N.Y. mayor demands exhibit be canceled

Art: Giuliani's threat to pull Brooklyn museum's funding sparks censorship debate.

September 24, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Be careful what you wish for.

Museum director Arnold Lehman sought to create buzz and draw attention to the Brooklyn Museum of Art by importing from England a controversial exhibition that included human blood, animal parts and a painting of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung.

He surely has done so. But he also has incensed New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who on Wednesday threatened to cut off all financial support to the museum unless the exhibition, scheduled to open next week, is canceled. And he has rekindled a national debate about whether cultural institutions that accept government support should be subject to government approval.

Giuliani, who called the art "sick stuff," reiterated yesterday his demand that the show be canceled. "People have an absolute right to express anything they like, but they do not have the absolute right to have it funded by the taxpayer," said the Republican mayor, considered a potential U.S. Senate candidate for 2000.

Some museum directors expressed dismay at the mayor's pronouncement. "I am really sorry that the mayor has taken this stance. It is an unfortunate one. It does attack freedom of speech," says James A. Welu, director of the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts and president of the American Association of Museum Directors. "Museums are forums where ideas are exchanged, and we take the role seriously. The Brooklyn museum knew some of these works were going to be difficult and acknowledged that and took care to tell the public by having age restrictions."

"I applaud [Lehman], I really do. He has done something courageous," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery.

"He knows this is a hot topic and he believes strongly that museums are an arena for the discussion of ideas."

And in London, David Gordon, secretary of the Royal Academy for the Arts called the mayor's reaction to the exhibition "completely over the top."

"New York is renowned for its diversity and broad-mindedness. It seems so old-fashioned for politician to stand up and proclaim his views on art and try to censor it."

Lehman, who left the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1997 to head the Brooklyn institution, was unavailable yesterday for comment. The museum director had hoped the exhibition titled "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," would become a must-see art show attracting crowds to his under-attended institution.

The museum, second largest in the city after the Metropolitan, receives $7 million in annual support from the city. Another $20 million has been earmarked by the city for capital improvements.

The exhibition features nearly 100 photographs, paintings, sculptures and multimedia works by 42 artists including Damien Hirst, who is renowned for creating works by preserving dead sharks, sheep and cows in glass tanks filled with formaldehyde.

Two works included in the exhibition are "This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home," a 1996 work that consists of two pigs, one cut in half, floating in tanks of formaldehyde.

But the art work that caused the most furor is a painting called "The Holy Virgin," by 30-year-old artist Chris Ofili, whose work often explores the experience of being black in England. The painting of the religious icon Mary is spattered with elephant dung.

The mayor bases his right to withdraw funding on the fact that the museum has restricted entry to the exhibition, granting admission to children younger than 17 only if they are accompanied by an adult. "The lease makes it clear that the museum has to open to the public. What about the rights of the children who want to go into the exhibit?

"If you believe that it is art to throw dung at a religious symbol or to take animal body parts, you have a right to do that. You just can't do it in a public building unless the mayor thinks that what you are doing is reasonable, and this mayor doesn't."

The mayor is not the first to express outrage over the exhibition. Even before his pronouncement, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights had denounced "The Holy Virgin." And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was upset by Hirst's use of pigs.

"People of all religions should boycott this museum while this exhibit is on display," said Patrick Scully, spokesman for the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which is calling for a city-wide boycott of the museum.

The furor over "Sensation" isn't the first time politicians and the artistic community have clashed over the limits of what's acceptable. In 1989, a controversy over the homoerotic works of Richard Mapplethorpe forced Washington's Corcoran Gallery to cancel a planned exhibit of his photographs. That same year, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, to Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, who once photographed a crucifix soaking in his own urine, came under heavy fire, leading some congressional leaders to call for the NEA's abolishment.

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