The Mayor Who Cried Communism: Coral Gables City Commission Kills Popular Public Art Project

Sandra Ramos' 90 Miles: De-construction 2011-2021 on Salzedo Street during Illuminate Coral Gables in February 2021.
Sandra Ramos' 90 Miles: De-construction 2011-2021 on Salzedo Street during Illuminate Coral Gables in February 2021. Photo by Sandra Ramos courtesy of Illuminate Coral Gables
Last month, newly installed Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago threatened to withhold several hundred thousand dollars in funding for Illuminate Coral Gables (ICG), a public art project slated for January 2022. Claiming that two of the 20 invitees believe "communism is a great idea," Lago, who took office this past spring, demanded they be omitted from the project.

Lago laid down his ultimatum in the waning hours of an operatic, eight-hour city commission meeting. The following day, ICG announced that its chief curator, Lance Fung, had resigned and that Illuminate, which attracted popular acclaim for its inaugural iteration earlier this year, was off.

Both censored artists — Cuban-born, Miami-based Sandra Ramos and Cai Guo-Qiang, who is from China and based in New York — had exhibited works in the 2021 ICG.

The ACLU of Florida's Miami chapter was quick to condemn Lago's and the commission's decision, calling it "an act of government censorship."

The Miami Herald weighed in twice. A lengthy news story published on the day the project was killed contextualized Lago's actions amid the protests in Cuba that had erupted days earlier on the island, as well as "Miami's long history of making public declarations against communist regimes or questioning whether public bidders do business with Cuba or associate with people who do." (Lago himself is a Cuban émigré.) In an opinion piece the following week, Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago excoriated Lago on the grounds that Ramos is "not a Communist." (Santiago, who was born in Cuba, mostly sidestepped Cai, noting only that Lago damned him "for something he said in 1995 about communism in China.")

Lago's communist witch hunt actually began more than a month earlier, at a June 8 city commission meeting. Fung presented his team's expanded vision for Illuminate's second go-round and ICG cofounder and board president formally requested that the city match or exceed the funding it had provided for the first iteration — a total of $300,000 — at which point Mayor Lago piped up.

“It was brought to my attention that some of the artists did not have views that aligned with my views in regards to socialism and communism. I think we need to be more careful on those fronts. If you tell me that artist is a dissident that for example may be living in Cuba or China and are openly working against communist regimes, I will wholeheartedly support them," Lago said, proceeding to name-check Cuban-born artists Tania Bruguera and Reynier Leyva Novo and Chinese-born Ai Weiwei. "I don't have a problem supporting those artists. But I want to make sure that if we're supporting artists funds do not go back to a country that does not support democracy and freedom."

It's important to note that Lago — who served for a decade as a city commissioner and vice mayor before ascending to the mayor's office — did not name the artists who'd been "brought" to his attention. But he seemed to strongly suggest that his "problem" had less to do with pro-communist sympathies than with the possibility that city funds might find their way back to a communist state — a stance vehemently shared by many prominent Cuban-American politicians, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez — not to mention former president Donald Trump, whose controversial tightening of sanctions on Cuba have yet to be loosened by his Democratic successor. While three Cuban artists besides Ramos participated in the first ICG and were also slated to return, Ramos is the only one to maintain a studio in Cuba and occasionally exhibit there. Cai, the only Chinese artist in the exhibition, has also continued exhibit in China.

Lago's view of "dissident" artists likewise merits unpacking. In applying the term to those who demonstrably fight for democratic principles, he echoes Rubio, who has expressed support for dissident artists working in Cuba. The first law imposed by the first post-Castro regime led by President Miguel Díaz-Canel was 2018's Decree 349, which imposed state regulations on all creative work. This resulted in the formation of dissident art collectives such as the San Isidro Movement, of which Tania Bruguera — an artist still based in Havana whose entire career has been devoted to critiquing the Cuban authoritarian regime — is a part, as well as the collective of musicians who wrote "Patria y Vida," the anthem and rallying cry of the current uprising on the island.
click to enlarge Cai Guo-Qiang's Fireflies 2017-2021 during Illuminate Coral Gables in February 2021. - PHOTO BY JOHN TALLEY COURTESY OF FUNG COLLABORATIVES
Cai Guo-Qiang's Fireflies 2017-2021 during Illuminate Coral Gables in February 2021.
Photo by John Talley courtesy of Fung Collaboratives
The art movement, whose primary aim is the dismantling of the Cuban state, has been championed not only by Rubio, but by everyone from Sandra Ramos herself to the international art world at large, as well as human-rights and civil-liberties organizations — all of whom seem to agree that the role of artists is critical to — if not outright responsible for — fomenting the current anti-government movement in Cuba.

At the same time — and this point is key — it raises the question of whether artists like Bruguera and Ai Weiwei see their projects as propaganda.

