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Mural Unveiled at Arts Center

by Judith Weizner

Petra Mahler's mural on the south wall of the two year old Annenberg Symphony Hall of the South Bronx Arts Center was unveiled for the sixth time this morning as police struggled to contain an unruly crowd of screaming demonstrators carrying placards reading "Art for art's sake" and "Life will imitate art if you let it." The protesters were members of a local artists' cooperative who had threatened to cover the mural with graffiti before it could be dedicated.

Five years ago, when excavation for the South Bronx Arts Center had just begun, Ms. Mahler approached the State Council on the Arts with the idea that painting a mural on the south wall of Annenberg Symphony Hall would be the equivalent of hanging an artwork in the living room of every apartment in the Third World Plaza Public Housing Complex which faces the hall. The State Council on the Arts enthusiastically agreed to fund Ms. Mahler's project.

As soon as work on the outside of the hall was finished, Ms. Mahler began her mural, then titled "Portrait of an Orchestra", which was kept shrouded from viewers until opening night. When the cover was finally removed, critics were unanimous in acclaiming it for its verisimilitude and for the intensity of expression on the players' faces.

However, the next day, in a letter to the editor of the Times, Nfume Nkume, President of the Third World Plaza Tenants' Association, pointed out that there were only two black faces in the picture. (The mural, a photo montage like portrait of the members of the orchestra during a concert, depicts one hundred white musicians and two blacks.) At a hastily arranged meeting between Mr. Nkume, William Apaiser, chairman of the board of the South Bronx Arts Center and Ms. Mahler, the artist explained that her purpose in painting the mural was to immortalize the musicians who were actually members of the orchestra when the hall opened and that of the hundred two musicians in the orchestra, only two really were black. But Mr. Nkume insisted that there ought to have been more than token representation of blacks who comprise forty percent of the population of New York City. He pointed out that black children needed role models to encourage them to take up the study of music.

When Ms. Mahler reiterated her objection Mr. Nkume threatened to go to court to block display of the mural, citing the sixth paragraph of the Sensitivity Clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1993. (The Sensitivity Clause forbids the public display of artwork that might, because of racial, ethnic, gender or any other considerations resulting from an accident of birth, offend more than ten percent of the population within a fifteen block or one and a half mile radius of an artwork.) Mr. Nkume stated that since the portrait contains only two black faces, and they are in the second violins, the mural would obviously offend more than ten percent of the people within a fifteen block radius of the Arts Center, thereby falling within the scope of the Sensitivity Clause. He suggested that if the orchestra were portrayed as being forty percent black, with blacks occupying prominent positions, including that of conductor, the mural might not be objectionable. Mr. Apaiser proposed that Ms. Mahler compromise by making the features of forty percent of the faces (including those of the concertmaster, the principal wind players, and the conductor) indistinguishable and painting them as minorities.

Ms. Mahler was dispatched to her workplace behind the tarpaulin where she set about obscuring the features of the players and darkening their complections. No sooner had the paint dried than the orchestra voted to strike on grounds that forty percent of the players had been denied immortality because their features and skin color had been altered.

Once more Ms. Mahler retreated behind the tarpaulin where she remained for a period of several weeks. This time, before revealing the result of her labor, she called a press conference at which she spoke simply and eloquently, explaining that since it was impossible to please all the people all the time, she had sought, and was confident that she had found, a solution that would satisfy the terms of her grant without offending anyone. Without further comment, she pulled the cover aside, revealing an orchestra of cats painted in the widest possible variety of colors and markings. The crowd let out a gasp of admiration followed by thunderous applause. As soon as the applause had died down the orchestra manager came forward to announce an end to the strike.

