This was originally going to be a story about a major Maine art museum’s “Maine in America: Women of Vision” award, and how that award was given to 13 women: 12 of those 13 being white, 9 of them being dead, and one of the four living “visionary” women being one of the most notorious lifelong conservative, anti-LGBTQ activists in the state of Maine. The piece was intended to be published on July 13th, coinciding with Maine Democratic Governor Janet Mills, honorary chair of the award, coming to Rockland to take part in an award ceremony open exclusively to “patrons” wealthy enough to donate $10,000-$25,000. Later that week a “Private Island Dinner and Collection Tour” consisting of a “short boat ride” to a “private island where we’ll see one of the country’s most spectacular American art collections” was on offer for these pecunious donors. All of this was to occur in a city in which some 22% of children live in poverty. That was the story. Instead, the story became more complicated, ultimately becoming about a multimillion-dollar art institution not so subtly attempting to exert control over the media, namely, The Free Press.

Last year when I was writing a column about Linda Bean for The Free Press, The Farnsworth was far from my mind. But in my research I stumbled across the fact that the museum was honoring Bean with a major “Women of Vision” award. I was stunned. How could an arts organization, in 2020, with their pick of all of the Maine-connected women in all of history, feel morally comfortable with their choice to unabashedly embrace a woman who has spent her life opposing the basic human rights of LGBTQ people? The more I researched Bean, the more clear her “vision” became. Linda Bean was on the board of Phyllis Schlafly’s ultra-conservative anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund for years, including being their vice chairman as recently as 2016. Her “visionary” work in Maine includes being a driving force behind a successful campaign to get Mainers to vote down a 1984 referendum which would have enshrined equal rights for women in Maine’s constitution via the Equal Rights Amendment. In 2005 she funded the “Maine Grassroots Coalition.” Its goal? Repealing a Maine law that made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations and education. In 2017, Bean, as part of The Conservative Action Project, signed a memo calling on the U.S. Defense Department to “rescind” transgender people’s ability to serve openly in the military; she also called on them to eliminate funding or personnel resources for “special-interest events, including LGBT-Pride Month events in June, which do not strengthen military events.”

In May 2020, Linda Bean used her Facebook page to blame all COVID-19 deaths on China. That type of statement is a major contributor to the drastic rise in anti-Asian sentiments over the past 16 months, ultimately fueling a rise in hate crimes against people of Asian descent in the United States. Bean wrote, “Market convolutions have been experienced painfully by Maine fishermen in the last year due to the China phenomenon; moreover, Mainers and Canadians are now aware of China’s apparent responsibility for the Covid19 pandemic death toll here in North America and, indeed, across the whole world.” Take note that Bean’s use of “China phenomenon” resembles Donald Trump’s wielding of the racist dog-whistle phrase: “China virus.”

Bean is a longtime member of the highly secretive Council for National Policy, a powerful right-wing organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center says “has become a key meeting place where ostensibly mainstream conservatives interact with individuals who are, by any reasonable definition, genuinely extremist.”

My column, “Calling Out L.L.Bean, Linda Bean and The Farnsworth,” was the most-read article on the Free Press’s website last year. This time around, I wanted to give The Farnsworth the chance to explain their reasoning for awarding Linda Bean a “Women of Vision” award, and, while

I had their attention, ask them to address other Farnsworth-relevant issues. My questions were not of the unicorn-puff-piece variety. Based on my previous column, it would have been clear to them that I believe there is absolutely no credible justification for an art institution to honor a person whose life’s work includes denying others’ the dignity to live their lives free of legalized discrimination. For weeks, I struggled over whether I had the wherewithal to take on this charged subject right now, and finally reached out to The Farnsworth’s communications and marketing manager (i.e., PR person) on July 4. By the time he got the questions, my deadline was coming up soon. My editor, Ethan Andrews, and I discussed whether I had given The Farnsworth adequate response time, and ultimately Ethan offered to hold the column for a week to give them time to respond. The extra days came and went; neither of us heard back. Shortly after the deadline, I sent a gentle email asking if they were planning to send something. Still nothing; not so much as an email to inform me that they had decided not to answer the questions.

I started looking into public relations tactics. Here’s one: when dealing with a potential “brand crisis” or “bad press”: just ignore; hope it goes away.

They were ghosting me, but behind the scenes, they got in gear: both the communications officer and the executive director of The Farnsworth coordinated a joint call to a Free Press advertising representative. In this call, they apparently complained about my questions. Did the director of The Farnsworth, a multimillion-dollar 501(c)(3) institution, make a direct threat to pull their advertisements in The Free Press, a small local Maine newspaper with a tight budget? Even if it wasn’t direct, tell me there isn’t an implicit threat when the executive director of a large institution, in the middle of his institution’s busiest season, takes the time to call a small-town advertising rep.

