Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
The day after Donald Trump was elected president, artists David Gleeson and Mary Mihelic — who have spent much of the last year criss-crossing the United States aboard a reclaimed Trump campaign bus — received an email from the president of the company that owns the Red Dot Art Fair, explaining he’d changed his mind about displaying their works of anti-Trump protest art at the Art Basel Miami Beach satellite fair. “In light of the surprising results [of the election], I’ve decided to pass on both the bus display and flag,” wrote Eric Smith, president and CEO of the Ohio-based Redwood Media Group (which acquired Red Dot earlier this year), in an email shared with Hyperallergic. “I trust you understand.”
The “bus display” is the former Trump campaign bus turned rolling anti-Trump protest art project that Mihelic and Gleeson, of leftist art collective T.Rutt, spent the past year driving to Republican rallies. The “flag” is a large US flag that T.Rutt embroidered with the president elect’s comments from the leaked Access Hollywood tape. Stitched in neon yellow on the flag’s white stripes, the quote begins with “I did try and fuck her,” and ends with: “Grab ‘em by the pussy.”
Mihelic and Gleeson were “stunned” by the email from Smith, who had previously offered them free space to exhibit and a place in Red Dot’s “Art Lab.” “I was like, ‘no, I don’t think I understand,’” Mihelic told Hyperallergic. The artists were troubled by the notion that their protest art no longer interested an art fair in light of the fact that the figure it protests had been elected president.
In a phone interview, Smith called his passing on displaying T.Rutt’s protest art “a business decision” and denied that it was a reaction to Trump’s election. “I was always iffy about it,” Smith said. “[T.Rutt] has a limited budget, and they’d asked for a [free] place to park the bus. Then I saw the flag project, which had some pretty derogatory words embroidered on it. The P word and ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ and stuff on the flag. It just offended me. After a while, I thought it wasn’t worth my while. It’s kind of past news.”
When asked to explain why he was offended by quotations from the president elect stitched onto the American flag, Smith said: “I think our flag is for all peoples. To make a statement about one person on the flag — I just didn’t like it. You’re not supposed to burn the flag, you’re supposed to treat it in a certain way … according to American law.” Burning or otherwise desecrating the flag has been legal for decades; the Supreme Court declared in 1990 that laws against desecrating the flag are unconstitutional.
Mihelic and Gleeson are concerned that, in the coming years, laws protecting freedom of speech will not be upheld, and that, even before the fact, people in power in the art world might bow to fear of potential censorship. “I’m a little nervous that with the new Supreme Court, the flag desecration artwork will become against the law,” Mihelic says. “That  law could easily be overturned under Trump and a different Supreme Court.”
Smith insists that his decision not to show T.Rutt’s flag and bus was unrelated to concerns about restricted freedom of expression. “It didn’t have anything to do with fear of censorship,” he said. “It was purely a business decision.” In addition to Red Dot, Redwood Media Group also owns and operates more than a half-dozen art fairs around the country, including Artexpo New York, Art San Diego, Art Santa Fe, and Spectrum Indian Wells. According to Mihelic and Gleeson, Smith contacted them after “hearing from people from the press” to let them know that, if they wanted to pay the booth fees, like all other participating exhibitors, they could exhibit their work.
Now, T.Rutt is still looking for a space at which to exhibit the anti-Trump bus and flag during Miami Art Week (December 1–4). One fair, the Satellite Art Show, had enthusiastically invited them to show their work, but didn’t have the space. According to Mihelic, the Pérez Art Museum Miami said the work was “too controversial” for them. (A Pérez representative reached out to deny this claim.) Scope Miami Beach stopped responding to queries about showing T.Rutt’s work after learning about the flag artwork.
“After all this, we do not think the top-tier of the art world will show anti-Trump protest artwork inside the USA under the Trump administration,” Mihelic says. “If the initial reception of our anti-Trump artwork in Miami is any indication, it seems unlikely that the top-tier galleries, dealers, and fairs will take that risk under Trump.”
In our grief hashtags now read, with a big sigh, ……men…… & ……..great…..
— t.Rutt2013 (@t_Rutt2013) November 10, 2016
A few art fairs have released statements in the week since the election affirming their commitment to promoting diverse and progressive voices. In a “statement of solidarity,” the Volta art fair wrote: “VOLTA has and will continue to exhibit artists and gallerists from the margins, whether that be geographically or philosophically, including but not exclusive to racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, and women. Marginalised voices of all types will find a platform alongside the voices of colleagues and peers.” Today, the Armory Show announced that its 2017 edition will include a thematic exhibition titled What is To Be Done? featuring 12 artists from 10 countries reflecting on “the idea of social and political awareness during a time of uncertainty.” It remains to be seen, though, how many exhibitors in the coming year will display artworks that explicitly criticize Trump’s statements and actions.
“We have spent over a year generating work in response to Donald Trump’s divisive campaign and articulating the importance of art in this deeply disruptive period for American society,” Mihelic said. “We travelled the country engaging with thousands of Trump supporters about contemporary art and Donald Trump. If the art world is afraid to show that kind of art, we are in serious trouble. And if a President Trump tries to stifle that kind of work, who knows what that means for the art world. Who knows what that forebodes for society at large or the art world itself in particular.” They suggest that it falls to individual artists to keep making this sort of art in the face of potential censorship or opposition. “We will continue to create artwork about Donald Trump,” Mihelic says, “and we are not afraid to do so.”