As artists, arts professionals and free speech organizations we are deeply troubled by demands made by the mayor of Coral Gables, Florida, to censor a public art show so as to penalize political viewpoints.
In July 2021, echoing the rhetoric of the 1950s McCarthy era and in flagrant disregard of fundamental constitutional principles, Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago urged the city’s commissioners to condition city funding for Illuminate Coral Gables, a public art show, on the exclusion of two of the participating artists because of their purported political views. In order to protect the integrity of the work and reject such a blatant act of censorship, the chief curator resigned. As a result, the whole 2022 edition of the show was cancelled, depriving Coral Gables residents and visitors of a much-celebrated art event.
The cancellation of the event damages both local businesses and the image of the city. But a mayor who tramples over constitutional principles while extolling those very principles is a much larger problem. It is important to note that the artists in question were not excluded on the basis of their art, but on their own alleged political backgrounds. This type of authoritarian governance must be strongly and unambiguously condemned.
The two artists Lago demanded be removed from the show are both internationally-established artists with long careers in the United States. Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese artist living in New York, is known for working with gunpowder to create paintings as well as conceptual public fireworks. Among the worldwide recognition he has received was a 2006 solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a 2008 large-scale retrospective at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. He was also named as one of the five artists to receive the first U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts for his outstanding commitment to international cultural exchange. Cai’s project Fireflies, which involves pedicabs with illuminated fabric lanterns attached to them, was one of the greatest attractions of the 2021 edition of Illuminate Coral Gables.
The second excluded artist, Sandra Ramos, is Cuban and living in Miami. Her work, which uses a variety of media, is in the permanent collections of many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Kendall Art Center in Miami, and Fuchu Art Museum in Japan. Ramos addresses political realities in Cuba in a critical way. Ramos was also included in the 2021 edition of Illuminate, creating an illuminated walkway composed of twelve aerial photos in light boxes representing a symbolic bridge between Miami and Havana. Ramos described the work as hoping to present “the possibility of overcoming more than a half century of separation, anguish and differences.”
While paying lip service to the opportunity that art presents for an open dialogue, the mayor openly and proudly declared he would tolerate no dialogue or discussion with those who do not share his political sympathies. This is a position worthy more of a totalitarian dictator than a public official in a democratic society, especially when that official uses public funds to discriminate against those with whom he disagrees.
Ironically, while saying he would not support with public funds anyone who does not sympathize with the US government and Constitution, the Mayor violated one of the foundational principles of that very Constitution, the right to freedom of speech and opinion. The first thing totalitarian dictators do when they come to power is suppress the speech of those who do not share their political views.
What is developing in Coral Gables may appear marginal from a national perspective, but, when seen in the context of legislatures around the United States adopting laws as to what historical narratives should be banned or allowed in schools, Mayor Lago may just be the canary in the coal mine signaling the erosion of respect for First Amendment values.
Illuminate Coral Gables Curatorial Team
Independent curator, Fung Collaboratives
Founder, Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator (DVCAI)
Art Program Manager, San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit
Illuminate Coral Gables Participating Artists
Joseph Clayton Mills
Eliza Naranjo Morse
Clea T. Waite
Illuminate Coral Gables Advisors
Professor of Art History, Florida International University and former director of the Frost Art Museum
Chief Curator, Frost Art Museum-FIU
National Coalition Against Censorship
ACLU-FL Greater Miami Chapter
American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom (ALA-OIF)
Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston
Association for Public Art (aPA)
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF)
Defending Rights and Dissent
Freedom to Read Foundation
PEN America, Artists at Risk Connection (ARC)
PEN America Miami/South Florida Chapter
Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts
Woodhull Freedom Foundation
Leaders and Stakeholders in the Arts and Culture
Arts and culture consultant, University of the Arts, Philadelphia
Pratt Institute and Parsons, The New School
Founder Emeritus, Forecast Public Art
Professor Film and Digital Media, UCSC
NSCAD, Nova Scotia
Florida-based writer and independent curator
Executive Director, ArtYard
Artist and Professor, Director of the MFA Program, San Francisco Art Institute
President Honoraire, A.I.C.A. International
Professor Emeritus University of Pittsburgh
Julia Muney Moore
Director of Public Art, Indianapolis, IN
Art Worker, Los Angeles, CA
Artist and Public Art Consultant, Pittsburgh, PA
Dr. Gregory Sholette
Professor of Art, Queens College CUNY
Film & Media Dept., University of California Berkeley
Professor of Art, Oberlin College & Conservatory