. “Breeze was our commencement speaker two years ago, and he’s done workshops at this school.”

The statement from the city says one reason for postponing the exhibit is that contracts with the artists had not yet been finalized. Maney, who has shown her own work at Mesa Arts Center before, says she doesn’t believe this is reason enough to cancel multiple exhibits.

“Especially if the museum could reach out to the artists and say, ‘Hey, we need you to sign this because if you don’t sign this, we can’t have the exhibits.’ You’d better believe all those artists would 100% be on board and they would be signing those,” she said.

Maney says she’s been going to Mesa Arts Center since it first opened in 2005, and she’s never seen any exhibitions get postponed. And because the museum schedules shows one to two years in advance, it would be difficult to reschedule.

“If they don’t do it now, it might not happen at all,” Maney said. “And I think that’s kind of maybe the city’s hope, that they can say it was postponed, but then it actually doesn’t happen.”

You can read the city of Mesa’s full statement below:

Art has a purpose in Mesa. As a government organization directly invested in art facilities and public programming, our priority and responsibility are to provide all patrons with enriching experiences in our art spaces — just as we do for all public facilities. Six weeks before the opening of the fall exhibits at the 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. Postponing the exhibit would allow Mesa to review its processes and evaluate the impact of the message associated with the display. Our practice is to review the displays in all our public buildings, and as a tax-payer-funded facility, MCAM shouldn’t be the exception. We recognize the impact of the postponement. The City immediately emailed artists and followed up with telephone calls — when phone numbers were available — to personally inform them of the decision and minimize this inconvenience in any way possible. It is our intent to bring the artists back and reschedule them as part of a group exhibition or solo exhibition in the future if so desired.

Pieces of home artwork by Breeze
“Pieces of home” by Breeze

More stories from KJZZ