Wayne Michael Reich

Writing ∙ Photography ∙ Art

Theatre of Lame (A Comedy of Errors)

“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”- Henry Louis Gate

Hello Blogiteers!


Gah, I say. Gah.

Just when I relax and get to thinking think that everything seems to be making progress within the PAS (Phoenix Art Scene), Reality comes back and greases the escalator that goes up. I swear on all that’s holy, there’s a huge bubble of ignorance that hovers over this city like ticks on a fat dog.

It seemingly never ends. This time however, my issue isn’t with our self-hating local media, or the candy-assed anarchists, not even that sect of timorous Stuckist cultists I was playing with a few weeks back. What’s more, it’s not even a fellow Artist I have a huge problem with.

For once, I’m aiming high out of my comfort zone, and I’m taking on a well-established cultural icon, that being the Herberger Theater Center located in Downtown Phoenix.
And here you all were thinking I couldn’t change my dietary habits, no matter what.

Shame on you, cause that’s just hurtful. Finally… I get to take out my high school bitterness about not bring cast as the lead in “Grease”. I’m nobody’s Kenickie, let me tell you.

But I am the Artbitch, and my claws are out and sharpened. Granted, “hot under the collar” is sort of my niche, but in this instance my wrath is that of the righteous, no matter how one looks at it. So what did the Herberger do to incur not only my scorn but the unified contempt of the PAS?

In one word: CENSORSHIP.

As many of you know, I loathe any form of suppression, no matter what the justification may be. I’m an adult, and I sure as Hell don’t need to be protected by some anonymous Fairy Godmother looking out for my best interest. There has never been concrete evidence that the vile act of censoring ideas and concepts eventually helps lead to a stronger and knowledgeable community.

Apparently that info never hit the Herberger’s E-mail. But to be fair, it’s hard to stay on top of things when you’re too busy screwing over people. Ah. I see you require the context of explanation.

From the Internet, I will give you the answers you seek.
First, the press release for the show:

“In September, R. Pela Contemporary Art will present Prime Example: New Work from R. Pela Contemporary Art by Geoffrey Gersten, Suzanne Falk, Mike Ford, and Ronnie Ray Mendez. This exhibit, curated by Robrt Pela of R. Pela Contemporary Art, features three artists whom Pela discovered last year, and one popular local mainstay.

“I occasionally have the privilege of meeting a new artist whose work really knocks me out,” Pela says. “And in this exhibit, I’m featuring four such artists. Geoffrey Gersten’s surrealist paintings of playful things with dark edges changed me. I love how his colorful, charming images draw us in, and then demand that we stay with them to find the moral in Gersten’s story.”

Mike Ford’s photographs of himself with his mother, both garishly made up as hags, changed Pela’s opinion of photographic art. Ronnie Ray Mendez, who’s made a name for himself in the fine art world of Los Angeles, has recently arrived in Phoenix. “His drawings bridge a gap between realism and surrealism by combining human anatomy with animal life,” Pela says. “He’s illustrating that line between reason and emotion.”

Pela will also exhibit new work by local painter Suzanne Falk. “Suzie went into a brief, self-imposed exile,” Pela says. “And the work she made during that time is stunning—photorealistic oil paintings of fictional characters interacting with insects. Her many fans will be thrilled with this new series. I am.”

Prime Example will open with an artist reception on Thursday, September 5 at 5:30 p.m., and will be open through October 6. The Herberger Theater Center Art Gallery is located at 225 East Monroe Street.”

But just a week before the opening, this was posted by Guest Curator Robrt Pela:

The Herberger Theater Center “Art Gallery” has canceled this exhibit. The manager of the space objected to two of the pieces by one of the artists, and so — rather than seeking a solution — they canceled the entire show (without having seen any of the work by the other three artists).

I worked on this show for many months, and booked it in November of 2011. During that time, no requests were ever made by the Herberger for samples of work that would be shown. Needless to say, the artists put an enormous amount of time into creating beautiful artwork.

Welcome to Phoenix, where censorship is okay. And where corporate gallery owners apparently don’t care that artists have spent months creating art for an upcoming exhibit.”

My apologies. Please spread the word about this latest atrocity. Below, I’ve posted the two pieces of art that the Herberger bean counters objected to.”

These are the Images that garnered such offense.

[Images © Michael Thomas Ford]

Um…. why exactly were these so controversial, you ask? Well…. I honestly don’t know. Seriously, I don’t. There’s no nudity, no blood, no sexually explicit depictions, no religious mockery, no political statement, no Care Bears, no Miley Cyrus lap-dancing, in short- nothing that I would even remotely consider controversial in the slightest.

