Brooklyn Museum Sues Mayor Giuliani by Meredith Mendelsohn
The Brooklyn Museum of Art filed a lawsuit in Federal Court on Tuesday in response to Mayor Rudy Giuliani's threats to withdraw $7.2 million in city funding if "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" was not cancelled. The Mayor ordered the museum to stop the show because of the "sick" content of certain works, but the exhibition will open as originally planned, on Saturday, Oct. 2. The lawsuit requests a court order to prevent the Mayor from inflicting "any punishment, retaliation or sanction of any kind" against the museum for holding the exhibition.
The Mayor's office immediately responded by canceling a $497,554 check that was scheduled to go to the museum this Friday, and by continuing efforts to kick the museum out of the building it leases from the city.
Reacting to the city's eviction threats, the museum's board also voted yesterday to remove the age restriction it had placed on the exhibition, which required all children under the age of 17 to be accompanied by an adult. In an ironic spin on family values, the city claims that the age restriction violates the lease and is grounds for eviction, according to the 1893 document which states that the museum "shall at all reasonable times be free, open and accessible to the public and private schools of the city."
Rumors of negotiations earlier in the week hinted that museum chairman Robert Rubin was considering pulling from the show Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary, the image that originally incited the Mayor's ire. The painting, which is decorated with tiny photos of women's behinds and genitalia (à la Courbet's L'Origine du Monde?) depicts the Virgin with a ball of elephant dung for a breast. (The Mayor has not acknowledged that elephant dung is a reverential symbol of regeneration in Africa, and was not used in disrespect by the artist, who himself is a Roman Catholic). The painting will still hang, right along side other works deemed "sickening" by the Mayor, who came to his decision a few days ago, though the BMA announced its plan to host "Sensation" last April.
As reported in Artnet Magazine earlier this week, the Mayor stated that "If you are a government-subsidized enterprise, then you can't do things that desecrate the most deeply held views of people in society." But at a press conference on Tuesday, as the New York Times reported, the Brooklyn Museum of Art's attorney, renowned First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, claimed that "there is no obligation from the city to fund the arts. But the First Amendment says, according to a wide, sustained continuing body of case law, that the funding process may not be used to coerce institutions such as this to do the bidding of its political leaders."
Slow to react to Giuliani's thundering, numerous New York art institutions expressed their support for the museum yesterday via a letter sent to the Mayor, which was signed by Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum, and Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, along with 22 other representatives of museums and art organizations, many from the city's Cultural Institutions Group.
Also coming to the defense of the Museum is the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), and the Association of Art Museum Directors.
Finally, Hillary Clinton, who will probably be Giuliani's prime opponent in the Senate race, has defended the Brooklyn Museum of Art. "I would not go to see this exhibit," she stated, "but it is not appropriate to penalize and punish an institution such as the Brooklyn Museum."
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.