Marcio Melo Paintings Banned by National Capital Commission

I was recently involved in an episode which involved some of my paintings being censored, which subsequently brought a lot of support from friends and others in the artistic community, and got a lot of attention from the media, including photos of my paintings on the front page of two newspapers.

I would like to inform my supporters what has happened and would like to give my side of the story. Interestingly enough, although I was at the centre of attention, few of the media sought my views on the issues, and reacted mainly to others' ideas.

What Happened?

I had been invited by the National Capital Commission (NCC), as part of the "Artists in their Environment Studio Tour", to exhibit my works for two weekends in the Gatineau Park Visitors Centre in Old Chelsea, Quebec, Canada. We had discussions back in June, in the weeks just before the Tour, and the days before the Tour. At no time was there any mention of restrictions on what kind of art could be exhibited. Since the Tour is in it's ninth year in the neighbourhood of the Visitors Centre, and the NCC has been a sponsor for several years, I expected their invitation to exhibit would be made in full knowledge of what the Tour is  - professional artists exhibiting fine art and crafts.

I hung the show two days before the Tour. Our contact, François Leduc, had said he would be there, but did not show up. We hung a beautiful looking show after many hours work.

The next afternoon, less than 24 hours before the start of the Tour, I received a call about a problem. I had no idea what the problem could be. Seven of the 26 paintings were deemed unsuitable for the family oriented Visitors Centre, and had to be removed. I was astounded! Francois said that he personally found only one painting at the entrance a problem, but his boss, Michel Charbonneau felt that all seven had to go. I agreed with Francois that moving the one at the entrance would be okay, but removing the others was unwarranted. He and his colleagues went to the Visitors Centre together to view the works, then called back to insist that all seven be removed. I requested the reason why these seven were unsuitable, but was told that they were just not acceptable for families. I suggested waiting until a visitor actually complained, covering the offending parts of the paintings with leaves or black rectangles, or posting a warning sign. These were rejected. When I asked what would happen if I wouldn't take them down, François reminded me that we only had a verbal agreement, implying that I would not be allowed to show any paintings. This is the "amicable agreement" that NCC spokesmen referred to in the press! I disagreed with their decision, but my main purpose is for people to see my art, and I did not want to jeopardize the Tour in any way. I replaced the seven framed, ready for sale paintings with unframed works on paper, which while it made a nice display, could hardly be expected to sell. 

The offending paintings are shown here. Judge for yourself!

How did this Attract Attention?

As I was taking down the paintings, a fellow Tour artist, Marie-France Nitski, dropped by to give me something. She asked what we were doing and François Leduc (who did show up to make sure they were taken down) explained to her what had happened. Marie-France could not believe it, and immediately insisted that she show two of the paintings at her studio. As soon as she heard about it, Anne Marie Bertrand, another Tour artist offered to exhibit the remaining banned paintings. They freely discussed this with their visitors, which included reporters for  "The West Quebec Post" and "The Ottawa Citizen". They were outraged that the NCC had banned such beautiful paintings, interviewed me, and took pictures and did front page stories about the incident  (the paintings were acceptable for the front page of newspapers, but not for families visiting the Centre). I received several calls for interviews over the phone for radio and television. A supporter wrote a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen the last day of the Tour, and the paper included another photograph beside it. In all of the stories, the NCC was always talking about our "amicable agreement" but never said what it was.

At no time did I ever "leak" the incident to anyone. When the media called to ask questions, I answered them honestly. 

What are the Issues Here?

There are two main issues, contractual obligations and censorship.

Contractual Obligations

The NCC invited me to exhibit in their Visitors Centre. No restrictions were ever mentioned. The Tour has been held in their neighbourhood for eight years, attended by thousands of people. The NCC has sponsored the Tour for several years. They should have been fully aware that art is not just landscapes.

The NCC representative was not present when the show was hung as promised, which could have caught the "problem" before I went to all the effort of hanging the show. I am a professional and ensure that all of my displays are professional and visually appealing. This is more than just hanging pictures on a wall, the exhibition as a whole must be the best I can do.
While we only had a verbal agreement at the time, as far as I know, verbal agreements are perfectly legal in Quebec. I took the paintings down because, as I said before, I want people to enjoy my art and did not want to jeopardize the Tour. At no time did I consider legal action, or protesting to keep the pictures up. I am not a person who seeks confrontation or attention (other than I want everyone to enjoy my art).

