Dear Commissioners Kirwin and Loyola,
I am writing on behalf of the Arts Advocacy Program at the National Coalition Against Censorship. As an organization dedicated to promoting the First Amendment right to free speech, including freedom of artistic expression, we are troubled to learn of your recent threat to cut future funding to The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) due to the inclusion of two works by Mark Ryden in an upcoming exhibition.
Art often provokes impassioned responses—sometimes angry sometimes enthusiastic. However, as government officials, you cannot use your power to control public money so as to impose your interpretation of the work on the community as a whole and discriminate against ideas with which you disagree.
The two Ryden works in question, Fountain and Rosie’s Tea Party (above), are part of the exhibition Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose, a ten year retrospective of artists who have appeared in the pages of Hi-Fructose Magazine, opening May 21st. Even though the Virginia Beach Arts & Humanities Commission has approved the exhibition, you have recently suggested that the commission cut future funding to the museum in retaliation for displaying the paintings.
In an interview on WAVY-TV last week, Commissioner Loyola stated: “Obviously [MOCA Director Debi Gray] feels she can do what she wants with taxpayer money. Not on my watch.” Commissioner Kirwin, reportedly stated to the press that he’d be inclined to try to slash future funding for MOCA.
The suggestion that you may work to cut future funding to MOCA as punishment for exhibiting art that you dislike raises serious First Amendment concerns. While totalitarian and undemocratic societies have suppressed art and demonized artists, burned heretics and tortured dissenters, I hope you will agree that we are fortunate to be living in a country where the use of religious symbols in art, whether approved by church dogma or not, is protected under the First Amendment. The government cannot suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, nor can it suppress works of art said to be “offensive, sacrilegious, morally improper or dangerous.” Contrary to what you appear to believe, government officials are also barred from using the power of the purse to discriminate against art based on the viewpoint expressed in it.
In 1999, when prohibiting then-Mayor Guiliani from acting against the Brooklyn Museum for displaying an “anti-Catholic” and “anti-Christian” work, the court noted that the government cannot punish or retaliate against a particular Museum by rescinding its subsidy just because of the perceived viewpoint of the works in an exhibition.
In her opinion barring Giuliani from retaliating against the Museum and cutting city funding to it, Judge Nina Gershon quoted precedent stating that the government may not “discriminate invidiously in its subsidies in such a way as to aim […] at the suppression of dangerous ideas.” Regan, 461 U.S. at 548 (citation omitted). Judge Gershon’s opinion further stated that “The cases establishing the principle that government cannot avoid the reach of the First Amendment by acting indirectly rather than directly also illustrate the fallacy in the claim of the Mayor and the City that, while the Exhibit can be shown privately, ‘the taxpayers don’t have to pay for it.’”
Anybody is entitled to criticize art in an exhibition, but First Amendment principles bar government officials from discriminating against controversial viewpoints. MOCA cannot and should not tailor its programming to promote the views of certain interest groups while suppressing those of others. Taxpayer funds go to maintain a vibrant and diverse cultural sphere that serves all Americans, not just Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals. We may differ on cultural or social issues and argue about these issues—in the press, in public spaces, in galleries and performance spaces—but government officials cannot use financial leverage as a threat to silence those with whom they disagree.
Director of Programs
National Coalition Against Censorship