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West Chicago City Museum removes artist from exhibit after minstrel show hoax

Published: Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 11:16 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:45 a.m. CDT

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WEST CHICAGO – A Chicago artist has been removed from a West Chicago City Museum exhibit after he posed as a Community High School teacher and sent a fake news release to media organizations saying Glee Club students would stage a charity minstrel show.

Jason Pallas presented himself as an AP English teacher and dean of dramatic and movement arts named "Harry Slater" in the emails he sent to various news outlets, including Suburban Life Media, with the fake release.

In the release, Pallas explained the show would be a way for the students "to start a conversation about racial representation and stereotypes."

The proceeds of the fictitious show were to be donated to the high school's Multicultural Sensitivity Club, which does not exist. Neither does the school's purported Glee Club, which Pallas said would perform the minstrel show.

Pallas did not respond to multiple calls and emails for comment.

Officials from Community High School District 94 in West Chicago were alerted to the hoax when they received a call from a Champaign man who had seen the event information online, district spokesperson Becky Koltz said.

"I guess as a school district, you never know when people are going to do things to misrepresent you," Koltz said.

The district launched an investigation that involved the West Chicago Police Department. District officials have not contacted Pallas and do not plan to do so, she said.

District 94 also will not pursue charges because officials do not believe an actual crime was committed, Koltz said. She added that there is a line between what's considered art and free speech and what qualifies as criminal misrepresentation.

Pallas had been part of the City Museum's "Where History and Progress Meet: A 'Junction' of Local History and Art," which allowed artists to select a topic or artifact from West Chicago's past to create a new work, City Museum Director Sara Phalen said.

According to a project description Pallas wrote for the exhibit catalog, he chose a playbill from a 1930 minstrel show as the inspiration for his piece, which was the fake news release.

A photo of the high school glee club from about the same time period also influenced his project, although those students did not comprise the glee club that performed the 1930 minstrel show.

The show was put on by the West Chicago C and NW Ry (Chicago and North Western Railway) Glee Club and was directed by a man named Harry Slater, according to the playbill.

Looking for a way to bring the legacy of minstrel shows back into the public conversation without performing one, Pallas devised a hoax to issue the release as if the school were staging a commemorative performance of the original show, he said in the catalog.

"It would be a way to literally embody history and start a conversation about contemporary racial representations and stereotypes," Pallas said.

As soon as the City Museum learned of Pallas' actions, his work was removed from the exhibit, as was his project description from the exhibit catalog. The city is taking steps to prevent similar incidents in the future, said John Said, West Chicago's director of community development.

The museum has attempted to contact Pallas, but has been unable to reach him, according to Said.

After learning of the hoax Dec. 12, District 94 posted a statement on its website Dec. 16, explaining the show was not real and the news release "was not created or distributed by Community High School District 94."

"The District wishes to assure the community that the Minstrel Show is a fictitious event and is not being held by Community High School District 94," the post said.

District officials received another call this week from a central Illinois resident who had seen the false information online, but as of Tuesday afternoon, they had not heard anything from local residents. All websites asked by the district to remove the information have complied.

Despite the steps the district and City Museum have taken, officials still worry the fake event could be online somewhere, based on the nature of the web.

"I'm afraid it's going to have a life of its own," Koltz said.

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