Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Billboard company to Real Art Ways: We don't want to hold your hands

In 2005, Connecticut became the first state to enact a civil union law for gay couples through the legislature rather than by court order. A Republican Governor signed the bill into law. And the measure has been so uncontroversial among the general public that it wasn't even an issue in this year's elections. The Democratic-controlled legislature saw its majorities increased. Gov. Rell was reelected in a landslide.

But apparently gay sexuality is still too much of a hot potato for Lamar Advertising, a national outdoor advertising company. The local affiliate of Lamar Outdoor Advertising had offered Real Art Ways, a Hartford-based alternative art powerhouse, free advertising space on five billboards in Hartford and New Britain to advertise POZA, a multimedia exhibit of the work of 31 contemporary Polish artists. (Real Art Ways would pay for the printing and production of the ads.) But when Real Art Ways submitted their designs, Lamar balked. Two of the proposed billboards were text only. Those were okay. But the three proposed designs featuring images by Karolina Bregula, a 27-year-old Polish photographer, got thumbs down. Each of the three showed a same-sex couple holding hands.

Holding hands. We're not talking Robert Mapplethorpe rampant genitalia and body fluids here. Lamar Vice President and General Manager Steve Hebert told Real Art Ways Executive Director Will K. Wilkins that he was concerned that the images might be seen as controversial and be a magnet for vandalism.

"To make a decision like this based on the anticipated actions of bigots," said Wilkins, in a Real Art Ways press release, "does a real disservice to the gay and lesbian community and the broader community as well."

"We were not attempting to court controversy with these images," Real Art Way Communications Coordinator Brian Friedberg told me in a phone interview. "One thing we are really trying to drive home—if these were erotic images or images that contained a lot of skin, we could understand. But the only indication that these individuals were homosexual is that they were holding hands." They are statements about sexuality. They are not sexual images.

"We're very fiercely devoted to protecting the artist's right of free expression, particularly around issues of sexuality," Friedberg said.

The images had been displayed on billboards in Poland, but not without controversy. Part of Bregula's intention was to raise consciousness in post-Communist Poland about the presence of gay men and women in the socially conservative culture. According to Friedberg, the billboards were taken down in Poland after intense organized protest by Catholic groups.

Real Art Ways appealed the decision by Lamar, to no avail. Lamar was still willing to offer the text-only billboards but Real Art Ways withdrew them in protest.

"If the art we presented was not going to be used, we declined for any of it to be," said Friedberg.

Real Art Ways is no stranger to art censorship controversies. When the so-called "culture wars" flared up in the early 1990's, the organization took a stand in support of the "NEA Four." The NEA Four were performance artists who had been approved in a peer review process for National Endowment for the Arts Grants. The funds were revoked by executive order because of the subject matter, which dealt in explicit terms with issues of gay sexuality and, in the case of performer Karen Finley, the objectification of women. Real Art Ways arranged for local performances by the NEA Four, as well as presenting the work of other artists singled out for attack during that time.

In a phone interview with Connecticut Art Scene, Steve Hebert said that the designs they approved provided more information about the show—where and when it was—than the rejected designs. When I asked Friedberg about this he told me it was absolutely not true. But Hebert also confirmed that the decision was based on his anticipation of vandalism.

"We didn't make the decision because of bigots. Unfortunately, they're out there," said Hebert. "I made the decision operationally. I didn't want to have to go out and fix graffiti, not when I'm giving away free boards. It's insane."

I asked whether this just gave prospective bigots preemptive veto over outdoor advertising. He repeated his answer that it was a monetary issue. I noted that there are billboards on the highways advertising sex toy emporiums and strip clubs and they seem to escape graffiti. "They're not mine," he said. Lamar's policy locally, he said, is not to accept advertising for sex-related businesses. "If you see it on Connecticut roads, it's not our boards."

He added that the boards being offered to Real Art Ways are "posters," which are closer to the ground and more vulnerable to vandalism than highway billboards. In response to my question, he said the damage he was concerned about was spray painted graffiti, not actual physical damage to the boards.

According to Friedberg, in the discussions between Wilkins and Hebert (which Friedberg was privy to), the words "objectionable" and "questionable" were "used a lot" by Hebert.

"They said they expected a backlash from certain groups and individuals. [Wilkins] asked what groups they had in mind and they couldn't give us a specific answer," Friedberg told me. He said Real Art Ways was "fully prepared to have panel discussions, community discussions if groups were to object to these images. The opportunity for that public discourse never arose because the images were declined before they were ever put up."

The bottom line is that Lamar Advertising is saying there are bigots who want gay people to remain invisible, and will react in anger if they aren't. Whether that is true or not, the answer isn't to do their work for them.


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