Art shouldn't suffer at a mayor's whim

N.Y. exhibit: With Giuliani's wrath, Lehman gets more of a "Sensation" than he bargained for.

October 05, 1999

THE CULTURAL war over the Brooklyn Museum of Art's show of shock art will do good if it brings new audiences to the majestic Egyptian antiquities and important American paintings gracing that wonderful museum.

The controversy over the young British artists' work will do harm if the Brooklyn Museum wins its battle at a cost to public funding of itself and other arts institutions.

The show was a success in London and Berlin. Arnold L. Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, reasonably supposed that New York could handle it. Not so.

The dispute is a replay of the uproar a decade ago where National Endowment of the Arts support of two exhibitions nearly destroyed the NEA and reduced its funding by Congress. One of the works then, as one now, was by an artist professing to be Catholic but was interpreted as an attack on the Catholic religion.

Mr. Lehman was lured from the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) two years ago by the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA), a larger museum with smaller attendance. His challenge is to attract people from Brooklyn who never go to museums and from Manhattan who never go to Brooklyn. He is good at it.

Marketing the show as "Sensation," Mr. Lehman got what he bargained for and more.

The First Amendment that protects the artists and gallery also covers the critics, including Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Cardinal John J. O'Connor in this case. But the mayor has been trying to denigrate, defund and take over the museum, without halting the exhibit. Whether this is spontaneous rage or calculated campaigning for U.S. Senate, he should fail.

New York City benefits immensely from its arts funding, which is not at Mr. Giuliani's whim. Yet the city's arts institutions are liable to suffer from this controversy over the next year of budgeting. Government officials are held accountable by the public for the tax dollars they distribute. They not only may second-guess agencies' stewardship; they must.

The issue, which has propelled crowds to see the exhibit, is not a matter of censorship, which would trivialize that word. It is, rather, whether accepting public dollars conveys a responsibility for restraint in aesthetic judgments.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art made a risky judgment with which hindsight should find fault. Overreaction by city government would harm New York and not those young British artists. Their works would soar in market value with every dollar lost by the museum that dared to show them.

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