City of Mesa accused of censorship for postponing art exhibit with piece on police brutality

Arizona's Family has learned that one of the reasons the exhibit was put on hold is because of artwork about police brutality.
Published: Aug. 10, 2023 at 5:05 PM MST|Updated: Aug. 11, 2023 at 12:57 AM MST
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MESA, Ariz. (3TV/CBS 5) Susi Lerma lets her paintings do the talking when she has something to say. But the long-time Valley artist felt compelled to speak up, after hearing about the City of Mesa abruptly postponing a new exhibit. “They’re stirring up a scandal that doesn’t need to be there,” Lerma said. “Let’s use it as an opportunity to talk about things.”

Lerma is one of a growing number of local artisans expressing outrage over the decision to put off next month’s exhibit at the Mesa Arts Center, which was set to highlight influential street artists who showcase civil engagement. Arizona’s Family has learned one of the reasons the exhibit was put on hold is because Mesa city leaders thought one of the pieces was inappropriate and may be offensive to law enforcement.

The artwork was about police brutality and was created by internationally-known artist Shepard Fairey, who made the famous President Obama Hope poster. The print shows a police officer holding a baton with a flower on the end. The caption says, “My florist is a dick. When his day starts, your day ends.

Rob Schultz is the former assistant director of the Mesa Arts Center. He said the city has always been a leader in showcasing all kinds of artwork, which is why he was pretty shocked to hear about this piece of art creating so much controversy.

“Mesa runs libraries. I’ll bet the library has books that deal with police brutality, and I’ll bet the library has newspapers,” said Schultz. “When there’s an incident of police brutality in the newspapers, they don’t pull them off the shelf and not allow people to see them.”

A spokesperson for the City of Mesa said there were a number of reasons the exhibit was postponed. Among them, an issue with artist contracts, a change in leadership at the Mesa Arts Center and concerns about the piece on police brutality.

The City of Mesa released this statement:

“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.”

According to city officials, they’ve reached out to all the artists and told them they want them back at a later date.

Schultz thinks the public should have the right to judge artwork for themselves. “It mystifies me as to why this action was taken, when it seems to me there were so many other opportunities and options for them to follow rather than the most dramatic choice,” Schultz said.

“I don’t believe in censorship in any form,” Lerma said. “It’s so insulting to think that people can’t make up their own minds.”

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