Aside from the obvious hypocrisy in Lago imposing his own version of the censorious autocracy of the Cuban state he claims to abhor, there's the issue of what, precisely, constitutes appropriate dissidence in art. For Lago, the answer would seem to be a full-throated championing of the U.S. democratic system. His dictum appears to be: You can work with Communists and in Communist countries, as long as you're on record as hating them and loving the U.S.

Again, how this quality and sentiment actually manifests itself in a given artist's work — and the question of whether Lago's preferred artists, Bruguera and Ai, would feel comfortable characterizing their work the way he does — remains unstated.

The nuance required to parse this issue mirrors the nuances required to understand the situation in Cuba. And neither is easily parsed in a city commission meeting.

On that score, the City Beautiful isn't exactly famous for its attention to cultural nuance. Most recently, Lagos and his municipal-government cohort received an editorial spanking from the Miami Herald for failing to acknowledge the segregationist leanings of its founder, George E. Merrick, whose name is engraved all over town. (Lagos himself was stripped of the Herald's mayoral endorsement after he turned up as a signatory on a letter from parents of children who attend a fancy private school, decrying that institution's effort to adjust its curriculum to address racial inequality.)

Lago's revenue-centric ethos exemplifies his vested interest in the arts. On June 8, before raising his concerns, he requested that he be instated on the ICG's board, boasting that he is himself a collector who travels internationally to acquire art and has served on the boards of art institutions large and small — from the longstanding alternative art space Locust Projects to the Coral Gables Art Museum.

Indeed, Lago seems to have a clear knowledge of, and interest in, the monetary value of artworks. Another of his stipulations during that meeting was that city funds be earmarked to purchase the artworks commissioned for ICG, in order to prevent Coral Gables from spending money on art, only to see it snatched up by other local art institutions. Lago seems to understand art's ability, not merely to "spread democracy" but to put him and his city on the map.

The Dossier

In the weeks that followed Lago's soliloquy, Fung, along with ICG cofounders Patrick O'Connell and Venny Torre, repeatedly attempted to schedule a meeting with the mayor, seeking to learn which artists he found problematic. The trio went as far as to take Lago up on his "Listening Tour," a three-month, open-door initiative he'd boasted of at the June 8 meeting.

The mayor did not open his door.

It wasn't until the day before the commission met in July that Fung and the ICG team received an email from Chelsea Granell Lindsey, chief community engagement and policy advisor, that included a 38-page document containing scanned and highlighted interviews with Cai Guo-Qiang, prefaced by the message that "a few residents have shared some concerns with Mayor Lago regarding Illuminate artist Cai Guo-Qiang which he would like to discuss in greater detail as he too has some concerns." The email also stated that "the Mayor would like to schedule a meeting to discuss these concerns when he returns during the week of July 26 or the first week of August, if possible." Lindsey made no mention of Sandra Ramos, nor did she suggest that the matter might be brought up for public discussion at the July 13 city commission meeting.

The mayor's 38-page attachment (embedded at the end of this story) was a compendium of interviews with the artist published by such outlets as nationally funded Smithsonian magazine and Art in Embassies, a publication of the U.S. Department of State, which awarded Cai a Medal of Arts in 2012 — ostensibly providing proof of Cai's pro-Communist sentiment.

Anyone who takes the time to read the proffered evidence will be treated to an extraordinary story of an internationally celebrated artist painfully haunted by — and continually compelled to make art about — the atrocities he witnessed growing up in China under Communist rule. Passages highlighted by the mayor's office range from "instead of his father's Marxism" to "he has received a number of awards, including the forty-eighth Venice Biennale International Golden Lion Prize." The most widely cited and supposedly damning quote proving Cai's pro-Communist sentiments — which neither he, nor Ramos, have in fact ever expressed — is pulled from a 2017 conversation between Cai and widely regarded art critic, media theorist, and New York University Russian professor Boris Groys, wherein Cai describes how communism in China once successfully inspired a sense of idealism, community, and hope among impoverished and disenfranchised people, and how he laments how those "grand ideals" ultimately became corrupted.

Aside from the issue of U.S. greenbacks finding their way to China or Cuba, this seems to be Lago's biggest bugaboo: While Cai and Ramos have been very open about the horrors and abuse they experienced in their respective home countries, they nonetheless continue to feel sympathy for those places and peoples, and for the progressive dreams and ideals that inspired their revolutions. In short, they don't fall in line with Trump-era conservative beliefs, which require obsequious disavowal of anything resembling socialism.

It would be difficult to characterize Cai's Fireflies, which was featured in this year's inaugural Illuminate and envisioned to appear in larger form in the 2022 edition, as anything other than magical. Composed of rideable Chinese pedicycles from which dangle colorful illuminated lanterns bearing the shape of objects and forms from Cai's childhood, the work originated as a project (also curated by Fung) commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust to celebrate the centennial of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia in 2017.

