SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A town normally absorbed in budgets is in a dither over dalliances, specifically whether the former paramours of California's governors are a laudable topic for an art exhibit.
Where else would former Arnold Schwarzenegger lover Brigitte Nielsen be on the same wall with Nancy Reagan and Linda Ronstadt, who dated Gov. Jerry Brown in his first term four decades ago?
The 10 women in artist Maren Conrad's 12-painting collection were chosen because all had a sexual relationship with a California governor, or a man who would become one, the artist's research showed. But they also share something that the artist says made them worthy of a modern-day feminist art exhibit.
"They all stood up for themselves and their shared sexual experience," said Conrad, who majored in art and women's studies at Chico State University.
Conrad chose subjects who were open about the relationships and told the stories on their own terms. The exhibit includes Ronstadt, who when she was dating Brown said she had her own career and wouldn't be taking up first lady duties, but omits his wife Anne Gust Brown. Schwarzenegger's estranged wife Maria Shriver is there, as is actress Nancy Davis depicted before she was a Reagan. Ronald Reagan's ex-wife — actress Jane Wyman — is in the mix, too.
Also among the group is a masked composite meant to represent the women called liars when they accused Schwarzenegger of groping and other untoward behaviors. No portraits are overtly sexual.
"I had trouble narrowing it to 10 women," said Conrad.
The collection of oil-pen paintings Conrad calls "Politically Vulnerable" were designed to hang in a new Capitol-area nightclub called Vanguard, but they were sent back to her studio after a powerful feminist lobbyist complained to the club's owners.
On Thursday evening, the exhibit was displayed at an art gallery in downtown Sacramento, drawing a steady stream of wine-sipping visitors.
"It's innocuous. It's quite tastefully done. I think the Vanguard is losing out," said Sacramento banker Becki Roberts as she gazed at a portrait of Linda Ronstadt.
"And all the women in the portraits should be flattered. They're beautiful," added her friend Frances Knight.
The nightclub owners had given Conrad a down payment, and she created the intricate pixelated pieces to evoke old newspaper clippings, then gilded the backgrounds in gold leaf and coated them with lacquer to fit the new bar's elegantly gaudy decor.
Days before the Vanguard was to open, news of the exhibit was announced in an electronic newsletter for Capitol insiders.
Lobbyist Donne Brownsey was irate. She emailed the club's marketing director listing 10 women, including the state's two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who would have made better subjects.
"I think that the conception of your series unfortunately would be interpreted still in this day and age as a focus on the incidental power of women and politics," Brownsey said in an email to Conrad. Brownsey shared the email with The Associated Press but declined further comment.
That the exhibit was removed from the Vanguard has led a debate about what constitutes feminism and whether old notions have changed. Part of the early feminist movement was focused on the objectification of women, though some of those early feminists believed that sex and sexuality were part of the freedom equation, as do many in the generations that came after.
"There isn't a single correct view of what feminism is. There's no single person who gets to say what it is for everybody," said Leslie Salzinger, a professor of gender and women's studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
The capital also saw an uproar over art in 2000, when a Christian homeschooling group, in Sacramento for a conference, put three different outfits on a statue of Poseidon to keep the nude sculpture from their children's sight. Art lovers quickly and diligently undressed them.
After Sacramento, Conrad's work will travel to galleries in the Bay Area and Los Angeles that have requested it. The entire collection was purchased for an undisclosed price by a benefactor who collects feminist art.
"This is art whether you like it or don't like it," said the new owner, Glenda Corcoran, an attorney and volunteer for local progressive organizations. "When I think of modern feminism, I think of strong women supporting each other. I love that this has provoked that discussion."
And in other good news for Conrad, the owners of the Vanguard have commissioned a new series of paintings. This time they will asexually celebrate women and men who are leaders in the community.
Reach Tracie Cone at http://www.twitter.com/TConeAP .