Artist Allyson Allen with one of her quilts at the Neighborhood Congregational Church in Laguna Beach, California (all photos by Jeff Rovner, courtesy the Community Art Project)

For the past 20 years, the Community Art Project (CAP) in Laguna Beach has mounted exhibitions at a local Wells Fargo bank branch. However, the nonprofit severed that partnership last month in response to a notification that future exhibitions would be subject to approval by the bank.

The split comes two months after the CAP took down an exhibition of social justice-themed quilts by artist Allyson Allen just days after it was installed at the Wells Fargo at 260 Ocean Avenue. Titled Piece-ful Protest, the exhibition features 36 quilts addressing issues ranging from Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, and the LGBT Movement to climate change and gun violence. But the bank had asked the CAP to remove the works, citing customer complaints that they were controversial and “too aggressive.”

“We’re highly disappointed in Wells Fargo,” CAP treasurer Faye Baglin told Hyperallergic in an interview. “When it was perceived that the quilts crossed a line (their line), we were happy to remove two or three quilts. Instead, they had the whole exhibition taken down.”

Allyson Allen, “#BLACKLIVESMATTER” (2016), Machine pieced and quilted cotton and linen, 40 x 33 inches. The work was removed from Wells Fargo’s Laguna Beach branch after customers complained that it was “too aggressive.”

Allen says she was informed of the complaints and removal of her works from the CAP, and never heard from Wells Fargo directly. “No one from the bank has ever reached out to me, emailed, called, posted to me,” she told Hyperallergic. “This is like breaking up with your girlfriend through text.”

Since being removed, the quilts have found a second home at the Neighborhood Congregational Church in Laguna Beach, where they will be on view through April 24. “The congregation has been incredibly supportive. We have a legacy of sharing love and pushing for justice, not just for the wider world, but for our regional area,” Pastor Rod Echols told Hyperallergic. “Artwork is an invitation, an opening. It provides people an opportunity to have curiosity about subjects they perhaps were not previously aware of,he continued. “We’re allowed to ask questions. Allyson’s work does that in an open and inviting way, with countless subjects that touch on civil rights.”

In a statement to Hyperallergic after the exhibition was taken down, a representative of Wells Fargo wrote: “Wells Fargo is committed to and invested in the Laguna Beach community — our support of the Community Art Project program is a reflection of that commitment. We’re equally committed to ensuring a culture and customer experience that welcomes all.”

Installation view of artist Allyson Allen’s exhibition Piece-ful Protest at the Neighborhood Congregational Church in Laguna Beach

After the controversy over Allen’s exhibition, Baglin says the CAP intended to continue working with Wells Fargo until they received their revised agreement last month. “Everything had to be approved by a Vice President of banking,” she told Hyperallergic. “They would be able to pull a show at the last minute. It took us about 20 minutes to make a decision after seeing it.”

Although Baglin says the quilts were not mentioned in the agreement, Allen sees it as a form of retaliation. “Wells Fargo is so outraged this is going on and on. A new article comes out every week. Since the show is still up, they took it a step further,” she said.

In response, a representative from Wells Fargo told Hyperallergic in an email: “We were recently informed that the Community Art Project is terminating its pro-bono use of space at our Laguna Beach branch. We wish the organization well and remain committed to the arts in the Laguna Beach community.”

Laguna Beach is located in Orange County, which has a notably conservative bent. However, Laguna Beach itself has roots as an artists’ colony, an irony that Allen finds troubling. “It’s such a stain on the whole community,” she said.

Allen says she was informed of the complaints and removal of her works from the Community Art Project, and never heard from Wells Fargo directly.

It is not just Laguna Beach that has artistic roots, but the bank building itself. Built in 1961, it was originally the Laguna Federal Savings and Loan, whose president Lorna Mills had an impressive collection of early California plein air paintings, according to Baglin. “[Mills] hung her personal collection here. For many years, there was a tradition of displaying art in the rotunda. Now it’s empty,” she said. “It deprives the community of the chance to see art.”

Allen says the community has been very supportive since her work was removed and reinstalled at the church. But she sees the need for tougher conversations, like those that her quilts inspire, to effect meaningful change.  

“The very first thing anyone says when meeting me is ‘I want to apologize, I’m so sorry,’” she told Hyperallergic. “Before they can finish, I say, ‘tell your neighbor. It was one of your neighbors.’ My sentiment is that it’s not going to change unless the rest of the community that was outraged and embarrassed confronts their own neighbors.”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.