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Yanking of Art Spurs Protests

Exhibit: Civil libertarians say L.A. was wrong to remove paintings out of fear of violence.

October 13, 2001|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Backed by civil libertarians, an artist is at odds with Los Angeles city officials over their decision last month to remove his exhibit from the Watts Towers Art Center out of fear that it could provoke violence.

The exhibit of 14 paintings--which depict Los Angeles police and gang members in same-sex dancing poses, along with recorded sound and poetry--was taken down Sept. 20, three days after it opened as part of events leading up to the reopening celebration for the Watts Towers.

Art center Director Mark Greenfield said he commissioned the paintings from Santa Monica artist Alex Donis, an instructor at the small art center adjoining the famed towers. But when it came time to display them to the public, he feared they would cause a violent demonstration.

"My concern was that if there was a protest, we might have had to call out the police," leading to a larger disturbance, Greenfield said.

He recognized that the decision compromised the artist's 1st Amendment rights, Greenfield said. But "this exhibit was akin to yelling 'Fire' in a crowded theater," he said, in a reference to former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' statement on the limits of free speech.

But in a letter Wednesday, leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the First Amendment Project and 120 others assailed the decision.

The letter urges officials to "live up to the requirements of the 1st Amendment and take a stand for artistic expression by reinstalling the show as soon as possible."

The decision to pull the exhibit was made by Margie Johnson Reese, general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department. "I am the guardian of the public's trust," she said. "And I had to hear the historic concerns of the community saying the artist's fine work was not a reflection of that community's story."

Reese suggested that the work should instead appear at a private gallery outside Watts.

The Los Angeles city councilwoman who represents the area, Janice Hahn, said she supports Reese's decision.

"In light of the concerns of residents and community leaders in Watts, which were received by my staff, and of the direct threats of vandalism and/or violence that were received by the cultural center staff, this exhibit presented a possible threat," Hahn said.

City officials said complaints came from a wide range of residents, including gang members and police officers.

Among others, city officials said, objections were voiced by the Watts Community Action Council, led by senior activist Lillian Mobley, and supported by civic leaders Sterling Barnes and Oscar Madrigal.

None could be reached to confirm their objections.

Donis, however, said he believes the fact that he is both gay and a Latino may have fueled the antipathy against his work. He said he was told by city cultural affairs officials and Greenfield that various members of the community "didn't want a gay, Latino artist exhibiting, and they didn't know of my long association with the Watts Towers."

Donis said that when Greenfield commissioned his work, "he knew it would have a gay theme," although, he said, "my work isn't totally of a gay nature but gets at violence."

He said Greenfield came to his studio to view the exhibit six months ago as it took shape and saw his first drawings and drafts.

Greenfield, however, said Donis did not show him the most provocative paintings, some of which are sexually suggestive.

In any case, the civil libertarians said, the reasons given for removing the exhibit are not satisfactory.

"The 1st Amendment exists precisely for situations like this, where strongly held opinions and vigorous debate are liable to occur," said Heather Carrigan, director of public policy at the ACLU.

"We don't want to live in a society where we're told you can't say that, you can't think that or you can't depict that, or there will be violence," she said.

"If the government is going to make decisions ahead of time about what art will be seen or what discussion can take place, then you're seeing the erosion of a freedom we all hold dear," she said.

Svetlana Mintcheva, arts and advocacy project coordinator for the National Coalition Against Censorship, said she recognized "there are tensions in the Watts community; there are tensions in every community.

"Some members of the community did not like the show," she acknowledged. "They were angered by the show. They speculated that it might cause angry responses, but I don't believe there was any direct threat [of violence]."

One thing everyone on all sides of the dispute agreed on: The controversy means the works in the exhibit will command a far higher price when they are put on sale.

The artworks can be viewed on the artist's Web site: http://www.alexdonis.com.

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