Mayor Bans Photos He Says Depict Blackface From City Hall Exhibit
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Art and politics just don’t mix in Philadelphia.
In the fourth attempt to ban art from City Hall in the last two years, Mayor W. Wilson Goode ordered two black and white photographs he said depict New Year’s Day revelers painted like minstrels removed from an exhibit.
The photographer explained that the Mummers Parade marchers are wearing blue and green makeup and not blackface, which was banned from the annual folk festival in 1964.
Goode, the city’s first black mayor, was offended nonetheless.
″They don’t belong anywhere in City Hall,″ Goode said in a statement Dec. 29. ″They are an insult to black people and should be removed.″
The glass case containing the two 11-by-14-inch documentary photos was covered with brown wrapping paper before the pictures were summarily taken out of the fourth-floor display.
The incident has enraged local artists and curators who are charging the mayor with censorship. Three artists have pulled out of the ″Art in City Hall″ program while others are calling for it to be permanently canceled.
″There’s a fairly parochial point of view surrounding art on the part of some of our political leaders,″ said Edward C. McGuire, president of the Moore College of Art. ″They don’t recognize or accept the role of art in American society. I think there are some nerves exposed and they are quick to make judgments because of that.″
At the inaugural ″Art in City Hall″ show in September 1985, Brazilian artist Jonas dos Santos was summoned by Goode to explain that black stick houses in a painting did not represent ones that burned in a confrontation between police and the radical group MOVE. The artist was asked to change the painting. He refused.
Three months later, city officials for the same reasons protested a painting by Anda Dubinskis that depicted a burning building. Like dos Santos’ work, it was allowed to remain in the exhibit despite objections.
Last July, the city rejected an ″installation art″ project by Daniel Loewenstein after it already had been approved for inclusion by the show’s curators. The work showed two columns built with garbage cans on either side of a doorway blocked by trash.
The artist said he was making a political statement about the city’s long- standing inability to solve a trash-disposal problem. The parties settled out of court after Loewenstein threatened to sue.
″Artists are being denied their free expression if it doesn’t come within the parameters of what people in City Hall consider appropriate art,″ Loewenstein said. ″That’s not any kind of way to conduct an art program. It’s censorship and that’s wrong.″
In the latest incident, two pictures by free-lance photographer James Conroy were deemed offensive by the mayor after the son of City Council President Joseph Coleman protested that the Mummers were wearing blackface.
The photos were part of an exhibition entitled ″Mummery″ that opened Dec. 16 and also includes paintings, costumes and masks selected by a panel of curators. It is scheduled to run through March.
Conroy, who has been photographing the Mummers Parade for 15 years, said the pictures were taken in 1979 or 1980 and in 1986. Each shows a group of about 10 Mummers wearing elaborate silk costumes and wigs. On black and white film, their colorful face makeup appears dark gray.
Blackfaced Mummers were part of the parade from its inception in 1901 until civil rights groups began protesting in the early 1960s. A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge in 1964 banned blackface and also prohibited civil rights groups from picketing the parade.
Thora Jacobson, director of the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, which helped curate the show, criticized Goode and other officials opposing the photos ″who presume to know what an artist means.″
″I think the perception was the more important phenomenon, not the reality of what was documented or how it was photographed,″ she said. ″The mayor as a black man and as the mayor of the city sees himself as protector of the community.″
To support Conroy, two other photographers and a painter participating in the exhibit sent letters to the mayor asking that their work be removed.
″If you felt the photos depicted blackface, what you should do is go to the Mummers and deal with it that way,″ said Harvey Finkle, 53, who had two pictures in the show. ″You don’t ban the photographs for portraying what exists.
″It’s absolute censorship. There’s no question that what they’ve really done is censor something that they don’t think will be beneficial to them politically.″
The exhibit’s curators have met with city officials to try to persuade them to readmit the photos - albeit with a disclaimer underneath. Conroy said he would be willing to let the pictures back in, if only to save the future of ″Art in City Hall.″
But other artists said they would not want to participate in another city- sponsored display and called for the City Hall program to be canceled altogether.
″I think artists aren’t going to submit,″ said photographer Alan Hinerfeld, who pulled a picture from the show. ″I think the whole ‘Art in City Hall’ thing is going to go by the wayside.″