Inspecting The Crossing Exhibit "A" The Crossing, from The George Dubya Series

Peter Dasilva for The New York Times
"The Crossing" was removed from an exhibit at the Alliance Française in San Francisco.

 
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
Nancy Worthington used a magnifying glass to look at her sculpture "The Crossing," which pokes fun at President Bush.
French Center Creates a Controversy

By DEAN E. MURPHY

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 22 - Sometimes it is not easy being French in the United States.
American relations with France are so strained over Iraq that even in a city like this one, which prides itself on being open-minded and tolerant, a piece of art can create hard feelings of trans-Atlantic proportions.
Staff members at the Alliance Française of San Francisco, a French language and cultural center, recently removed a sculpture that poked fun at the Bush administration from the center's February art exhibit.
The sculpture, "The Crossing," depicts a bewildered-looking President Bush crossing the Delaware River surrounded by some familiar people, including Vice President Dick Cheney wearing a clown's nose. Mounted on an orange highway cone with scurrying rubber rats on the sides, the satirical scene is topped by a Mr. Potato Head toy.
Nadege Leflemme, who is French and oversees cultural programs at the center, said members of the Alliance Française staff feared that Americans offended by the sculpture might challenge the center's nonprofit status and put it out of business. Though it receives some financing from France, the center is registered in the United States.
"Our board of directors, especially right now because of Iraq, has talked about not getting involved in politics whatsoever," said Ms. Leflemme, who has lived here four years. "I have plenty of people calling about input on the situation in Iraq, how we feel as French. We are not allowed to speak. Zip. The board said to keep a low profile and don't make waves."
But the president of the board, Thomas E. Horn, a San Francisco lawyer, denied that it had intended to censor the art exhibit and called the removal of the sculpture "a dumb thing to do."
Mr. Horn, an American, said he was unaware of the incident until a reporter asked about it, and he suggested that the center's staff had overreacted. Not long ago, he said, a director, who is no longer at the center, "got into a little trouble" by writing an anti-Bush poem in the center's newsletter, which he said was different from exhibiting the politically charged works of independent artists.
"I am embarrassed by this," Mr. Horn said. "It won't happen again."
Two weeks ago, Ms. Leflemme asked the sculpture's creator, Nancy Worthington of Sebastopol, Calif., to substitute an apolitical piece for "The Crossing."
Ms. Worthington was among 17 artists from the Alliance of Women Artists, a Bay Area group, who had been asked to participate in the exhibit. It opened on Feb. 1 and will close next Friday.
But Ms. Worthington, who has devoted the last two years to social-political commentary pieces about the Bush presidency, was so offended that she refused to exhibit another work.
Her name remains in the program, but until Ms. Worthington went to San Francisco to retrieve "The Crossing," the piece was kept in an office, out of sight.
Ms. Worthington said she was shocked by the reaction at Alliance Française because she had exhibited works in Paris and had found the French very responsive to her style of whimsy and biting commentary - something she calls "the art of dissent."
"What I really feel is cheated," Ms. Worthington said in Sebastopol, about 50 miles north of San Francisco. "I make these works as a way to communicate with people. I don't expect people to agree, but I want to awaken something in them. That can't happen when the sculpture is sitting here instead of being shown."
Ms. Worthington and her partner, Judith Fein, have spent the last two weeks spreading the word about the incident to other Bay Area artists with letters, e-mail messages and telephone calls. On her Web site, www.domjoy.com, Ms. Worthington has an open letter deploring censorship "based on fear."
Ms. Worthington said she had received some encouraging responses, but not from many of her colleagues at the Alliance of Women Artists.
Georgette Owens, a native of France and the group's founder, said many of the artists understood why Ms. Worthington was upset, but they also appreciated the difficult situation of French people in this country.
"I tried to calm Nancy down and assure her that everybody likes her artwork, but because of the diplomatic situation taking place right now, they are afraid of showing it," Ms. Owens said. "I don't think Alliance Française was at fault; they tried to be as diplomatic as they could."
Ms. Owens said she shared the center staff's discomfort. She said she had never before encountered as much anti-French sentiment in 42 years of living in the United States as in the last few months. Recently, she said, a salesclerk at Sears asked about her accent.
"The young man said, 'If I were you, I would say you are Canadian, because we don't like the French right now,' " Ms. Owens said. "I canceled my order right there. I have never heard such comments before. My accent had always been a plus for me."
But Mr. Horn, the board president, who recently returned from a meeting in Paris of presidents from Alliance Française branches around the world, said anti-American feeling in France was much greater than any anti-French sentiment in San Francisco. Even if he were wrong, he said, it would not justify removing Ms. Worthington's sculpture.
"I am going to write a letter of apology and invite her to bring it back," he said. "The staff were doing their best. I hope the artist will cut them a little bit of slack."