The mayor of a small town in upstate New York is ordering the removal of a large, publicly visible artwork about speaking truth to political lies.
The words “TRUTH BE TOLD” currently cover the 160-foot-long facade of The School, an outpost of the New York gallery Jack Shainman in the village of Kinderhook. Written out in black vinyl letters over 25 feet tall, they constitute a new site-specific installation by artist Nick Cave and designer Bob Faust, mounted ahead of the election.
“The statement is a pointed antidote to a presidency known for propaganda that disguises truth and history to present racist and nativist ideology as patriotism,” reads the description of the work on Shainman’s website. “It is also open-ended, intended to spark questions surrounding personal interpretations of truth and integrity.”
But the artwork, which went up October 31 as part of the gallery’s “States of Being” art and social justice initiative, has not been popular with everyone. Arguing that the words make up a sign—not an artwork—and are thus in violation of local code, Kinderhook mayor Dale R. Leiser is demanding that the gallery take them down.
“The village’s position is that we’re going by our code, and New York State code,” the mayor told the New York Times, which first reported the story. Leiser added that Shainman has a permit for banners, but not signs, and that he considers the installation to be a fire hazard. Leiser did not respond to a request for comment.
On October 23, while the artwork was being installed, Kinderhook’s building department issued an order calling for the “combustible” artwork to be taken down, according to the Times.
“We are actively contesting the village’s assertion that this work is signage and not art,” Shainman said in a statement. “The School is a place of cultural enrichment for the community and has permits to show artwork both inside and outside of the building. We have never before dealt with issues of censorship.”
The gallerist is subject to a $200 fine every day that he keeps the installation up. But Shainman says he has no intention of removing the artwork before its planned end date on January 31.
“The Village’s entire case is perplexing,” he said. “We are not sure if these claims have to do with the content, size, or aesthetics of the installation, but the idea that a certain group of people has the authority to decide what is art, what can and cannot be shared, and how, is especially resonant.”
The gallerist has until December 5 to appeal with Village’s order, which he plans to do.