Black Lives Matter art show meets an abrupt end at Rehab Tavern

Andy Downing
The short-lived Black Lives Matter art exhibit inside of Rehab Tavern

Sara Allison booked a July exhibit at Rehab Tavern in Franklinton long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. The artist then spent the weeks leading up to the opening wondering if it would even take place, with bars shuttered by coronavirus-driven stay at home orders. Then, in late May, the situation was further complicated when local Black Lives Matter protests erupted following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“I was outraged, and I felt it would be insincere to show my own art in this time, especially if it was going to be the first art show [at Rehab] since COVID, and at a bar right down the street from the protests,” said Allison, whose work generallyprojects a more stoned-out vibe, comprising weed-centric pieces modeled on vintage advertisements. So, in a pivot, Allison reached out to her artist friends, asking them to submit artwork supportive of Black Lives Matter and the local protest movement. She also crafted her own piece for the show: a painting of a hand, middle finger fully extended, beneath the words “Dear Ginther.”

But after hanging all of the artwork, Allison returned to the bar for the July 10 opening to find that her painting had been removed by management with no forewarning or explanation. When she discovered the art missing, Allison contacted Rehab manager John Crispi, who she said told her the painting had been taken down at the request of owner Brad DeHays. (Reached at the bar earlier this week, Crispi described the situation as “a small misunderstanding that turned into something huge” and declined further comment.)

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The situation and the Rehab’s handling of it have led to charges of censorship within the artist community— a charge Allison leaned into when she replaced the missing canvas with a painting of a similarly extended middle finger beneath the words “fuck censorship.”

“Everybody’s sad because [Rehab has] been such a place of creativity and diversity over the years,” said Allison, who had never experienced any kind of censorship while displaying her drug-themed art in the space in previous years. In the weeks since the truncated show, Allison said she has spoken with artists and musicians who will no longer exhibit or perform in the space, as well as concerned members of the Franklinton Friday committee, who help coordinate the neighborhood’s monthly art happening.

“It makes me really upset when people take down art, especially in this climate,” said A.J. Vanderelli, whose Franklinton gallery, the Vanderelli Room, is a linchpin of the art scene both in Franklinton and in Columbus at large. “All throughout the city, the institutions of art have been trying to control the dialogue and the narratives, even within the pieces that artists of color are creating. … If you’re inviting an artist, you know pretty much what to expect. Why should you feel you’re within your right to tell them to change the narrative, especially when it pertains to a movement like this?"

Adding to the disconnect, Rehab Tavern initially replied to social media questions about the painting’s removal with incorrect information,writing on Facebook that the censored artwork “stated ‘Impeach Ginther’ with a bloody knife” and “we simply do not support a bloody knife painted under an individual’s name in our establishment.” (A different painting in the exhibit, which was not removed by management, did include the image of a half-dozen knives, none bloodied, along with the words “silence is violence.”)

Following Allison’s limited interactions with management, which she said consisted of a handful of text messages and a brief phone call, all of the artists in the show opted to remove their pieces in solidarity. In a follow-up email, Allison said that nobody involved wanted “to show work in a place that censors, silences and belittles the artistic voice.”

“I’ve just had so much support from the artist community,” said Allison, who did manage to sell the “Dear Ginther” painting for $100, donating all of the proceeds to thePeople’s Justice Project. “It’s wrong to censor things, especially in that way. … To each his own, but it really makes us artists feel like we’re not welcome there.”

"Dear Ginther" by Sara Allison