When the Ventura County Arts Council (VCAC) sent out a call to artists for its October shows, Chaos and Order and Still At War, Atrium Gallery Curator Pete Ippel stated that he was looking for work that “not only encompasses physical and ideological conflicts but also the fights for equal rights, the war on drugs, and sexual harassment.”
This was a widely different show from, say, the June exhibit, Arboreal, focusing on trees, or the self-explanatory Seasons from January. And, indeed, among the nature photographs and abstract pieces that went up on the walls on Oct. 12 were works that felt ripped from the headlines: a Latina child behind bars (Cecily Willis, “Little Girl in Dog Cage”), a woman in a pink “pussyhat” with the words “Resist” superimposed (Lois Freeman-Fox, “Resistance Furthers”), portraits of the 17 victims of the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida, shooting by artist Gracie Pekrul. There were many powerful statements . . . and they didn’t go without notice.
For those unfamiliar with the Atrium Gallery, it is housed at the Ventura County Government Center’s Hall of Administration. It’s not a dedicated gallery, per se, but art is displayed on open space on the walls of the second and third floors — around 400 linear feet, all told. According to the gallery’s online mission statement, the idea is to make art visible and available to the public “for the community’s enjoyment and education and the artists’ benefit; while coexisting within an active public workplace.” The VCAC and the Atrium Gallery curator are solely responsible for the art displayed; the government center merely provides the venue. “The County does not choose the artwork displayed by the Ventura County Arts Council,” confirmed Assistant County Executive Officer Mike Pettit. “The County provides gallery space to the council as a public service to support the arts. As such, the County is not promoting, supporting or opposing any agenda.”
About a week after the dual-themed show opened, however, the government center — specifically, the office of Ventura County CEO Michael Powers, the General Services Agency (GSA) and the supervisors, according to Ippel — started receiving complaints. Pettit said that, to his knowledge, there were approximately 25-30 complaints made.
“The first complaints were received on approximately Oct. 18. The complaints were primarily surrounding the artwork pieces located near the County Clerk and Recorders Office,” said Pettit. “Concern was raised that the artwork was politically charged and was located close to the Elections Division and on the walls of a public government building.” Pettit added that some individuals may have confused the Elections Division with the Clerk and Recorders Office, as the Elections Division is located on the lower plaza and that “no artwork whatsoever was displayed on that floor in public spaces.”
In response to these complaints, 11 pieces out of 46 were taken down. County staff from the GSA informed Ippel on Oct. 24.
“I have been working since that date to get the art reinstated,” Ippel said in an Oct. 26 email he sent to the artists (ShyAnne Happens, Cecily Willis, Gracie Pekrul, Myrna Cambianica and Lois Freeman-Fox) whose work had been removed.
Happens, whose painting, “Rosie 2,” received an honorable mention, said that she was surprised when she got the news. “I felt that this would be controversial,” she said. “It seemed big.”
Talks between the VCAC, county staff and its legal counsel ensued. “We talked about the conflicts, and that people needed to be heard,” Ippel said. “I was looking to find a solution where people could feel acknowledged regardless of their demands.”
Eventually all parties reached “a compromise that attempted to address concerns raised by the public while still supporting First Amendment free speech,” Pettit explained. The solution: Keep the art, but move the more controversial works to a less conspicuous location. The government center was already considering expanding space allotted for the Atrium Gallery, and made it official with this show. The gallery now extends to the fourth floor, with works by Happens, Willis, Pekrul and others up on the walls, covering an additional 30+ feet of linear space. All work was reinstated by Oct. 26, in time for the artists’ reception and awards ceremony that took place later that evening.
“That space is permanent; it’s an expansion,” Ippel noted. “The more space we have, the more viewpoints we can show. That’s a really positive thing.”
“We jokingly refer to it as the Wall of Shame,” Willis said with a laugh about the new gallery space, where many of her watercolors now reside. (One of her works that did not stir controversy, “Street Musician, Ventura [After the Fire],” took first place in the show.) On a more serious note, she added, “I think the most important work is on the fourth floor.”
While she’s happy a compromise was found, she still considers the accusations of liberal bias surrounding the show “ridiculous.”
“The call [to artists] went out to everybody,” Willis said. “There are conservative artists out there. They could have entered the show.” She also wonders why some of the subject matter would be controversial in the first place. “Shouldn’t we all be against murdering children?” she said in reference to Perkul’s work. “When did that become a liberal or conservative thing?”
Happens said that while she was originally alarmed when the artwork was removed, she is satisfied with the solution. “I’m glad it wasn’t taken out entirely. To have free speech as an artist is very important.”
Not everyone is happy with the decision, however: Pettit admits that the government center has received complaints that the work is back up.
Controversy is almost unheard of at the Atrium Gallery. But this most recent incident has illuminated the need for the VCAC, with assistance from county staff, to develop a formal protocol to follow in the event of complaints, and possibly provide a moderated forum where artists and audience members can share their views.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Happens said. “It opens up more discussion.”
Which is what Ippel had hoped to do with the show all along. “My intention [was] to use art as a tool for discussion. The fact that this is brought up through an art show is a valuable thing. I hope that the dialog keeps flowing.”
Still At War and Chaos and Order will be on exhibit through Nov. 27 at the Atrium Gallery in the Hall of Administration of the Ventura County Government Center, 800 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura. For more information, call 805-658-2213 or visit vcartscouncil.org.