Granted, the word “Sodomite” might be a turn off for some, but it’s a pretty safe bet that word won’t initiate the verb on your person anytime soon. And I’m not alone in this opinion. A groundswell of dissent from the PAS was posted on various social media outlets mere minutes after the news of the cancellation was disseminated, and as you can imagine, it quickly rose up into a tsunami of artistic indignation.

  [Link: https://www.facebook.com/events/626964197347814/permalink/630059743704926/ ]

  A few random comments from FaceBook:

David Ira Goldstein: “This is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. I can put 20 totally naked people on the stage of the Herberger in HAIR, who have sung a song in that show called “Sodomy”, but you can’t show these beautiful pieces?!”

Timothy Chapman: “Okay, let me get this straight. The Theater didn’t like these pieces? Maybe I’m just a workin’ painter, but aren’t they a little… oh, I don’t know… theatrical? How long do we keep having two steps backward for every one we take forward? Sorry to all the artists who have worked so hard. And to TGWSGC.” 

Julie Peterson: “I’m very crabby about this. I’m offended that the photo with the word “Sodomite” was deemed unacceptable, and I have to say I have no idea why the other one was a problem, since men are crossdressing in that building all the time in shows that are marketed to “families.” VYT’s Seussical is about to open, and if HTC feels that’s got anything to do with it maybe they should just stop having an art gallery or letting children into the theater, one or the other. Not that it would stop me.”

Jessica Jackson: “I’m not so sure why the art was considered so controversial. In any case, it’s quite a disservice to censor art that lies outside of what is currently acceptable and comfortable. Even if the space is used mainly for theatre and it’s intended demographic may have been offended by the art, which they weren’t given the chance to see, there is no excuse for not requiring or asking to see show pieces or concepts for the art this whole time, and then just deciding to cancel when the art is finally seen and deemed offensive. All that work and effort put into producing art and organizing the show is wasted. This is so disrespectful.”

Melinda Parris: “So sorry to hear of this disappointing cancellation and I hope another venue is found for the collection you’ve spent so much time curating. The works here certainly look interesting. While I enjoy a Monet flower garden very much, what really speaks to me is work that intrigues, provokes and evokes. The art that pushes our buttons in some way is the art that sticks with us and incidentally, changes the world.”

Steven J. Scally: “I acted in show at the Herberger where my character: 1. murdered someone ON STAGE, blood and all. 2. raped both female characters. 3. Verbally and physically abused everyone. 4. Masturbated on stage. 5. I was beaten to death with a baseball bat. None of that was deemed offensive? But those two works of art are? Guess they are trying to destroy art in this city.”

Given the amount of outrage that was generated, you’d think that the HTC would have a measured and thoughtful response. Once again, they lined up, took their shot, and missed completely.

The whole of their statement:
“The Herberger Theater Center has supported the rich diversity of the arts and celebrated free expression of artists throughout Arizona since its inception in 1989. Since the gallery opened in 2002, all artwork has been overseen by guest curators, including Robrt Pela, and selected by a
blind jury with the exception of a few invitational exhibits.

In all those years, we have never refused artwork based on its content. The cancellation of Prime Example was not an act of censorship, nor in any way a negative statement against any of the artists selected for the exhibit.

Mr. Pela recently decided to feature other artists instead of showcasing his own art as was the original intention of the curator exhibit . As an arts venue that caters to diverse audiences of all ages, we are not in a position to display artwork sight unseen. 

Concerns for this particular venue were expressed, but ultimately we had to make the difficult decision to cancel the exhibit.”

So how did this “official” response go over? From FB again:

Robrt Pela: “The Herberger Theater Center Art Gallery never once asked to see the work I was planning to exhibit — mine, or anyone else’s. I signed to do the September, 2013 exhibit in June of 2011. That’s more than two years to inquire, “What are you going to show in our gallery?” The images they censored were not offensive in any way, and have been widely posted on Facebook.”

Cathryn Hugger: “Too little, too late for damage control HTC. Your reputation has been tarnished. Maybe you don’t realize your actions have gone viral. The art community is in protest. I have cancelled my women’s group event to attend the lunch time theater in October and my husband has publicly withdrawn from the “Nocturne” show in protest.”

Pete Petrisko: “This statement makes no sense on face value. Pela is known as a curator, that is what he does, and he’s been doing it for some time now.


cu·ra·tor – n. One who manages or oversees.

If there was any questions on the part of Herberger, it’s had since June 2011 to ask. The fact it apparently didn’t ask in all that time, wasn’t familiar with what Pela does, and simply cancelled the show at the last minute, doesn’t speak well for its supporting the “rich diversity of the arts”.

