If she didn’t remove her artwork from a window, organizers told artist Margaret Roleke that the entire Spring/Break Art Show might face a sudden shutdown by the building’s manager.
The news came as a shock to Roleke. “This fair is supposed to be about freedom of expression and pushing boundaries,” she told Hyperallergic over the phone. Her print shows President Donald Trump surrounded by silhouettes of guns and handcuffs.
“Margaret is a passionate advocate against gun violence,” explained Ellen Fagan, director of the artist’s gallery, ODETTA. “She’s seriously invested in being a true activist-artist.” Based in Connecticut, Roleke has a direct connection to the families who lost children in the Sandy Hook massacre. According to her website, the artist has donated a percentage of her artwork sales to gun control advocacy for the last several years.
The theme of Spring/Break this year is “Fact and Fiction,” which heavily references the Trump administration’s attack on the press — or as the president frequently says, “the fake news.” Such rhetoric has emboldened wide-ranging conspiracy theories about gun violence, including the false notion that the Newtown shooting never happened. And not coincidentally, the location of this year’s fair is politically charged; it takes place at 866 United Nations Plaza, which hosts embassies for countries like Angola, Algeria, and Monaco. Additionally, the building is wedged between Trump World Tower and the United Nations.
“We just happened to be placed in the ideal context,” said Fagen. ODETTA’s booth was situated on the building’s second floor with a clear view of Trump World Tower. This proximity to one of the president’s properties inspired Roleke to face her print toward the skyscraper.
The gallery’s show, titled Facts: Alternate, also included artist-activists Rita Valley and David Borawski, who contributed work that “calls out the current administration and their constant, everyday outrageous lies,” according to the exhibition’s description. Many other artists at Spring/Break have worked in a similar mode, using their booths at the show to discuss contemporary politics.
“We installed on Saturday [March 2], so the work’s been there for quite a while,” Roleke noted. She claims that Spring/Break’s organizers made it seem like they had to remove all artworks from the building’s windows. “[Spring/Break] said if we didn’t take it down that they would have to shut down the booth. There were two other artists with me, so I didn’t want to do that.”
A spokeswoman for Spring/Break told Hyperallergic that the need for removal was “a matter of building policy rather than a concern over the content of the artwork. The building does not allow any tenants, apart from ground-level businesses, to display street-facing imagery as this can be considered advertising.”
She continued: “When the building made us aware of this situation, they did want compliance quickly, so it appears there was a breakdown in communication regarding Roleke’s piece.”
After Roleke removed the work, she exited the building to take a photo with the print outside Trump World Tower. When she tried to reenter she was first stopped by security guards, who eventually let her pass. Back inside, she was confronted by Chris O’Flaherty, a production assistant with Spring/Break, who she claims told her that she could not bring her work back into the building. Roleke questioned why her own work should be targeted; according to her, he replied that the building had specifically banned her image. Ultimately, she was allowed to remount the print inside her gallery’s booth, but away from the window.
Spring/Break disputes this account, saying that O’Flaherty, like other staff members, was “instructed to stop guests carrying work in the front door. He radioed to our team to get clarification, then let her upstairs to put the piece back. Roleke’s work is still available for viewing within the space and was not removed.”
“It’s like being bullied by Trump,” the artist said. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with it. It’s not like I was asking to kill the president or anything radical.”
Fagan added she would like to see the artwork restored in her gallery’s booth to its original position in the window.
“I don’t want to impact the fair negatively, and I think all the people doing the show are great people,” continued Roleke. “But I feel it’s important to speak out. That’s the role of the artist. We aren’t supposed to just sit back. If artists aren’t going to speak up then who will?”
Editor’s Note 3/8/2019: An earlier version of this article mentioned only one artwork removed from the windows of Spring/Break, while we have verified that a second work, that had no Trump content, was also removed from the windows of the fair.
Editor’s Note 3/12/2019: An earlier version of this article contained misinformation provided by Spring/Break saying that two artworks had been removed from the windows, and identifying one of them as Graham Wilson’s artwork. Hyperallergic has learned from Wilson’s curator that this object was not an artwork. It was a piece of spraypainted drywall reading “Trauma” used to cover tools and boxes. The curator, Lux Yuting Bai, told Hyperallergic it was removed due to “DOT regulations.”