Gallerist Jack Shainman has succeeded in his months-long battle with a local zoning board whose code enforcement officer had tried to shut down the installation of artist Nick Cave’s colossal textual work, “Truth Be Told” (2020) on the exterior of Shainman’s upstate outpost known as the School.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Shainman said in a phone interview after board vote, “We’re definitely bruised by this. It hasn’t been easy.”
But Tuesday night, February 2, the zoning board of the Village of Kinderhook, NY, met by Zoom and one-by-one unanimously voted “yea” in support of a much-rehashed resolution stating that the words Cave had chosen “were displayed as a political message and art for a temporary period of time and therefore Kinderhook Village Code does not apply to regulate the exhibit as a sign.”
The vote represents a rejection of the position taken from the outset by Peter Bujanow, the village’s own code enforcement officer, who last autumn instigated a stop-work order when the 160-foot façade of the School’s building was being wrapped in vinyl with the phrase “Truth Be Told.” Bujanow had then tried to fine the School $200 for every day during the months the artwork was on public view. Cave’s artwork was taken down in full last week.
Additionally, the board recommended on Tuesday night that Shainman and his staff should work with the village board to determine what the School can do to avoid “undue conflict with the village’s residents and government” in the future.
“The irony is that it’s all started because the staff at the School want to be good neighbors always and wanted to just alert Kinderhook of what we’re trying to do,” Shainman said. “It boils down to kind of a microaggression, with […] the code enforcement officer — a microaggression that got blown out of proportion.”
“His issue first was that it was flammable, and we are going to burn down our own building. So ludicrous,” Shainman recalled, adding that the code enforcement officer then pivoted to how the Cave work violated village regulations regarding various kinds of signs.
“It really comes down to the fact that this one guy clearly didn’t want us to do it. The whole thing is odd that he pushed it that far,” he said.
The news of Shainman’s victory came after more than 3,300 people signed a petition in support of “Truth Be Told” entitled a “Solidarity Against Censorship,” and a week after an unexpectedly active three-and-a-half-hour public hearing (via Zoom) on the Cave controversy that was attended by more than 180 people. At the hearing, nearly all of the 40 members of the public who voiced their opinions for the record took the School’s side, speaking passionately against preemptive censorship, racism, and petty bureaucracy.
“[The] outpouring from the community was amazing,” Shainman. “The fact that so many amazing people, professionals, artists, helped us stand up to this. It was fantastic. And that support was really so meaningful and so powerful.”
“And what about the little girls?” he said, referring to two ‘tweens who waited patiently until after 10 pm the night of the public hearing to voice their support, “It was heartwarming!” Shainman said. “When you’re in this battle, you forget almost, because it becomes such a thorn in your side, almost why you’re doing it. And that outpouring reminded us of why we’re doing it.”
The resolution on Tuesday is also a victory for local land-use lawyer William J. Better, who at Shainman’s behest took on the mantle of First Amendment advocate and called several witnesses from the art world, including Joseph C. Thompson, founding director of MASS MoCA and David Berliner, president and COO of the Brooklyn Museum, where “Truth Be Told” will be exhibited on the museum’s exterior in the spring. They bolstered the argument to Kinderhook’s Zoning Appeals Board that “Truth Be Told” is not a sign, banner, billboard, or any of kind of commercial speech, but rather is art and thus an expression of free speech protected from governmental regulation by the First Amendment.
The pointed political messaging of “Truth Be Told,” which Cave conceived in the wave of national upheaval following the murder George Floyd and whose installation Cave intended to precede the November elections, enhanced the School’s argument that “Truth Be Told” was speech that should be protected by the US Constitution from government interference of any kind. A sister artwork by Cave, “8m46s” (2020), which takes its title from the amount of time police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck before Floyd died, had been installed on the exterior of Shainman’s 20th Street gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
“We’ve tried to present really top-level shows that are thought-provoking and bring it not only to the community but to the art world who comes here [to Kinderhook] to see it as a destination,” Shainman said. “I’m very proud of that.”
When asked if he received any kind of apology from the mayor, the board, or the code enforcement officer, Shainman replied, “I haven’t gotten that.” He added, “It would be nice.”