If this truly was a miscommunication, why not let bygones be & just hang the show – since it’s ready to go? Something spooked you, Herberger. That much is clear. You do the arts community no favors with a cancellation.”

Victor Arellano:  “Los Angeles to Phoenix, GROW UP!!! I was in the very first production at the Herberger, a play called “La Vida Bruta”. It was a new work by a playwright from ASU. Back then, The Herberger Theatre Center was commited to bringing Arts and Culture to Phoenix.

This first play was chosen specifically to represent the rich Hispanic history and had some content that may have raised eyebrows. Commited to artistic freedom, even decades ago, the production was left in the hands of the creative team. The show was attended by then Governor Rose Mofford, and many luminaries from the worlds of local arts and government. There was no conflict.

Over the years, I have witnessed HTC become a host for elite, snobbish producers who rarely cast local talent. This is a slap in the face to a city on the verge of becoming a cosmopolitan metropolis.

This recent censorship in the form of cancellation of Mr. Pela’s art installation is final proof that Phoenix has grown, but not grown up. I can only think that since Arizona has become a stronghold for conservatives in an age of a progressive renaissance that politics have now infected the world of culture and the arts.

Alhough the arts can and should be used to make politcal statements in this free and great nation, politics should never be used to block the free expression of artists.

This is one more reason why I am sometimes embarrassed to claim Phoenix as my birhplace and am filled with glee that I am now a proud Angelino living in the bold, progressive incubator of artistic freedom: Los Angeles, California.

Whomever decided for the public that these works should not be seen has exercised his or her influence inappropriately and is not qualified to hold this position of power.

Again, grow up Phoenix. Otherwise your minds will remain in boxes, much like the squares, the perfect grid made by the main arterial streets and avenues that make up her neighborhoods.

That said, there are countless talented, creative people in that desert city. Whether or not this censorship succeeds, The voices of those artists and their patrons will not be silenced.

Some friendly advice from across the miles, V.A.” 

And finally, this from the originally censored Artist, Michael Ford:

“As the artist whose photographs are apparently the cause of the cancellation of this show, I invite anyone interested to visit my page and see the offending pieces.

As I was given no reason for why my photographs were deemed unsuitable for showing at the Herberger apart from “we can’t show these,” I can only speculate. I will, however, take issue with the suggestion that the powers that be didn’t know this was to be a group show.

I received my contract from the Herberger more than a month ago, so they obviously knew what was planned, even if they had yet to see the artwork itself. And why they would cancel a show after seeing only my work, and not the work of the other three artists, is a question that remains unanswered.”

At this moment, that situation remains unchanged. It’s rather obvious that HTC is attempting to spin their premature expurgation to their benefit, but it’s also fair to say that they’ve done more damage to their reputation by attempting to do so.

When you factor in that most of the evidence to support this claim against them can allegedly be proven using their own Emails sent to Robrt, It makes this Artbitch take pause and think:

“Damn, I love it when your enemies not only pave the road for you, they go that extra mile and build a Hotel with matching Casino as well. Don’t even get me started on what a great job they did with the attached restaurant- seriously, the buffet is to die for.”

But here’s the interesting part- after I spent the better part of 45 minutes reading through all of these collected Emails, (which start on 4/25/2013 and end on 8/29/2013) nowhere within do I see Laurene Austin (who is the director of Development and Marketing) express any concern about the content of the show until the 29th of August.

Let me repeat that: nowhere within do I see Laurene Austin (who is the director of Development and Marketing) express any concern about the content of the show until the 29th of August.

For those keeping score, that’s ONE week before the opening, and several months after the show was agreed upon. For someone who’s supposed to be in charge of a major Arts Venue, she comes off as sort of slipshod, doesn’t she? It never crossed her mind to pre-vet the work, or to ask for ALL the images shortly after the new show plan was presented?

Is she new at this, or did she acquire her so-called art knowledge while working the juice bar at whatever Thomas Kinkade gift shop the HTC apparently stole her away from?

NONE of the work that I’ve seen from the group represented in the show falls under the category of what one might possibly argue should normally be censored or removed. I repeat, NONE. But as I’m all about fair play, I give you this exchange from the collected Emails so you can decide for yourself:

Laurene Austin: “Hi Robrt,

To be honest with you, I have concerns about Mike Ford’s artwork.  We have a Valley Youth Theatre show in the theater for three weeks in September and there will be many children and families in attendance. 

I haven’t seen any of Mike’s work other than the “Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting” image that you sent.  But based on the titles, I’m not sure what to expect.

As you know, we are a theater first and need to be respectful of our patrons and theater companies.  We may need to pull “The Sodomite” and others depending on subject matter.

