ST. PETERSBURG — Artist Zuleika Gonzalez-Tiernan photographs lesbian orgies, but a naked man hanging from a ceiling is too wild even for her.
The arrest of William Schramm last week for allowing a nude man in his erotic art gallery has inspired debate among local artists over whether he is offering art or publicity stunts.
Critics fear he is giving erotic art a bad name.
"The sensationalism is what's being discussed," said Gonzalez-Tiernan. "It's no longer about the art."
Police arrested Schramm during an art opening Friday night at his 2501 Gallery on Central Avenue. He was charged with battery of a law enforcement officer and unlawful exposure of private parts, a violation of a city ordinance that prohibits the display of genitals where alcohol is served.
Schramm said he merely tried to show a police officer how to push the door open. Police said Schramm touched the officer's arm and tried to prevent him from entering.
Police found nude model Joshua Culotta sitting in a swing hanging from the ceiling.
It was the second time that night police visited the gallery. An officer first complained about an 8-foot-tall penis outside near the entrance. Schramm said it was art and refused to move it.
Schramm, who moved to St. Petersburg from Las Vegas about two years ago, began hosting erotic art shows in August 2007. At the first event, he hired a naked model and let guests sketch the man.
But with each show, Schramm's exploits became increasingly controversial.
In March, Schramm tied a blindfolded model dressed in his briefs to a tree.
On the night he was arrested, Schramm set up a "human petting zoo," inviting guests to "dare to explore" an underwear-clad model inside a restroom.
The gallery features sexual acts for all tastes. It's all art, Schramm insists.
But many erotic art leaders avoid confrontations.
The board of the Museum of Sex in New York City, the first sex museum in the U.S., advertises its collection but avoids unseemliness, said Noelle Daidone, a museum spokeswoman. "It's not like we have naked statues or porn in the windows on Fifth Avenue," she said.
Naomi Wilzig, founder of the World Erotic Art Museum in edgy South Beach said she avoids live performances and does not display erotic images where children might see them.
"People are still frightened by the word erotic, people still think its pornographic, even here in South Beach," she said.
Gonzalez-Tiernan, one of the first artists to participate in a Schramm show, soon found herself questioning Schramm's motivations and stopped showing her erotic photographs at his gallery.
"He is looking to push boundaries," she said. "Unfortunately, the art is suffering because of it."
Still, others herald Schramm, who is gay, as a sexual pioneer.
Clearwater photographer Jerry Barocas usually has to go outside Florida to find galleries to sell his art. But he found an ally in Schramm and a link to erotica fans.
"You were literally squeezing through the crowd, there were so many people there," he said. "There is obviously a market for it, but the other galleries won't touch it with a 10-foot pole."
Schramm first said he would close the shop to focus on his legal battle but has since received an outpouring of support.
So he said he will keep the shop, forfeit his liquor license and stop displaying erotic images outside his gallery or in its windows.
"I feel strongly about this form of art," he said. "I feel very strongly that there is a stigma attached to it that shouldn't be there … but I am willing to deal with it."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.