Plans for a Public Art Show in Florida Have Been Derailed After the Mayor Accused Two of the Artists of Being Communists

The city commission voted to fund the show only if Cai Guo-Qiang and Sandra Ramos were dropped from the project.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Fireflies (2017-2021). Courtesy of “Illuminate Coral Gables.”

The curator of a major public art show in Florida has resigned after the local mayor claimed two of the artists spoke too favorably about communism and pushed to defund the show. Shortly thereafter, the event fell apart.

In a marathon city commission meeting last month, Vince Lago, mayor of Coral Gables, Florida, objected to the inclusion of artists Sandra Ramos and Cai Guo-Qiang in the city’s “Illuminate Coral Gables” art show. The recently elected official referenced interviews that Ramos and Cai had given in the past in which he felt the artists expressed sympathetic views toward the communist regimes of their respective home countries, Cuba and China. (Ramos currently lives in Havana; Cai in New York.)

“I will continue to support the arts, but not at the expense of democracy and liberty,” Lago said at the meeting, a video of which is available online. “It is very easy to make comments on the record supporting communism and saying that communism is a great idea, but they are here in the United States taking American money. At the end of the day, that doesn’t bode well for me.”

Following Lago’s comments, the commission voted to fund part of the 2022 edition of the art show on the condition that the two artists be dropped from the roster.

Days later, the board of “Illuminate Coral Gables” announced that the 2022 show had “been postponed due to extenuating circumstances beyond our control,” and that its chief curator, Lance Fung, had stepped down, according to the Miami Herald.

In an email to Artnet News, Fung clarified that he resigned “primarily over the censorship of my curatorial work,” as did John Talley, the executive director of Fung’s company Fung Collaboratives who was helping in Coral Gables. “However, we also knew we needed to support all 20-plus artists we were working with by not validating false claims and speaking up for their first-amendment rights.”

Lago did not respond to a request for comment.

Sandra Ramos, <i>90 Miles: De-construction</i> (2011-2021).

Sandra Ramos, 90 Miles: De-construction (2011-2021).

The first edition of “Illuminate Coral Gables” took place in February and March of this year. Eight site-specific projects, including video projections, sculptures, and installations, went on view throughout the city.

Both Ramos and Cai participated in the inaugural show, alongside artists including Kiki Smith and David Gumbs. Ramos, a Havana-born artist now based in Miami, installed a 32-foot walkway made of a dozen lightboxes as part of the project this year. The work, she said, was meant to symbolize a bridge between Florida and Cuba.

For his part, Cai, a major international artist who was born in Quanzhou, China, and now works in New York, transformed 27 pedicabs into roving, interactive sculptures, decking out each with handmade silk Chinese lanterns. The pieces belong to the artist’s ongoing Fireflies series.

“I think the artwork is spectacular; he’s an incredible artist,” Lago said of Cai. “But art doesn’t trump my own personal beliefs, especially when you’re talking about public funds.”

Lago was prepared to increase the event’s budget from $100,000 to $300,000 prior to the postponement. “The art world brings an opportunity to this community for dialogue,” the mayor said at the meeting. “Where my dialogue ends is people who sympathize with oppression, tyranny.”

Fung, meanwhile, disagreed. “With 100 percent certainty, I believe that both artists are not communist sympathizers,” the curator told Artnet News. “In addition to being passionate, visionary, and talented artists, they have become good friends of mine. They are compassionate, intellectual, and humanitarian people. All of these attributes, and others, led me to the decision to request their support by being a part of ‘Illuminate Coral Gables.'”

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