Talking About Shepard Fairey

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Obey Icon, Shepard Fairey, 1996/photo: ICA, Boston

Obey Icon, Shepard Fairey, 1996/photo: ICA, Boston

When I was in Boston a couple of weeks ago I sat down with Jill Medvedow, the director of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, which has had an incredible run of shows since it re-opened in its new Diller, Scofidio + Renfro home in 2006. (Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Anish Kapoor, Tara Donovan and so on.) But for sheer perfect timing you can’t beat the Shepard Fairey show that’s there now through Aug. 16. As usual I’ll split this conversation into a couple of parts.

LACAYO: When did you first start thinking about doing a Fairey show?

MEDVEDOW: About two years ago, maybe six months after we moved into our new building — long before he did the Obama poster. One thing we were talking about was bringing street art inside, into the museum context. It wasn’t an area of expertise for me. But we had a young assistant curator who was really interested in street art and a trustee who was interested, and he had mentioned Shepard Fairey to us.

We thought at first would do a small show. But as we started to look at more of his work we were blown away by the power and breadth of it. So we decided to make it a main gallery show and look at his whole evolution.

LACAYO: Did you have any inkling that the police were going to show up to arrest Fairey just as he was about to arrive at the opening night party?

MEDVEDOW: No. He had been in Boston for days. He had given a public lecture that was well publicized. He had been with the mayor to unveil a mural that we organized for the side of City Hall. There were pictures of him in the papers shaking hands with the mayor. Shepard could have been easily found by the police before that night. The arrest was a highly choreographed event for maximum drama.

LACAYO: Every museum that admits street art inside its walls has to deal with the question of whether you’re encouraging vandalism by legitimizing work that one way or another ends up on somebody else’s property, whether it’s abandoned property or city property at a highway overpass or private property like the side of a deli or even an apartment building.

MEDVEDOW: It’s been really challenging. People have said “How would you like it if I put grafitti on your house or on the side of your museum?” I would not like it at all. But I’ve done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking about it. What I think links the two areas in which Shepard is in court, the vandalism charges and the lawsuit with Associated Press [over his use of one of their photos to make his Obama poster] is the issue of consent. Who gets to decide what’s in the public space? Who gets to decide what is a work of art?

In the case of graffiti, the ICA gave Shepard many sanctioned places in which to do outdoor work, so he didn’t need to deface public property. But what I find fascinating about the vandalism charges by Boston police is that in one of them, on one side of this particular billboard is an illegal advertisement by a company, on the other side is a Shepard Fairey image. The company is not being pursued; the graffiti artist is.