February 2019 Church & State Magazine - February 2019

New Mexico Town’s Plan To Honor Artist Roils Local Religious Right

  Rob Boston

Plans by officials in a small New Mexico town to take part in opening a museum celebrating the life and work of a famous artist who relocated there have been foiled due to opposition by religious conservatives.

The former mayor of Belen, a small city with about 7,000 residents in central New Mexico, proposed opening a museum to feature the work of Judy Chicago, an internationally famous feminist artist whose work has explored some controversial themes.

Chicago is not a native of Belen but has lived there for the past 26 years. Controversy arose after Ronnie Torres, the town’s former mayor and a current member of the city council, suggested opening a museum featuring Chicago’s work. Torres proposed a partnership between Chicago and the town to fund a modest structure. Under his plan, the museum would receive about $13,000 from the city to pay for a part-time employee.

Religious conservatives and some clergy in town were quick to complain, pointing out that some of Chicago’s pieces contain stylized images of vaginas, reported The New York Times.

“As Christians, we are for order, justice, security and protection,” Lacey Greer, a 19-year-old nursing student and member of Calvary Chapel, a conservative church, told The Times. “I’m for protecting the eyes of the innocent, especially the children.”

Greg MacPherson, the pastor at First Assembly of God, told The Times he objects to tax money being spent on Chicago’s art.

“There’s a lot of churches here that do good things,” he said. “We’ve never asked you to pay for any of our employees.”

Donald Carter, a member of the town council, added, “I don’t want protesters with pitchforks and torches. Some of the art might upset the masses once they start looking up some of this stuff.”

Chicago told the newspaper she was dismayed by the reaction. She said she had followed developments in Belen while she was traveling in Brazil, noting that the São Paulo Museum of Art had invited her to talk about her work.

“It’s not like I need more attention at this point,” Chicago said. “I mean, I was getting a standing ovation in São Paulo while people back in my town were saying hideous things about me. It involves a question for the country as well as Belen: Do religious people get to dictate how we’re governed?”

In November, Chicago and her husband, Donald Woodman, said they were no longer interested in working with the town on the museum. Officials in the nearby community of Mountainair have offered to host the facility, but Chicago and Woodman said they will use private funds to open the museum in Belen. 

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