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Serial killer art creating controversy

Nonprofit groups divided over whether to accept funds from sale of John Wayne Gacy art

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Photo: Leila Navidi

A national advocacy organization selected to receive funds from the sale of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s artwork by a Las Vegas gallery said that it would not accept proceeds from such an event, surprising one of the event's organizers who believed that the group was part of the effort.

“We were never contacted about this,” said Mary Rappaport, spokeswoman for the National Center for Victims of Crime. “Out of respect for the victims families, we have not agreed and would not agree to accept any contribution that comes from the sale of John Wayne Gacy’s work, which he did while in prison for torturing and murdering young boys and men.”

Additionally, Rappaport said, “We believe the idea of benefiting from an activity relating to such egregious and violent crimes would be in poor taste to the extreme.”

The National Center for Victims of Crime is listed as a recipient of the proceeds in press releases from Sin City Gallery and on the website, johnwaynegacyart.com , which also lists two local beneficiaries—The Contemporary Arts Center and the18b Arts District—as recipients.

Laura Henkel, the exhibit’s co-organizer and owner of Sin City Gallery, said that she has resigned from the project this afternoon in response to this news. She said she had no idea that the National Center for Victims of Crime had not agreed to receive funds from the exhibit, Multiples: The Artwork of John Wayne Gacy. Henkel said the arrangements with that organization were made by the owner of the Gacy art collection and said that she is very upset to hear the news: “I’ve been promoting this because there was going to be some benefit from this, including the National Center for the Victims of Crime.”

Henkel has been planning to host the first exhibit this month at Sin City Gallery in the Arts Factory and, in conjunction with the exhibit, has coordinated lectures by Jack Levin, the Irving and Betty Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University, and David Gussak, an assistant professor for The Florida State University Art Therapy Program in the Department of Art Education. Levin is scheduled to speak May 17 and Gussak is scheduled to speak May 25. The Contemporary Arts Center is scheduled to host the second exhibit in its gallery in September. Henkel sees the exhibit and accompanying lectures as an opportunity for healing.

“I don’t have any reservation for showing the work. It’s part of our history,” Henkel said. “We’re looking at the educational aspect and exploiting Gacy for the benefit of the positive.

“My biggest shock is that people don’t want to have anything to do with it. Obviously, there are people who are into it and people who are appalled by it.”

Those appalled by the exhibition and sale of the works include members of the Contemporary Arts Center who say that they will resign from its exhibition committee if this exhibit goes forward.

“The whole thing is a horrible idea,” said exhibition committee member Justin Favela. “I just don’t want to be around that. I don’t want to be part of this. The CAC is not the right institution to do it in. Nor is the Arts factory.”

Erin Stellmon, another member of the exhibition committee, says, “No matter how you spin it, you’re profiting off dead children. It doesn’t matter where the money goes. If you prostitute children and give the money to the Red Cross, it’s still wrong.”

Additionally, Stellmon said, “The CAC is an institution that is very important to the culture of Las Vegas... I honestly feel that profiting from this show threatens the future of one of the most important organizations in Vegas.”

CAC board president Anne Davis Mulford confirmed that the CAC is scheduled to receive funds and host the exhibit in September, but declined to comment until the board can present a formal statement.

Gacy was convicted and executed for the rape, torture and murder of 33 teenagers. Some of the victims were buried a crawl space under his Chicago-area home. Gacy was dubbed the Killer Clown, because he dressed and performed as “Pogo the Clown” at children's events. His drawings and paintings include renditions of clowns, the Seven Dwarfs and portraits of Hitler, Charles Manson and Jesus Christ.

Wes Myles, owner of the Arts Factory and main coordinator for the event, said that he learned of the Gacy collection when introduced to a mutual friend who says that Gacy bequeathed the collection to him shortly before his execution.

Myles said that the collection includes 90 pieces, including “a plethora” of original materials—hand-written letters, manuscripts and audio recordings.

Myles then brought Henkel on board. She arranged for lectures to accompany the exhibit. “The art is interesting,” Myles said. “It’s outsider art. It’s primitive art. You can’t be in a room with it without feeling.”

When asked if showing Gacy’s art concerned him, Myles referenced fictional television dramas: “How can you say it’s that weird when you’ve got shows like CSI, Criminal Minds and Dexter. There’s someone dying in every one of the episodes. Our society has a fascination with that.”

Myles said that some CAC members were upset about the exhibit, and when asked if he expected protests against the exhibit, Myles said, “I hope so. To have intellectual conversation about art is positive.”

Henkel, who says she appraised the collection, suggested the CAC and 18b as recipients because she wanted the art community to benefit. But, she says, she also already received negative criticism from community members about the exhibit.

“I’m not trying to glorify Gacy in any shape or form,” she said. “These are lectures that are geared toward, “OK we have this information, now what do we do with this?”

When asked if it could potentially damage the CAC, she says, “I really hope not. This is going to be the largest show of an outsider artist here. I see this as an opportunity to create some sort of healing, some sort of education. I’m disappointed that people aren’t taking a look at what’s really going on here.”

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Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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