I did have paintings to replace the seven that were taken down. Also exhibiting with me at the Visitors Centre was Sculptor Raymond Warren. His whimsical ceramic sculptures are all naked and anatomically correct. If the NCC objected to his works, he would have had nothing to display. Had other of the Tour artists decided to display there, they would be in the same situation. The Tour is a major yearly marketing opportunity for many of the artists, who work for a year preparing for this show. It potentially could jeopardize an entire years income.

The NCC was wrong to have insisted the paintings be removed. They have never admitted this, and have not apologized, even though their actions jeopardized potential sales of my work, wasted hours of my time and cast unfavourable aspersions on my reputation.


Was the NCC right to ban my paintings? You've see the paintings in question. Are they unsuitable for family viewing? If this is the case, families would not be able to visit the National Gallery, go to a beach in Ontario (or anywhere in Ontario for that matter) or watch television. Two of the banned paintings were displayed in the Foyer of Ottawa City Hall just two days before I set up the show at the Visitors Centre. The NCC's views are completely out of touch with modern society.

My paintings are meant to inspire peace, movement and balance. I often use classical themes based in nature without reference to time or culture, and highly stylized techniques. My style is somewhat naïve. I am a figurative painter. People are typically in my paintings, usually clothed, but sometimes not. As soon as you introduce clothing, it places the image in a cultural and time frame. My series "Aquatica" (from which five of the banned paintings come) was this classical representation of mankind in harmony with nature using elements of water. The figures are innocently placed in everyday activities (carrying water, swimming, playing music, cooking) and contain no sexual overtones whatsoever.
To this day I have received no complaints whatsoever (other than from the NCC) about the banned paintings (or any of my paintings) - ever!

Should the NCC be able to censor what is shown in the Visitors Centre? This is a much more difficult question for which I don't have a universal answer. It is not just the NCC's Centre - it belongs to all the citizens of Canada. They should have very strong reasons (stronger than one managers personal opinion) before they deprive the public of the opportunity to view art if the public wishes.

If they do have these strong reasons, above all, they should be documented, and available to anyone who may even be considering exhibiting in the Centre, before any effort is expended to set up a display. They should also be developed with public input and subject to public comment.

I have still not been told what was offensive about my paintings. I assume it was the naked breasts that were present in most of the paintings. Yet my co-exhibitor's sculptures had penises, and he received no comment from the NCC. Is the NCC saying that penises are okay, but women's breasts are not? It is all very unclear to me. Their guidelines should be public and held up to some kind of common standard and application.

What Will Come of All This?

The exhibition is over and I have received encouraging support from almost everyone. I received a lot of media attention which, although I did nothing to garner it, can increase recognition of my name and artwork.

The NCC should decide if they will have guidelines for artists for future shows, and if so, develop them with public input. I hope that this incident will not discourage them from allowing other artists to display in their Visitors Centre, or in supporting the Studio Tour in the future.

Other than for this incident, the NCC, and especially François Leduc and his employees were most helpful in arranging this exhibit. The Visitors Centre is an excellent venue for art shows. The exhibition space is well designed, well lit, has full facilities, has walk-in traffic, is easy to find and is close to Ottawa. The collaboration of artists and the NCC should benefit everyone concerned.

My Final Words

The issue of censorship is a difficult one. For a public location like the Gatineau Park Visitors Centre, if they are going to censor, their policies should be public and based on public input, not dictated on an ad hoc basis whenever they feel like it. What they did to me was wrong and I would appreciate a public apology. What they are doing to the visiting public is wrong and should be rectified.

Above all, I would like people to see and enjoy my work. When I paint, I have the excitement of creating something that's going to make my heart beat and be happy. In the end, that's all I want to create, a good feeling for life and for things. That's what I believe and that's what I want to pass, when I paint, to people.

Marcio Melo 1997


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