Take an evening stroll through Times Square today—or rather, navigate the obstacle course of selfie-taking tourists, costumed cartoon characters, naked cowboys, and ticket hawkers—and you would be forgiven for thinking the sun was still on the clock.
Bright, technicolor lights illuminate the street from nearly every available surface advertising nearly every available product: Broadway shows! Beverages! Stock market prices! Tech products! TV premieres!
The first electronic news ticker may have been installed in 1928, but things brightened considerably with the debut of a brand new type of screen at One Times Square on December 1, 1976.
It was called the Spectacolor and it was unlike any advertising billboard that had been seen in the Big Apple before. And at least initially, it was also the most philanthropic advertising that may have been seen since.
In an interview with The New Yorker after the Spectacolor went live, its owners committed to reserving twenty-five percent of the screen time for public service announcements.
“This is a new medium we’re operating here—it isn’t electronic and it isn’t print, but it has elements of both—and we take our public-service responsibilities seriously,” said Lawrence Brandon, the Vice President of the advertising company that owned it.
From 1982 to 1990, at least some of this time was given over to the Public Art Fund in a project known as “Messages to the Public.” A different artist each month was invited to create a 30-second animated piece that would run every 30 minutes after the regularly scheduled, paid-for programming.
It became a wildly successful public art exhibition with an impressive roster of participating artists—Keith Haring, Richard Prince, Nancy Dwyer, the Guerrilla Girls, and Alfredo Jaar to name just a few—except for a little hiccup.
In 1986, artist Nancy Spero was invited to contribute, and she decided to use her recurring 30-seconds of Times Square fame to spread a pro-choice message. But her activism was not appreciated by the owner of the Spectacolor, who allegedly became apoplectic when he learned of her plan. He put the kibosh on her completed digital piece, censoring Spero’s “Message to the Public.”
Born in 1926 in Cleveland, Spero used her body of work throughout most of her artistic career to speak out about social justice issues, primarily those relating to women’s rights. After a stint in Paris, Spero and her husband, the painter Leon Golub, moved to Manhattan in the mid-60s where she became politicized.
She opposed the Vietnam War, and joined organizations that protested discrimination in the art world. According to Holland Cotter’s 2009 New York Times obituary of Spero, in the mid-1970s the artist “resolved to focus her art exclusively on images of women, as participants in history and as symbols in art, literature and myth.”
So it should have been no surprise that when given a digital canvas in one of the most famous squares in the world—though at the time it was still plagued with a seedy reputation—Spero would use the platform to promote the message to which she had dedicated her life as an artist.
In a letter Spero wrote in 1997 to the artist Hans-Ulrich Obrist for his project “Unbuilt Roads” that spotlights unrealized art projects, she explained the conception of her piece:
“I decided since I had the chance to go really public! to get out a pro-choice message!! 'CERTAINLY, CHILD BIRTH IS OUR MORTALITY, WE WHO ARE WOMEN, FOR IT IS OUR BATTLE.' This quote was from the Sahagun, a book of the Aztecs. I also used 'THIS WOMB DOES NOT BELONG TO DOCTORS, LEGISLATORS, JUDGES, PRIESTS, THE STATE, ETC.' Parts of the second statement were taken from an apron I had worn in a 1970 pro-choice march and I recomposed it for the sign.”
She worked with the program’s art director, Piet Halberstadt to craft her message for the big screen, complete with Native American imagery and artistic digital flourishes.
Spero wasn’t the only artist in the long-running series to embrace the political; in fact, activism was at the very core of the project’s mission.
According to a 1984 article in The Blade Toledo, Jane Dickson, an artist who also worked in ad design for Spectacolor, Inc., was the originator of the idea to hand over ad time to the Public Art Fund.
As Russell Miller wrote in the piece, “‘I picked that title,’ [Dickson] said of Messages to the Public, ‘because I thought the propaganda potential from this project was terrific.’ The board, she noted, was regularly used for ‘commercial propaganda.’”
But, it turns out, the benevolence of the advertising don towards public service propaganda only went so far. George Stonbely, the owner of the Spectacolor, was an “ardent Catholic,” as Dickson described him, and he was not about to let a pro-choice message be broadcast on his screen in all of its 8,192-light bulb, 24-color glory.
“Other pieces that had political messages did not seem to bother the owner, but when he saw my piece I was told he went into a rage,” Spero wrote in her letter. Stonbely quashed it.
Spero’s 30-second spot was allowed to play just once in order for the Public Art Trust to document the piece, and then it was never seen again. While Spero would continue to use elements of the messages she had chosen in later work, her “Message to the Public” project was officially given the scandalous label, “Censored.”
It wasn’t the first or last time that Stonbely had objected to all or parts of a “Messages to the Public” project, even after they had gone through all of the proper channels for approvals and procedures.
But when Halberstadt was fired several months after the Spero dust-up following another row over a political piece by artist Dara Birnbaum, Spero went public with her saga of corporate censorship of the arts in a piece in The Village Voice.
As a “pioneer of feminist art,” Spero had a message for her time that still resonates today, one that she refused to allow to be silenced.
As she told Art21 Magazine in 2007, “I guess maybe my art can be said to be a protest. I see things a certain way and as an artist, I’m privileged in that arena to protest or say publicly what I’m thinking about. Maybe the strongest work I’ve done is because it was done with indignation.”
When Alex Parker, then-owner of One Times Square, was approached by Stonbely about mounting the beast of a billboard to the side of his building, he told the The New Yorker he had initially worried that it would ruin the architectural aesthetics. Then, he thought, “What the hell, flashing bright lights, excitement, attractions — isn’t that what Times Square is supposed to be all about?”
Oh, if only you could see it now, Mr. Parker.