What do you suggest?

Thank you,

Robrt Pela: “I suggest that censorship is never right, and now is not the time to tell me that you may be pulling artwork from a show I’ve already promised my artist and the audience that they’ll be seeing.

Here are Mike’s images. The Sodomite is a photograph of a man’s face.


Laurene Austin: I’m sorry but we cannot display The Sodomite, The Dolls or The Motel Room.
I have been asking for images and information since April so this is not a last minute decision. 

Thank you,

Robrt Pela: “I’ve just reviewed our correspondence, and you’ve been asking me for one image, presumably to use in promotional materials. If you needed to review the artwork before agreeing to show it, you should have made that clear.

But I’m not going to argue with you people; it’s not worth my time to try to convince you how inappropriate you’re being.

You asked me for suggestions. Here’s one: Stop pretending you’re operating an art gallery. You’re not. Art galleries don’t censor art, or hire their friends who don’t know how to curate to be “curators.” Just be the lobby of a theater building, with art hanging in it.”

Laurene Austin: “Robrt,

Unfortunately, we must cancel the Prime Example exhibit.  It may well be a provocative and impactful exhibit in another space but it does not align with the balance of art forms we must achieve at the Herberger Theater.  

Thank you,

“Balance of art forms”… seriously, Laurene?

You have the possibility of featuring plays that contain vulgar language, partial to full nudity, and adult themes, but a single word is what’s going to push your clientele over the proverbial edge?

In the future, since you seemingly cannot handle art that doesn’t fit your narrow POV, I offer the following suggestions for your so-called “gallery”.

1- Cover the walls with chalkboard paint and let your clientele doodle on it. See art you don’t like? Voila- hit it with some water, and you’ll be safe and snug like a bug in a rug.

2- Convert the space into your new office. It’s not like the PAS will be giving you any work in the future, so think of all the room you can use to store office supplies. If that fails, I’d suggest installing a bouncy castle, and who doesn’t like those?

3- Still want to show art, but keep it safe for your Patrons? I suggest shopping at Kmart for some really sweet Justin Bieber posters that you can display next to your collection of his action figures.

4- Two words: Hello Kitty.
See? I can be helpful when I need to be. And as an aside, the Emails also show that you and by default- HTC, were more than aware that Robrt would be showing the work of other artists, and NOT his own. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that you’re a liar Laurene, I’m saying outright that your definition of what constitutes Truth is somewhat askew of actual Reality.

Something strikes strange here.

There’s (as I stated earlier) NO nudity, NO blood, NO sexually explicit depictions, NO religious mockery, NO political statements, NO Care Bears, NO Miley Cyrus lap-dancing, in short- nothing that I would even remotely consider controversial in the slightest- and yet, right outside the Theater’s main doors, are FOUR life size fully nude statues.

Where’s the Herberger’s concern for the community about that? Kids, I say kids- could see that, become emotionally scarred, and next thing you know… they’re juggling kittens, doing Meth, and burning down 7-11’s with their illegally acquired flame-throwers.
Hypocrisy, they name is Herberger. Thy servant, the cravenly Laurene Austin.

But hope is not lost, and once again- it comes courtesy of Travis Fields and the Arizona Artists page on FB. After hearing about the asinine and unprofessional actions of Laurene on behalf of the HTC, he was moved to create the following event as a means of protesting what he and many others in the Arts community see as an act of unmitigated and baseless censorship..

[Link: https://www.facebook.com/events/525274750885122/]

The protest will take place Thursday, September 5th on or around 2nd St and Monroe, closest to the front entrance of the HTC, and will last from 5:30pm – 7:30pm. If ever there was a time to put up or shut up, this would be it. So bring the noise, and help light the HTC up like a Christmas Tree.

Bring signs, bring righteous indignation, but more importantly- bring yourself. And if you can’t do that, please let your will be heard by contacting the following people:

Richard Bowers, President x100


Mark Mettes, Vice President x107


Leah Staten, Administrative Asst. to President, Vice President & Board of Directors


Laurene Austin, Director of Development & Marketing x105

Let them know that in the land of the free, we don’t tolerate the act of censorship.
We don’t allow the chilling of ideas.
We don’t allow restriction.

And we sure as Hell don’t allow some random (and unqualified) overseer to dictate what we create.

We wrest the intangible from the ether, and we give it form.
We will not be broken.
We will not be caged.

We will not be assigned limits.
We are Artists, the true architects of change, and we will never be denied.


So know this my HTC kittens… the army you raised is coming for you, and that right quick. 

“There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it’s going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.”- Frank Zappa
“Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot.”- Eugene O’ Neil