Fall exhibit at Mesa museum to resume with all Shepard Fairey artwork on display

City officials say the Mesa Contemporary Art Museum’s fall exhibit is back on in October, after they had to abruptly postpone it over fallout from artwork by world-renowned artist Shepard Fairey many deemed anti-police.

Just six weeks shy of the fall exhibit’s opening day, city staff had no contracts signed with artists and only one physical art piece in their possession.

A piece of Fairey’s artwork that depicts a skeletal police officer in riot gear holding a large flower with the phrase “when his day starts your days end” was part of the traveling exhibit.

Fairey, owner of Obey clothing company, rose to prominence in the 1990s and is known for his street art activism. Among his most notable artwork is the 2008 Obama Hope campaign poster.

Shepard Fairey poses for a picture with his Barack Obama Hope artwork.

After seeing the message the art piece was portraying, staff were concerned that it would offend Mesa police officers and public safety employees. That resulted in the snap decision to postpone the event to work out the details of how or if the art piece would be displayed.

The city saw the artwork as disparaging public safety employees, while critics saw the museum’s decision as censoring free expression protected by the First Amendment.

Councilmember Jenn Duff, who represents the area where the museum is located, told The Republic the controversy revealed discrepancies in the city’s policy and process when dealing with provocative artwork.

The city didn’t have best-practice guidelines on how to deal with a piece like Fairey’s. That left the decision-making to a few instead of it being a collaborative decision, she said.

She wishes the city had already had the policies in place to avoid the disruption. “It has been a rough transition, but I think we’re on the right path right now.”

Now, two weeks after the initial postponement, the city has worked out a solution with Fairey to display the art piece with a disclaimer from the city.

A set date for the opening of “Just Cause: The Power of Contemporary Art in Civics Engagement” exhibit is yet to be determined. Staff are finalizing artists’ contracts and logistics for the delivery and installation of the artwork. All artists and their art pieces were invited back to the fall exhibit, a city spokesperson told The Arizona Republic.

Mesa Arts Center.

What went wrong?

City Manager Chris Brady told The Arizona Republic the city needed the pause to re-evaluate if it was appropriate to display Fairey’s artwork at the tax-funded museum and to find a workable solution.

“We had great concerns with the words” on his art piece, Brady said.

Two years ago, the city faced a similar situation when an art piece that depicted a black person being beaten by law enforcement was displayed in the city’s museum. It caused internal pushback from the city’s police officers.

Brady’s decision to postpone this year’s event was an attempt to prevent that from happening again.

Had the city known which pieces were selected far enough in advance, this would not have happened, Brady said. He apologized for the inconvenience the pause created for other artists. Once the city was able to get in contact with Fairey, the two came to a compromise on the disclaimer the city would include.

It’s about respecting both sides, Brady said.

When visitors come to the free exhibit, they’ll see a sign in the lobby that reads:

“The views and opinions expressed in this art piece are that of the artist alone. The City of Mesa supports art and speech in all forms. We also recognize and support the ongoing national dialogue about policing in America. 

“Public safety is a core function of the City of Mesa, and we are proud of the service and sacrifices of our women and men in uniform. As a public facility, and based on our organization’s values, we want to affirm our respect for all our employees and uphold our commitment to the dignity of policing in Mesa.”

What will be different in the future?

Natalie Lewis, a deputy city manager who oversees the arts department, said staff is moving forward with updating its guidelines and policies.

“We are going to be stronger and better as we come out of this, as we fine-tune our policies,” Lewis said. That will include executing contracts further in advance and involving the museum and cultural advisory board in the artist selection.

The city is moving ahead in building those new policies and guidelines while it works to hire a new Arts and Culture Director, following the retirement of the previous director. 

Along with Fairey’s exhibit at the museum, the council gave the okay for staff to pursue the potential installation of a mural on the walls of the Mesa Arts Center in June.

The staff’s goal was to “create a welcoming entryway to Mesa Art Center’s campus from Center Street” and public art to the city.

Duff said she’s looking forward to seeing what that could look like. She hopes it will be “inspiring and uplifting” which is reflective of Mesa’s community.

Reporter Maritza Dominguez covers Mesa and Gilbert and can be reached at maritza.dominguez@arizonarepublic.com or 480-271-0646. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter: @maritzacdom.

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