Ax, Lies, & Audiotape

When Santa and the Easter Bunny brawl, everybody loses

It seemed an ugly end to an even uglier dispute.

"Controversial art to be moved," read the headline on page 3B of the January 10 Sun-Sentinel. "Museum agrees to make location less prominent." Leaders of the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, the paper reported, had decided to take down a painting by artist Todd Schorr that had drawn nasty phone calls, e-mails, and criticism from the City Commission. It would be hung in a place "so that visitors who want to view the exhibit without seeing that picture have a choice." There was even reaction from activist Pete Brewer, who had demanded removal of the work. "I think it's great," Brewer was quoted as saying.

One problem: The painting, Clash of the Holidays, never moved an inch.

The month-old brouhaha, which has largely played out in the back pages of the daily newspapers and during the last minutes of local TV news broadcasts, is absurd. It shows just how ugly City of Hollywood politics can be, as well as the narrow-mindedness of some of the town's activists and politicians.

At first glance, this appears to be a SoFla version of the Brooklyn Museum conflict of 1999. But, like all things South Floridian, it's wackier. The pols and the Coalition of Hollywood Citizens aren't outraged over a picture of the Madonna covered in dung -- as NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani was. They are peeved about a painting of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny locked in mortal combat. Santa's wielding an ax. The rabbit has a knife. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Baby Jesus, who's munching on an ear from a chocolate rabbit, stand by.

"It was just a joke, really, like a lot of my paintings that poke fun at things," comments Schorr, a Los Angeles artist who completed the piece in 2000, then sold it to Courteney Cox Arquette of Friends fame. "My wife and I collect holiday stuff, ceramic Easter Bunnies from the '20s and '30s. I was thinking about them one day, and it came to me. They were having an argument, and it spilled out into violence. It demanded to be painted."

The Art and Culture Center, ground zero in the great bunny debate, is a tendentious local treasure. These days, Hollywood supplies about $125,000 of the center's approximately $1 million annual budget, according to director Cynthia Miller. The rest comes from other public sources and private donors. The Schorr exhibit cost about $13,000 to set up.

More adventurous in its choices than any museum from Miami Beach to West Palm Beach, the center is the only major local venue to stage an exhibition of lowbrow, a kind of pop art for the new millennium. In fact, the center has staged two such shows in recent years. The first, held in March 2000, drew crowds of "little-old-lady docents and people with bones through their noses," Miller says. New Times art critic Michael Mills termed it "gleefully subversive." (See "Surreal Killer," Mills's review of the Schorr retrospective.)

For the Schorr exhibit, museum managers mailed out about 4000 post cards with the exhibition's dates of December 14 through February 17; each showed Clash of the Holidays. The outrage started there. "They used [the painting], unfortunately, I guess, as a dramatic and shocking way of marketing the artist," Hollywood Commissioner Sal Oliveri told WFOR-TV (Channel 4). "That's not right."

The timing couldn't have been better for enemies of Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti, a strong supporter of the Art and Culture Center. Because of a bureaucratic glitch, city commissioners hadn't given final approval to the center's funding for the fiscal year, which started in October. So on December 19, when the commission was preparing to rubber-stamp a budget resolution for the center, commission gadflies Brewer and Howard Sher criticized the center and the suitability of Schorr's work for kids.

Said Commissioner Fran Russo: "I saw it only as violence."

"It's disturbing," commented Commissioner Cathleen Anderson.

Giulianti was unhappy as well.

Though none of the commissioners called for the painting's removal, Brewer and Ted Rosz took that step in a letter to the editor in The Digest, a weekly South Broward neighborhood newspaper. "It is requested that the Hollywood Commission direct Ms. Miller to remove the Clash of the Holidays illustration from the exhibition. Should Ms. Miller object to the removal, the Hollywood commission should take steps to remove both Ms. Miller and the insensitive illustration."

Perhaps because the newspapers and TV gave the story little play, public reaction was muted. The center received only about six calls, evenly split between supporters and critics. A December 26 e-mail to the center threatened Miller: "You couldn't manage a McDonald's. You've had your 15 minutes sister. It's now time for you to move on."

On January 7, the center's executive committee held a regular meeting. When the issue of Clash of the Holidays came up, Miller was told that Anderson's office was receiving a lot of pressure to censor the picture. "We had a conversation about self-censorship," Miller recalls. "It's more insidious than censorship." The group decided to leave the painting in place.

Then things got weird. Miller decided to call Anderson at home. She left a message stating that the painting had been moved to a room separate from the rest of Schorr's work. Indeed, from opening day, Clash of the Holidays, which had arrived later than the other 25 to 30 works, had hung in a room at the end of the exhibit that is filled mostly with books.

Miller's taped message translated into the January 10 Sun-Sentinel story, which attributed to committee member Alan Koslow that the board had agreed to move the painting. Never happened.

Koslow says he left the meeting early. "It was a simple misunderstanding," he says. "I thought we were moving it from a central area to a remote one. But it was already there."

Miller at first declined to comment on the story when I stopped by on January 11. Then she acknowledged that her statement to Anderson was "misleading.... But is it our place to point that out?" she asked. Later, she said she had been playing phone tag with the Sun-Sentinel. Finally, she acknowledged lying to Anderson: "There's nothing worse I could have done."

As of Tuesday, the newspaper had not issued a correction. But after my questions raised community outrage, the paper began work on a story.

In the final measure, everyone involved in the debate should be ashamed. Those activists who attacked the exhibit should most certainly not have called for censorship. City commissioners should have shut up about their best venue's artwork. And Miller should have told the truth. As for the painting, I think it's a fine example of Schorr's exacting technique and wicked humor. It should be celebrated.

"Not everything is created for a G audience," Schorr points out. "And it shouldn't be."

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