IT IS perhaps fitting that Barbra Streisand was among the first wave of celebrities to tweet this month about the killed cartoons of then-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette employee Rob Rogers. Because those spiked cartoons are enjoying something of a “Streisand effect.”
Now, 18 of those killed cartoons and sketched ideas will be put on display in Washington in a pop-up exhibit a stone’s throw from the White House.
“Spiked: The Unpublished Political Cartoons of Rob Rogers” will open July 18 at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in Northwest Washington, George Washington University will announce Friday. The 18 works will be in the Atrium Galleries at the Flagg Building till October, when they will join a larger show set to open this autumn at the University of Pittsburgh.
The pop-up was the idea of Sanjit Sethi, director of George Washington University’s Corcoran School, who was moved to reach out to Rogers after he read about the work that prompted the cartoonist’s firing, after Rogers had spent a quarter-century at the Post-Gazette.
The 18 cartoons — which were critical of President Trump or satirized issues on which he’s taken strong stands — were killed between March 6 and June 3 of this year after the Post-Gazette’s editorial page came under the control of new editor Keith Burris.
Sethi calls his decision to bring this collection to Washington “a no-brainer.”
“It was really powerful for me to make sure the Corcoran could have work like that — as a point of departure and a point of discussion,” Sethi, the art and design school’s inaugural director since joining in October 2015, tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs of the exhibit, organized in collaboration with the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
Sethi calls Rogers’s work “remarkable in its ability to perform this essential act of critiquing power and structures,” and he views putting these cartoons on display as a way to spark conversation about censorship, as well as freedom of the press and journalistic integrity being essential to democracy.
Rogers, a past Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Pittsburgh-based cartoonist for 34 years, was fired in mid-June. Rogers told The Post on Wednesday that his former bosses, in killing his Trump cartoons, wanted to craft “cartoons by committee” — an approach, he said, that would differ a great deal from the typical give-and-take of editing a staff editorial cartoonist.
John Robinson Block, publisher of the Post-Gazette, told The Post in a statement in early June that the work dispute was not particularly one of political ideology — Rogers is a left-leaning cartoonist; the Post-Gazette’s editorial page has been widely described as increasingly leaning right — but rather of striking the right editing collaboration. He later told Politico that he wanted to run fewer cartoons critical of Trump and that Rogers had become “obsessed with Trump.”
Rogers’s cartoons continue to be distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication, which also published Rogers’s finished cartoons that had been spiked. Online, they went viral after media coverage grew around Rogers’s cartoon blackout and his subsequent termination. Amid this Streisand effect, Rogers’s Twitter following quickly climbed from a few thousand followers to nearly 90,000.
After the Corcoran pop-up, Rogers’s spiked cartoons will become part of a more expansive show in Rogers’s home town. His wife, Sylvia Rhor, incoming gallery director with the University of Pittsburgh, will curate the larger exhibit there, set to open in October — where many Post-Gazette readers and longtime Rogers fans will be able to view unseen sketched ideas for the first time.
What sometimes has gotten lost over the past year or so, Sethi said, is that freedom of the press is a crucial function of democracy. “I’m not trying to emphasize a partisan-based dialogue,” the Corcoran director said. “I’m trying to emphasize that freedom to critique is essential to a healthy, culturally diverse society. We need to have the platforms for that.”
Sethi notes that he also has a specific plank within his educational mandate at the Corcoran. “Part of my mission is to see that we can evolve this idea of what it means to be dedicated to American genius,” said Sethi, who befriended political-cartooning great Patrick Oliphant while director of the Santa Fe Art Institute. “Rob Rogers’s political cartoons are piercing, satiric and sardonic, and they epitomize this idea of American genius.”
Yet, Sethi said, the exhibit sits within a larger context: “You shouldn’t be losing your job because of whom you choose to critique. That’s North Korea.”
“It really is a bigger story than me getting fired — that’s not what this is about,” Rogers said. “When the newspaper or media outlet that is supposed to be a watchdog and keep an eye on authority and keep them in check — when they’re getting into bed with authority and letting authority off the hook, we’re in trouble. That’s what my paper did.”
“We need satire more than ever,” the cartoonist said. “I wish newspapers weren’t making it harder for that to happen, rather than helping it.”
“When we talk about repressing 18 cartoons,” Sethi said, “we are talking about repressing ideas and the values of saying: ‘Can we critique the current structures of power — or is it based on the whims of those in power?’ ”
“Spiked: The Unpublished Political Cartoons of Rob Rogers.” Free exhibition open to the public: July 18 – Oct. 14; Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturdays-Sundays, 1-6 p.m.; the Atrium Galleries at Flagg Building; Corcoran School of the Arts & Design, 500 17th St. NW; corcoran.gwu.edu.