SAN FRANCISCO — A national Roman Catholic group is protesting an exhibit at Copia, the Napa Valley's heralded new food, wine and arts museum, that includes figurines of the pope and several nuns defecating.
Activists say the work by Spanish artist Antoni Miralda has no place in a museum funded in part by tax dollars, including money from Catholics. The exhibit, titled "Active Ingredients," also displays miniature figures of Santa Claus and Fidel Castro in similar poses.
"Catholics in the state of California are paying to have their religion depicted in a way that's offensive," said Patrick Scully, a spokesman for the Catholic League of Religious and Civil Rights. "This exhibit is insulting. It's gratuitous. It's unnecessary."
Scully said that scores of the New York-based group's 350,000 members nationwide who had seen or read about the exhibit had called to complain. This week, leaders sent a letter to museum officials, who responded with an e-mail defending the depictions.
"These figurines symbolize the cycle of eating and fertilization of the earth, which is a requisite for future existence," wrote Copia Executive Director Peggy Loar, according to a news release circulated Friday by the Catholic group.
To which Catholic League President William Donohue sarcastically responded in the release: "Now I get it: To show his appreciation of Mother Earth, Miralda had to show the pope and nuns defecating. But why couldn't he have chosen the Lone Ranger and Tonto instead? Or better yet, just Tonto and a few of his Indian buddies."
In an interview Friday, Loar said the activists were spreading inaccuracies. "It's surprising that a national organization would send out a news release with so much misinformation about one artwork in an entire exhibit they have never seen," she said.
The 35 figurines, each about the size of a chess piece, are rooted in Spanish Catholicism. "They're called caganers and they're part of a Catholic Catalonian tradition that dates back to the 1800s," Loar said. "They're included in nativity scenes to ensure good luck for farmers in the following year. We've done our homework on this."
A museum spokeswoman said the Catalonian figurines were traditionally peasants, not Popeye, Santa Claus or the pope, as included in the exhibit.
Loar blasted the group for claiming that the museum received $75 million in public funding, saying the Copia had only recently received a $50,000 government grant.
"And I think the group's mention of Tonto and his buddies in their release is insulting to American Indians. This from a group that touts religious and civil rights."
Donohue was unavailable for comment Friday. But Scully said the comments showed the "ludicrousness" of the artist's vision.
"The fact is you won't see any museum showing an American Indian defecating because those images are important to people and they're sensitive," he said. "But when it comes to Catholic imagery, it's open season for the arts community. And that's not right."
Scully acknowledged that neither he nor Donohue had seen the exhibit.
Napa City Councilman Harry Martin said Catholic museum volunteers had quit over the works.
"It gives Napa a black eye," he said. "People promote this place as the shrine of Napa. Locals say they no longer have to go to the Louvre in Paris because the Parisians are going to come here.
"Now local Catholic groups are canceling functions there. This may bring a few curiosity seekers, but that's a one-shot deal."
Named for the Roman goddess of abundance, Copia aspires in its advertising to be "the world's leading cultural center dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of wine, food and the arts."
The two-story structure of stone, concrete, metal and glass, with 13,000 square feet of gallery space, opened last fall. The brainchild of vintner Robert Mondavi, the museum offers wine tasting and gourmet dining along with public programs in its demonstration kitchen, classrooms, gardens and theaters.
The $55-million nonprofit museum is in large part funded by private donations, including $20 million from Mondavi.
"Active Ingredients," which runs through April 22, features specially commissioned food-related works by seven contemporary artists. Miralda, a Catalonian artist based in Miami, filled 11 refrigerated soda cases with found objects as part of his continuing project "Food Culture Museum."
In a Nov. 25 review, Times critic Suzanne Muchnic wrote: "Grouped according to themes, the collection of kitsch and bric-a-brac presents everything from a giant red plastic light-up tongue and a batch of chamber pots to statuary portraying eating and drinking rituals in various cultures."