To Fung, a seasoned independent curator of public art projects whom ICG had hired to lead and shape Illuminate's vision, the inclusion of Cai's work was the clincher that secured him the position as chief curator of the project — which itself began as the vision of Coral Gables' previous mayor, Raúl Valdés-Fauli, and proceeded with the Valdés-Fauli administration's full support.
click to enlarge Sandra Ramos (left) with an unidentified art connoisseur at Illuminate Coral Gables in February 2021. - PHOTO BY SANDRA RAMOS COURTESY OF ILLUMINATE CORAL GABLES
Sandra Ramos (left) with an unidentified art connoisseur at Illuminate Coral Gables in February 2021.
Photo by Sandra Ramos courtesy of Illuminate Coral Gables
Sandra Ramos' 90 Miles: Deconstruction, 2011-2021 similarly invited viewers to engage in a wistful, interactive connection with her home country. It took the form of a walkable footbridge made of lightboxes that displayed aerial photographs of the straits that separating Cuba and the United States. The piece, an iteration of which was exhibited at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, symbolized a desire to heal the acrimonious gaps between the feuding nations.

No matter who you asked, the Illuminate project seemed to have been a resounding success. Ramos eagerly looked forward to participating again. Cai had also committed to expanding his piece for a second installation. Fung could hardly wait for a chance to stage the project without interference from COVID.

And Lago himself showered the project ample praise in both the June and July commission meetings — citing its unprecedented attendance — as quantified by paid parking, estimated to have been used by about 100,000 people whose total parking fees recouped the money the city spent on the event.

"The art initiative and programming has been a big economic driver and critical to turn the page with COVID," Lago said at the June 8 meeting. "This is a big deal for the city of Coral Gables to be chosen as a real cultural arts destination, and that we are here to support the business community and really provide something that is going to produce value."

Then he killed it.

Loyalty Signaling

The commissioners unanimously voted to amend the ICG proposal to reflect that the city would fund only 18 of the 20 artists slated for the 2022 exhibition. One declared that she was not willing to support anyone "who sympathizes with the Castro regime or socialists," another said the amendment would send "a strong message to the world."

In addition to Fung's resignation, the withdrawal of all the artists, the consequent cancellation of the event, and the statement from Miami's ACLU chapter, a petition was drafted in Sandra Ramos' defense by eight academic "Cuban specialists," including Harvard professor Alejandro de la Fuente and Brown professor Jennifer Lambe. Addressed directly to Lago, the document condemns the actions of the mayor and the commission as censorship.

"We strongly feel that, when it comes to art or to intellectual creation, any ideological purity test is by definition antidemocratic, exclusionary, and repressive," the academics wrote.

For those who were censored, the imbroglio left a lingering bitter taste.

Fung remains mystified that such a successful 2021 debut could have led to this. "It was a great project, with the mission of bringing a sense of community and discovery and joy to the community in the form of public art," he says. "Even the mayor said it was great and raved about the project and gave me a personal shout-out."

For Lago to come out against the very artists whose work he'd expressed admiration for, the curator says, came out of left field.

"It all just struck me as insane — smoke and mirrors. It would all be fairly unbelievable if it wasn’t so incredibly sad, if his actions weren’t so wildly hypocritical. It was like having a bomb dropped on us."

Ramos suspects the mayor's motive was purely political.

"I can't be certain, but I suspect that as a Republican maybe he didn't like the anti-Trump statements I've made through my recent works," she says, noting that her position with respect to Cuba — "in favor of Cubans, against censorship and governmental abuse and dictatorship" — has been unambiguously expressed through her work since the '90s.

"I think Trumpism, unfortunately, influences the behavior of many Cuban politicians in Florida," she adds.

Indeed, Lago's gesture neatly fits the definition of "loyalty signaling" — a term New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explored in a recent opinion piece. "Signaling," Krugman wrote, "is a concept originally drawn from economics; it says that people sometimes engage in costly, seemingly pointless behavior as a way to prove that they have attributes others value."

In this instance, Lago appeared to be signaling his conservative political superiors, including Rubio, DeSantis, Suarez, and state Sen. Ileana Garcia (whose district includes Coral Gables and who happened to attend the July 13 meeting). All have delivered spectacular performances of allegiance to Trumpian conservatism. As Krugman observes, such gestures, which display an exaggerated loyalty to the most extreme anti-progressive beliefs, constitute a surreal "counter-canceling" conservative backlash to last year's many racial and cultural reckonings.

It's unlikely Lago has any interest in the damage he has done to Ramos, whose career is based in Miami, or to Cai. Nor is it likely that he much cares that the Illuminate project, which showed both popular and economic promise, will no longer be realized in his community. All that counts is the points he may have scored with those who rank higher than he does.
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