Exhibiting art in prisons

What the warden doesn’t know

I’m in the deputy warden’s office for an interview; I want to volunteer as an art teacher in a maximum-security men’s prison. I sit facing the deputy’s desk while she reads my resumé.

Ziegler’s “Beneath the Steel” hung in a prison gym.

As with many artists’ resumés, mine begins with a list of the solo exhibitions. After 20 years as an artist, my resumé lists about 35 solo exhibitions in various galleries in various cities. These are followed by group shows; probably more than is listed, but after a while, I think, “Who cares?” and eliminate most of them.

My resumé then lists various awards and grants I have received as well as exhibition catalogs, reviews, papers, essays, and art collections in which I am represented.

When the deputy finishes reading, she says to me, quite seriously, “So, basically, you’ve never worked a day in your life.”

One can only wonder, “If it isn’t work, then what is it?”

Seeking a new conversation

What the warden doesn’t know is that art is a conversation. She also doesn’t know that after 20 years, the conversation in the commercial art world has become redundant, and I search for another audience.

Initially, I had not been thinking in terms of prisoners as my new audience. The audience I had in mind — whoever they were — did not have the two main variables that so often describe an art audience: money and power. In removing these two factors, I think of prisoners.

I wrote letters to wardens and superintendents randomly picked throughout the United States, asking each if I might exhibit my art in their prison. My request would have been better received, perhaps, if I talked about art in terms of therapy or rehabilitation. But I didn’t. I merely wanted to have an exhibition in their prison.

As an artist, I don’t want to institutionalize art as therapy. When I mention I want to exhibit in prisons, a common response is, “Oh, that is so therapeutic!” “Therapeutic?” I think. “Does that describe my exhibitions for gallery audiences — ‘Come to my exhibition. I’m doing therapy on you’?”

My intention is to exhibit with the same approach as with any venue: Put up my work without the expectation that it will be a “good thing” for the viewer. Instead, let my art be judged as it will be judged.

Mostly, my random letter evoked rejections — the “what-do-you-think-this-place-is?” reaction. However, I got favorable responses from others who were intrigued with my offer.

In the process of exhibiting my art in prisons, I realize things.

Subverting the hierarchy

In prison, where relationships are based upon hierarchy of power, two roles are permitted for the non-prisoner: The non-prisoner can be part of the group that disciplines and punishes, or the non-prisoner can be part of the group that helps. In relationship to either group, no matter how benevolent the helper may be, the prisoner is never equal. Art conversations demand openness between people of equal power. This is not permitted between prisoner and non-prisoner, regardless of whether the non-prisoner is a helper or punisher.

Guards are particularly sensitive to maintaining this hierarchy between non-prisoners and prisoners. They experience the presence of my art as a threat to that hierarchy. The guards more readily accept prisoners’ art exhibitions; these support the hierarchical legacy of patronization.

Maybe the guards intuit that in making art accessible to everyone there is danger of democracy. In exhibiting non-prisoner art in prison, all viewers become equal in relationship to the art. Everyone becomes a judge: The prisoner can hate my art, like my art, or choose to be indifferent.

Breaking the rules

In exhibiting my art to be judged by prisoners without the defensive cloak of “doing therapy and being their helper,” I break two fundamental rules of prison: never become vulnerable to and never trust an inmate. As an artist I must be vulnerable to engage in an honest conversation, and I trust the prisoners with my art — to do with as they wish.

I am also reminded of the very physicality of art. Visual art takes up space: It is spatially living and yearns for a home. In this yearning to find a home, art reveals desire.

As a volunteer in prison, it is forbidden to leave anything personal behind, lest it undermine the political structure of the prison. However, when I leave a prison, I do not leave without a trace. In the physicality of art, I leave behind my personal baggage, which contains loneliness, disappointment, fear, insecurity, or whatever else might be found in my art.

So many prison rules are broken; something personal, something vulnerable, something trusting, something me.


And yet I have no defense. I am not acting in the concern of rehab. I am only concerned about this conversation of art. It is a conversation in which I become whole only through another equal person; the viewer, the audience, the listener, the prisoner.

Furthermore, art is a contradiction. Its physicality knows no boundaries, and in this, I break another prison rule: When I do become a volunteer art teacher in the deputy warden’s maximum-security prison, she eventually takes disciplinary action against me. Apparently, she informs me, I have been speaking out of bounds — speaking to prisoners about things not related to my subject of art.

But, of course, the warden doesn’t know.

I tell her, “That’s impossible. Outside of art, there is nothing to say.”


Above right: Giovanni Piranesi, etching from Carceri series, plate XI, 1761.

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Philadelphia, PA on February 27, 2015

Businesses have long recognized the value of music in motivating behavior in stores and restaurants, not to mention sports events an the armed services. I've often wondered why prisons don't put music to a similar uplifting effect. You raise the intriguing point that art could serve the same useful function in prisons as music — if, as you say, it didn't blur the hierarchical lines between guards and prisoners.
The warden's notion that art can be separated from subject matter reminds me of something that Susan McAninley, my art director at the Welcomat in the '80s, used to say: "The best artists are those who read a lot. Artists who don't read are merely illustrators."

Author's Response

Yes, art and reading have a strong connection – I think in order to move beyond art as illustration and just rote copying, the artist must explore the element of freedom, and reading is a good place to begin figuring out what that is all about.

Ann C. Davidson

of Spring Garden/ Philadelphia, PA on February 28, 2015

With all due respect to the editor emeritus of BSR, the idea of using music to produce an "uplifting effect" in prisons places music in the category of therapy or rehabilitation. Recall the scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy DuFresne locks himself in the warden's office and broadcasts a duet from The Marriage of Figaro over the loudspeaker system, a brilliant example of art as subversion of the brutal order of a maximum security men's prison. As Ziegler says, "Art conversations demand openness between people of equal power." Art as therapy in a prison setting only serves to perpetuate the power of the prison hierarchy, and to underscore the prisoners' feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. To use music in a prison for its "uplifting effect" or as a tool for rehabilitation completely misses the point. As the character "Red" says in the parole hearing scene in Shawshank, "Rehabilitated? ... I don't have any idea what that means."

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