“Naked City” Jacksonville art exhibit mobilizes social conservative politicians

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Jacksonville is a city that has changed drastically in many ways over the last quarter century, with the influx of new corporate capital and the migration patterns that begets making the city more liberal on many issues. Despite this, some things remain the same. One of which is that socially conservative politicians, and the arguments they make about culture, still carry some weight.

A recent example of such happened in November, when City Council President Clay Yarborough emailed the mayor’s chief of staff, Chris Hand, complaining about an item in an exhibit of Angela Strassheim’s photographs in the atrium of Jacksonville’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The portrait he objected to – “Janine (Eight Months Pregnant)” – depicted a nude woman, reclining on her couch in front of an open window.

Council President Yarborough’s email described a “large picture” of a “woman with bare breasts exposed and lying in a questionable position” as an “inappropriate, pornographic display.” He demanded that the mayor pull the funding from MOCA for the current fiscal year or “explain how this will be addressed within 24 hours.”

Hand bounced the question to the city’s legal counsel, who explained that case law prohibited rescinding of funding for the museum and that the city had no jurisdiction to remove the work, even if it offended community members. A week later, Mayor Alvin Brown reiterated that position on official letterhead, claiming that the action Yarborough sought “would likely violate First Amendment rights and could subject the city to injunctive action and financial sanctions.”

This happened one day before local activists mounted a protest of Yarborough’s attempted censorship at the monthly Art Walk downtown, a protest that included a rally and protest on the steps of City Hall and a support demonstration at MOCA. A couple of hundred people were in attendance, and emotions ran high, with people chanting, regarding funding, to “double it.” The city’s Cultural Council, meanwhile, sent out an email blast decrying Yarborough’s stance on the offensive art, “defending the artistic and curatorial choices” of Cultural Council grantees.

Even a pastor at First Baptist Church, the most powerful church in Jacksonville, which counts Councilman Yarborough as a member, sent out emails to members privately saying that Yarborough had gone too far, and that his stridency precluded the “conversation” that should have occurred regarding this issue.

A happy ending for arts partisans in Duval County? Not quite. At least one city councilman, Robin Lumb, took issue with the email overstepping the Council’s boundaries, and linking to an editorial in Folio Weekly, a local publication for which I have written a column for over a decade.

Lumb’s email – entitled “The Cultural Council’s extraordinarly poor judgment / The courtesy of a reply is requested‏” – contained a number of objections to the Cultural Council wading into the partisan political debate, and was predicated on a fiscal conservative rejectionist view of public arts funding.

Writing that “the e-mail is a rather ham-handed effort to exploit the controversy; an effort that crossed several lines that should not have been crossed,” Lumb took issue with “a publicly funded agency such as the Cultural Council to be sending out e-mail blasts singling out a specific member of City Council and soliciting recipients to take ‘action’ directed at that person,” claiming that action is in fact political and oversteps the organizational mandate.

Lumb also insisted that public grant recipients did not have an unlimited right to self-expression, writing that “when it comes to public funding of the arts there is no absolute right for a recipient of those funds to do whatever they please. Individuals and organizations that accept public funding have, at best, an attenuated right to self-expression.”

Going on to say that he has never been “comfortable with public funding of the arts,” Lumb insisted that the Cultural Council do some “serious backtracking” regarding the contents of its email (and its link to the incendiary Folio Weekly piece).

In the short term, the issue is not an existential threat to arts funding in Jacksonville. Clay Yarborough will be term-limited out, and the smart money sees him taking Lake Ray’s seat in the Florida Legislature, in a Tea Party-saturated district that will see his stance against objectionable exhibits as heroic. What of the long term, though?

Alvin Brown faces a contentious re-election campaign, and most people see Lenny Curry emerging as his opponent in the runoff election; Curry has been silent on the scandal swirling around the Museum and the Cultural Council, yet as a Republican mayor with a Republican Council, decreasing or eliminating funding for cultural organizations certainly is a possibility were Curry to be elected.

As of now, there are at least three Council Members who seemingly could be swayed in this direction. The aforementioned Yarborough and Lumb, in addition to fellow social conservative Don Redman, who told the Times-Union that “in a building owned by the city and where kids are brought there by the school system to observe art, I think [art work containing nude bodies is] not tasteful.”

The Strassheim exhibit runs through the end of February. However, the ramifications of it could run for some time to come.

A.G. Gancarski has written a weekly column for Jacksonville’s Folio Weekly since 2003. His writings on politics, culture, and sport have appeared in the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, and the American Conservative. His radio and TV appearances include frequent contributions to WJCT-FM (Jacksonville’s Public Radio station); additionally, he has been a guest on Huff Post Live and the Savage Nation radio show. Gancarski can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.