Illuminate Goes Dim 

Misinformation and Overreaction Puts Out the Lights 

Illuminate Coral Gables, which launched earlier this year, was supposed to be an annual downtown light show, with artists from around the world beaming unique projections on buildings. The first iteration drew thousands of people to the central business district in February. 

The return of Illuminate was scheduled for early 2022 but will now have to wait until at least early 2023, thanks to a tempest at City Hall which quickly spun out of control. 

At issue were two of the 20 artists slated for Illuminate 2022. While the city generously offered to triple funding for the event from this year’s $100,000 to $300,000, Mayor Vince Lago brought up concerns over the Communist sympathies of artists Sandra Ramos and Cai Guo-Qiang. “I have been a big proponent of the arts, and I will continue to support the arts, but not at the expense of democracy and liberty,” the mayor declared. 

Mayor Lago’s contention was that Cuban artist Ramos was endorsing the Castro regime by maintaining a studio there. His concern with Cai Guo-Qiang derived from a quote where the artist said the Chinese Communist regime had been successful in convincing the Chinese peasants that Communism was a good thing. Consequently, the commission voted to fund only the first 18 artists, and to look further into the two in question. 

The reaction from Illuminate was immediate. Within 24 hours, the organization’s Chief Curator, Lance Fung, resigned in protest. He also took with him all of the artists, since their connection to the event was based on their relationship with Fung. So, no Illuminate in early 2022, period, says Illuminate co-founder Venny Torre

Fireflies by artist Cai Guo-Qiang

The tragedy here is two-fold. On the one hand, Fung’s reaction was excessive. The commission did not actually prohibit the exhibition of the two artists in question. It only voted to withhold funding pending further research into their political sympathies. When Coral Gables Magazine asked Mayor Lago if he would ban the show if it was entirely paid for from private sources, the answer was unequivocal: absolutely not. But, he said, the city has a right to fund artists of their choice. And that is not the same thing as censorship, despite virulent attacks on the mayor by the Miami Herald and the New Times for “practicing Cuban style censorship.” 

On the other hand, while an argument can be made that Ramos should not be keeping a studio in Communist Cuba, the accusations against Cai Guo- Qiang were simply unfounded. His quote was posted by the Gables Insider blog after falsely stating “Illuminate Coral Gables used art exhibits from two artists who are sympathizers of totalitarian regimes who have imprisoned, repressed and murdered opponents…” The quote was the same cited by the Mayor: “Communism was successful in making people feel as though they had been transformed from being slaves [and that] Communism promoted a kind of utopian universalism…” 

That is not the same as saying you endorse Communism, any more than saying that Republicans were successful in getting people to vote for Gov. Ron DeSantis makes you a Republican sympathizer. It’s just stating a historical fact. It was also taken out of context, part of a long interview which also included critical comments about the Chinese government. 

What makes the accusation even more absurd is that Cai Guo-Qiang’s artwork – the pedicab Fireflies that were the most fun of any of the exhibits – was previously used to celebrate the inauguration of the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, paid for by the conservative Pew Charitable Trust, the same folks who funded the John Birch Society and the conservative American Enterprise Institute. It is doubtful they would promote a “Communist sympathizer.” 

As of press time, negotiations were afoot to keep the Fire Flies in the Gables for an alternate art show over the holiday season. But the combination of misinformation and overreaction has killed, for now, one of the brighter events to emerge during the dark days of the pandemic.