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People for the American Way: 30 years of fighting for freedom of expression and the arts
Norman Lear and Alec Baldwin. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

NEW YORK, NY.- Last Thursday night, People For the American Way Foundation unveiled Liberty, a new print by the acclaimed artist Ed Ruscha. Ruscha created Liberty for the PFAW Foundation in honor of its 30th anniversary and its decades of leadership in free expression and the arts.

The work was unveiled at PFAW Foundation’s 30th anniversary celebration in New York City. A limited edition of 75 prints will be sold, with all proceeds benefitting PFAW Foundation.

The unveiling of the Ruscha work is the capstone to People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation’s three decades of leadership in the fight for freedom of artistic expression, in which the organizations have allied with a generation of prominent artists. In addition to Rouscha, major American artists Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Graham have donated and dedicated works to PFAW and PFAW Foundation in commemoration of the groups’ work on behalf of free expression.

· In 1982, Roy Lichtenstein created a print called I Love Liberty, which was unveiled in conjunction with People For the American Way Foundation’s “I Love Liberty” celebration. The celebration, which brought together stars including Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams and the Muppets, as well as a bipartisan coalition of political leaders, was taped in Los Angeles on February 22, 1982 and broadcast on national television the next month. Lichtenstein created the print, which includes an image of the Statue of Liberty in his trademark geometric style, to help to promote the event.

· In 1985, sculptor Robert Graham designed the cast bronze Spirit of Liberty Lifetime Achievement Award, which he contributed to People For the American Way Foundation. The award, a 12-inch work in the shape of a megaphone, is inscribed on the exterior with words from the First Amendment and the Constitution in Braille and American Sign Language, and its interior is gilded with gold.

· In 1991, in honor of People For the American Way’s 10th anniversary, Robert Rauschenberg created a painting called People For the American Way, using imagery of the American flag and the Statue of Liberty. That work hangs in People For’s offices.

· In 1998, Rauschenberg designed and Graham cast a bronze statue known by PFAW staff as “the horse’s patootie.” The statue –which represents a horse’s rear end -- is ceremonially presented to the winner of PFAW’s annual Equine Posterior Achievement Award. Past winners include former Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook, former George Rep. Bob Barr and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

People For’s leadership in fighting censorship and defending freedom of expression extends back three decades, from the arts censorship battles of the 1980s and 1990s through the Smithsonian censorship scandal of 2010. Some highlights of PFAW and PFAW Foundation’s work in this area:

· In 1989, Sen. Jesse Helms, incensed by an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs funded in part by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, joined forces with leaders of the Religious Right led a battle to defund the arts agency. The NEA had existed for 25 years and funded 80,000 across the country without a complaint, but found itself wedged into a corner by a Religious Right that had newly figured out how to make “culture war” attacks mainstream. In response, People For organized an intense lobbying effort, placed ads promoting the freedom of expression in national publications, and generated 20,000 telegrams to Congress in support of arts funding. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch publicly credited PFAW with contributing to the successful effort to preserve the NEA’s funding.

· In 1990, People For provided pro bono counsel to Bella Lewitsky, a choreographer who refused to sign an “anti-obscenity” pledge as a condition of receiving an NEA grant. A federal judge ruled in favor of Lewitsky, declaring that such contracts “cause a chilling effect in violation of the First Amendment.”

· In 1991, People For created Artsave, a new project to help artists and arts institutions effectively respond to challenges to creative expression. The project collected information about attacks on free expression, provided artists with information about their rights and helped them fight back against state and local-level censorship, put up anti-censorship ads in magazines and newspapers, video and music stores and theaters throughout the country.

· In 1993, When an award-winning drama teacher in Tucson was fired for staging a school production of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play The Shadow Box, People For organized “Tucson Talks,” a staged reading of the play and community conversation about censorship. Stars including William Baldwin, Christopher Reeve, and Harry Hamlin traveled to Tucson to participate.

· In 1994, People For represented an artist whose work had been removed from a public space in Menlo Park, California. People For eventually developed a partnership with the city, collaborating to host a public forum the following year on public art and free expression.

· Immediately following the 1994 wave election, new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich renewed calls for defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In response, People For aired radio ads about the importance of public art and free expression, voiced by Tony Randall, Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck. People For also delivered to Congress over 120,000 petitions in support of public broadcasting. The NEA and the NEH saw their budgets severely cut by the 104th Congress, but the CPB fared better.

· In 1996, the Phoenix Art Museum came under attack for an exhibit featuring works of art about the American flag. Gingrich declared that he didn’t need to see the exhibit “to know that it is wrong.” People For stepped in to mobilize community support for the museum.

· In 1997, the House passed a bill zeroing out the NEA’s funding. The bill was stopped by the Senate, with Sen. Tom Harkin going to the floor to read PFAW materials that told the truth that almost none of the artwork being used to stir up emotion on the Senate floor had ever received NEA funding.

· In 1998, in response to threats and intimidation from some extremist members of the anti-Castro exile community opposed to visits from Cuban artists and musicians, People For organized a project in Miami bringing together conservative Cuban exile leaders, progressive activists and business and community leaders for events celebrating the freedom of expression.

· In 1998, President Clinton presented PFAW Vice President Barbara Handman with the National Medal of the Arts for her work on behalf of free expression. After the award was announced, Handman organized a “Quiet Walk for the First Amendment” on the streets of New York in support of Terrence McNally’s new play, Corpus Christi. The play had been attacked by Religious Right groups, and the playwright received death threats – on opening night, the theater was armed with metal detectors. More than 1,000 PFAW Foundation members joined Norman Lear, the playwright Tony Kushner, actor Wallace Shawn and other show business luminaries for the walk.

· In 1999, People For stepped in to defend the Brooklyn Museum after it was attacked by the Religious Right for an exhibit. People For organized a broad coalition of museum and arts groups to file an amicus brief on behalf of the museum.

· In 2003, PFAW co-produced an off-Broadway play by Christopher Trumbo exploring his father’s experience as a blacklisted screenwriter who was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The play responded in part to the new McCarthyism of post-9/11 America, when renewed fears were leading to renewed persecution of minority groups and those who protested government action.

· In 2010, Religious Right leaders resurrected the anti-art culture wars of the 1990s, waging a campaign against a National Portrait Gallery exhibit that explored gay and lesbian identity in American Art. With the help of newly-empowered GOP congressional leaders, the Right convinced the Smithsonian to pull the most controversial work in the show under threat of losing the institution’s funding. People For the American Way was a leader in fighting back, exposing the advocates of censorship, organizing activists to call for the return of the artwork, and bringing together artists and free expression advocates to discuss how to prevent such censorship in the future.

American Way Foundation | Robert Graham | Spirit of Liberty |

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