The next morning, Jamie Katz, attorney for Humans for the Sensitive Treatment of Animals (HuSTA), notified Ms. Mahler and the board of the Arts Center that she had filed charges against them for gross insensitivity in depicting cats as violinists when traditionally violin strings were made of cat gut. She added that because the Third World Plaza had a known population of four hundred eighty five cats, with perhaps thousands more within a fifteen block radius, Ms. Mahler was in violation of the Sensitivity Clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1993 since being a cat is clearly an accident of the cat's birth. She emphasized that the statute does not specifically exclude animals. "No cat can rest easy in proximity to this offensive painting," Ms. Katz said. "It's got to go."

Another meeting was convened, attended by Ms. Mahler, Ms. Katz, Mr. Apaiser and Jhana Alexandria of the State Council on the Arts, at which Ms. Mahler was rumored to have called Ms. Katz "a crazed witch's familiar", possibly a reference to Ms. Katz's sparse, jet black facial hair. Ms. Mahler refused to elaborate on her remarks, but the next day the tarpaulin was back in place where it remained for several months. This time, Ms. Mahler did not invite the press for the unveiling, but instead, lowered the cover with no fanfare late one weekday afternoon. Only Mr. Apaiser, Ms. Katz and Ms. Alexandria were present and, according to sources in the State Council on the Arts offices, the mural, now entitled "Opening Night", showed a montage of orchestra and audience in opening night finery. Forty percent of the figures were black and, after Ms. Mahler made some minor adjustments in the clothing worn by audience members, mostly having to do with removing representations of fur coats and collars, the painting was deemed acceptable and a dedication scheduled. One day before the dedication, however, Ms. Alexandria noticed that there were no obviously homosexual figures in the painting and said that this defect must be remedied if Ms. Mahler were not to have to return her grant money. To satisfy this requirement, seven percent of the male figures and three percent of the females would have to be adjusted to appear to be holding hands with partners of the same sex. At the same time, Ms. Mahler was instructed to make the lines of people waiting to use the men's and women's bathrooms of equal length.

Working through the night, Ms. Mahler was able to complete the revisions with just enough time to take a shower and change her clothes before the scheduled dedication. No sooner had the dedication ceremony begun than Ms. Mahler was served with papers by Lucien Sacrevache, attorney for the Federation for the Homeless, once again charging Ms. Mahler under the Sensitivity Clause, due to the gross insensitivity of portraying rich people in expensive clothes in a setting that was clearly beyond the reach of most, if not all, of the homeless who would be forced to confront the offending painting every time they passed the Arts Center.

The ceremony was halted, Mr. Sacrevache and his followers were invited to spend the night in Annenberg Hall in reparation, and Ms. Mahler was now given her final opportunity to make good on her proposal.

The tarpaulin, which, due to Mr. Sacrevache's alacrity, had not been fully removed, covered the wall once more as neighbors observed Ms. Mahler's comings and goings. After six months of re working, Ms. Mahler notified Mr. Apaiser, Mr. Nkume, Ms. Katz, Mr. Sacrevache and Ms. Alexandria that the mural was ready. At a private viewing behind the tarpaulin, they all agreed that the painting was completely acceptable and today's dedication was scheduled.

The demonstration erupted as soon as the tarpaulin had been completely removed and it took twenty five minutes for police to subdue the screaming artists long enough for a multi lingual, multi racial committee of non denominational clergypersons to read the dedication.

The mural, now entitled "Benefactors", consists of five panels, each containing a mini portrait of the subject in a characteristic pose: Mr. Nkume stands before the main entrance to the Third World Plaza carrying a placard reading "Power to the People"; Ms. Katz, seated on a bench, is surrounded by stray cats and dogs; Mr. Sacrevache is removing a subpoena from a trash can; Ms. Alexandria, pen in hand, examines a painting. Mr. Apaiser, in the center panel, arms outstretched, beams benevolently into the neighborhood.

In an interview after the dedication, when asked about her shift away from a musical subject, Ms. Mahler said, "The fault was in my approach. I was guilty of stereotypical thinking you know arts center, music, musicians that sort of thing. I simply failed to take into account that when people look at art what they really want is to see themselves."

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