Public relations tactic #2 for dealing with potential “bad press”: throw your weight around, especially where it matters most — money.

It is my understanding that the Farnsworth’s call to the Free Press advertising representative resulted in a stir-up at The Free Press, prompting internal discussions about my position with the paper. It seems there were legitimate questions about whether, as a columnist with a biweekly piece in the paper, in this scenario I could have been viewed as a reporter showing bias in my questions, thereby making The Free Press look bad, or whether I should be viewed as more of a free agent since I am an opinion columnist. These are important discourses, touching on complex issues such as the contested concept of “neutrality” in journalism, and whether media entities who are dependent on advertising revenue have the freedom to question the rich and powerful when this work might lead them to bite the hand that feeds them. Similarly, many art institutions, such as The Farnsworth, are in the challenging position of being largely beholden to wealthy donors, particularly in a country that gives so little support for the arts.

I asked The Farnsworth questions ranging from the percentage of yearly visitors who are Rockland residents, to what they are doing to make more Rockland residents aware that they have free entrance at all times, to how they fit into the global movement to decolonize museums. I asked how, “if at all,” they are trying to mitigate their part in the rapid gentrification of Rockland, and if they are the ones paying for the full-page “Rockland: The Art Capital of Maine” ads. I asked who was on the decision-making team for the “Women of Vision” awards, and most of all, I asked about Linda Bean.

My questions were pointed; it’s understandable that The Farnsworth might assume that my article would be devoid of the Benevolent Farnsworth narrative that their robust marketing budget usually affords them. In their 2019 tax filing, The Farnsworth reports an advertising budget of $120,317; in addition, their website lists two full-time marketing employees, six development administrators, and a “professional fundraising services” budget of $360,893. Contrast that with the entire city of Rockland, whose advertising budget totals a mere $16,185.

Within the past year or so, The Farnsworth added a “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commitment” statement to their website. It may look like a good start, but I wanted to know what specific policies, changes and initiatives The Farnsworth is doing to live up to the statement (which is among the vaguest I’ve seen). I asked if they plan to rename the Linda Bean Folkers Gallery, now that they have committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.

And, finally, I asked them, “Many people within the ‘art world’ are LGBTQI. How was The Farnsworth able to feel morally comfortable giving an award to someone with Bean’s history of dedicated anti-LGBTQI activism? Is The Farnsworth capable of recognizing that giving this award to Bean is, ultimately, harmful to LGBTQI people in the art world, LGBTQI youth, and LGBTQI people as a whole?”

Reviewing the “Women of Vision” exhibit in the Portland Press Herald, art critic Jorge S. Arango pointed out the Farnsworth’s “failure to identify both [Berenice] Abbott and [Edna St. Vincent] Millay as lesbian (or, in the latter’s case, bisexual). Both were quite open about this aspect of their lives, which further personifies their fierce, uncompromising adherence to their truth in a conservative world.” This erasure of queer sexuality comes as no surprise; The Farnsworth as an institution seems to persist in upholding a conservative 1950s sensibility in general. And it is not inconceivable that this queer erasure was done deliberately in order to not ruffle certain anti-LGBTQ donors. Or should we assume that some in the highest ranks of The Farnsworth share Bean’s anti-LGBTQ beliefs?

We have few places where we can be truly liberated, spaces to revel in creativity, spaces of acceptance and safety for the most marginalized. And although art museums are, historically, white cages in which creativity goes to die, is it really too much to ask a Maine art museum to not warmly embrace an anti-gay, anti-transgender bigot in 2021? I want more. I want spaces of art to be spaces of liberation, creativity, freedom. I want spaces of art to be pushing our culture against racism, homophobia, ableism, patriarchy, excessive wealth and its twin: widespread poverty.

Ultimately, through the experience of writing this piece and the behind-the-scenes stuff that went on, I feel basically reassured that The Free Press plans to remain a paper with bite. I don’t know if I completely believe my editor, because money inevitably makes things messy, but Ethan tried to assure me that the advertising and editorial departments at the paper are definitively separate, and that I should continue to scrutinize where I see fit.

Modern-day public relations guidance primarily advises that, when faced with a “brand crisis,” your brand should, as authentically-sounding as possible, apologize, detail the wrongdoing, and take steps to remedy the situation. The Farnsworth has chosen a different path. When faced with likely critical press coverage, they made an underhanded attempt to intervene. But no matter how they may try to hide it or rationalize it, the Farnsworth’s efforts to bring Linda Bean and her money ever closer with a “Maine in America: Women of Vision” award gives her the green light to keep up the good work.

Public relations tip #3 when faced with a crisis: Refuse to admit wrongdoing. Pretend. Deflect. Blame the messenger.