Curator of "Reframe" Event Says Artwork Removal was “Demanded”

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Curator of "Reframe" Event Says Artwork Removal was “Demanded”:

Art piece critical of police removed from event to showcase black artists

One of the curators of the ReFrame: Miami Beach event to showcase black artists during the Memorial Day Weekend said the removal of a piece critical of police actions was the result of “a demand” by the City. That contradicts a statement earlier this week by a City spokeswoman that the piece was removed “after a discussion with the curators.” 

The work in question is titled Memorial for Raymond Herisse (above)Herisse was shot and killed by police officers during a high-speed chase on Collins Avenue during Memorial Day Weekend in 2011. No officers were charged but the incident led to a change in Miami Beach Police Department policy not to shoot at moving vehicles. Created by visual artist R. Jackson, it was part of an exhibit within the ReFrame: Miami Beach collaborative program “to produce works that spark crucial conversations about inclusion, blackness and relationships,” according to a City press release.

After the artwork was removed, it was replaced by a handwritten sign that said the work was removed “at the request of the Miami Beach Police.” 
Naiomy Guerrero and Octavia Yearwood curated the I See You, Too exhibit “about how propaganda and misinformation have compromised us,” according the City’s announcement of the event. It was located in a space at 737 Lincoln Road.
Guerrero told RE:MiamiBeach, “It is not true that there was a conversation with the curators and the artist about the work being removed. It wasn’t a conversation at all. It was a demand that if the work wasn’t removed that the whole show would be closed. We weren’t invited to have a conversation. There was no dialogue and we were told it needed to come down because of the police. That’s what we were told by the City.” She said Yearwood was contacted by the City and told to remove the piece. Guerrero did not remember the name of who made the contact. RE:MiamiBeach has reached out to Yearwood for the information. Yearwood and Jared McGriff were the curators of the overall ReFrame event. [This article was updated to indicate contact was not from City Manager Jimmy Morales.]
Later, she said, Miami Beach Deputy Police Chief Rick Clements “contacted us and said that he had no problem with the piece and he would never ask for it to come down.” Guerrero said he explained that “in a situation where [a piece of art] was a threat to the community, there is a process for that to come down” but that “he wasn’t involved in the removal.” She noted the curators have responded to social media posts by correcting the record that the art was not removed at the request of MBPD.
“Somewhere along the line we were lied to” about who was asking for the removal, she said, “but we were demanded for it to be taken down or the show would no longer be open to the public.”  (Story continues below.)

"Memorial for Raymond Herisse" by R Jackson

Description accompanying the artwork. Note: Herisse was killed in 2011.

Note displayed in place of removed artwork

Earlier this week, Miami Beach spokeswoman Melissa Berthier, said "The artwork was removed at the request of the City Manager. The purpose of the ReFrame cultural programming this past weekend was to create an opportunity for inclusiveness and mutual exchange. The City Manager felt that the panel in the one particular art installation regarding the incidents of Memorial Day weekend in 2011 did not achieve this objective. After a discussion with the curators, the piece was removed." 
“I was the lead curator,” Guerrero said. “I wasn’t contacted about a conversation or a reason or anything like that and we weren’t given the option to keep it up… It really is a great example of when government institutions in general are claiming they want to be inclusive and claiming they want to heal relationships, particularly with the black community, and aren’t ready for a conversation that is truthful [or] uncomfortable.”
“As for me, it was just a really huge lesson in making sure that whenever I agree to a collaboration or participate in anything that I’m free to creatively do whatever I want to do and that wasn’t the case in this case.”
“The City doesn’t actually have the right to censor artwork,” Guerrero said. Though she was not a party to the contract and she doesn’t know if it gave the City curatorial control, she said, “I was told I would have free rein to do whatever I wanted… they weren’t required to approve artwork. That was never part of the process… when we were asked to take it down, I was really shocked.” RE:MiamiBeach has requested a copy of the contract but has not yet received it.
Guerrero noted all of the art was original to the show, a collaboration among the curators and artists. She acknowledged the typo indicating the year Herisse was killed as 2012 when it was actually 2011. “But everything else about the label was accurate,” she said. 
MBPD FOP president, Kevin Millan, also said the removal of the work was not at the request of the police but he did not think the art piece was an accurate representation. “We support the decision of the City Manager and the actions that he took,” he told RE:MiamiBeach. “We are always willing to engage in a healthy dialogue. We support the freedoms, obviously, to display the artwork and the different things that were out there. We think it’s a good healthy event, however, we think that one piece was accusatory and did not really accurately portray the events that took place in 2011.”
For Guerrero, the incident “was wrong and it was handled poorly,” but she said, “I think it’s important to note, because it forever changed a process [of] how things were handled between the police and people,” she said regarding the policy not to shoot at moving vehicles.
Meanwhile, the National Coalition Against Censorship has issued a statement condemning the removal.

“As defenders of free expression and artistic freedom, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) strongly condemns the removal of an artwork commemorating a victim of a police shooting from a Memorial Day exhibit in Miami Beach, Florida. In addition to likely violating the artist’s constitutional right to free expression, the removal of the work is antithetical to the spirit of Memorial Day and shows a particular disregard for its African American roots,” the statement begins.
It goes on to say, “The work’s removal is especially ironic since it was part of the city-wide program ‘ReFrame’, an attempt to make Memorial Day celebrations more inclusive of Miami Beach’s black community. A city spokesperson said that the program’s purpose was to create an opportunity for inclusiveness, and the City Manager felt that the artwork fell short of this objective. But surely it is the City’s shortsighted removal of the artwork that fell short of inclusivity. As an act of censorship it will likely cast a chilling effect on the city’s future collaborations with black artists.”
The statement concludes, “The ability to freely criticize government actors, such as law enforcement officials, is one of the foremost reasons why the First Amendment exists. Citizens’ freedom to speak out against perceived governmental abuses and injustices is necessary for the health of our democracy: were government able to silence such criticisms, meaningful political discourse would be impossible.”
RE:MiamiBeach reached out to the Freedom Forum Institute which includes the First Amendment Center for comment. The Center's Executive Director, Lata Nott, said that the action may fall under the "Government Speech Doctrine" which according to this ABA Journal article, includes three key factors. "(1) whether the medium historically has been used to communicate government messages; (2) whether the public reasonably interpreted the government as the speaker; and (3) whether the government has editorial control over the speech."
The fact that the exhibit was on private property gave her pause but, after reading the press release announcing the event sponsored by the City, she said the second factor may apply. Depending on the terms of the contract, the third factor may also apply. 
In a follow up email exchange, upon learning that the curators believed they had free rein, Nott wrote, "That could weigh towards the argument that the government was creating a forum for public speech, instead of the art show being government speech."
As to next steps, Guerrero said, “We’re talking amongst ourselves. We’re trying to figure out what those next steps should be or can be. Right now, the precedent is any art funded by the City can be censored by the City and that’s not supposed to be the case.”
“We’re having a conversation with each other to determine what we want to do with this experience,” she said. “Besides the censorship, the treatment, basically how we were treated was unprofessional.”
Guerrero described being handed the keys to the Lincoln Road space at the “last minute… at 1:00 the day we were supposed to open.” As a result, they had to cancel their opening celebration but managed to turn the space around in 24 hours. “What we were able to do with the little time we were given was incredible,” she said, adding she didn’t feel the collaboration was valued or respected. The reason the event worked, she said, was because “All of us in it were so passionate and felt it was so important for black people to be celebrated and seen and historicized.”
We reached out to the City for comment on Guerrero’s statements but have not received a reply at publication time.

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