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Last year, a divergent group of art scholars, constitutional lawyers and cultural critics met in Chicago for a nine-hour arts symposium with the charged title: "Taking Funds, Giving Offense, Making Money."

The audience of nearly 400 argued over the latest event in America’s cultural wars - the fight between the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" (Oct. 2, 1999 to Jan. 9, 2000).

They must have gained some perspective in Chicago, far from the hype and hysteria in New York, because the book that resulted from the symposium presentations - "Unsettling Sensation: Arts-Policy Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Controversy" (Rutgers University Press, $25) - finally provides a nuanced account of what happened during the tug-of-war over artist Chris Ofili’s painting, "The Holy Virgin Mary," in Brooklyn in the fall of 1999.

The 21 essays in "Unsettling Sensation" respond to the controversy along a number of sightlines including the law, the public’s relationship to museums, offensive images, government funding and the press.

The "Sensation" exhibit was supposed to bring a young, hip audience that cared about art but knew next to nothing about the art museum in Brooklyn, according to the book.

It worked.

The 9,000 visitors who attended opening day, some waiting as long as 90 minutes for one of the $9.75 tickets, doubled the museum’s previous one-day record for "Monet and the Mediterranean" set on Jan. 3, 1998. Brooklyn Museum of Art director Arnold Lehman, in fact, had already doubled the museum’s annual attendance from 250,000 in 1996 to 470,000 in 1999.

But even as "Sensation" brought a new audience to the Brooklyn Museum, it raised questions about the government’s right (or lack thereof) to determine the content of the cultural institutions it funds and the future of museums’ relationships with their donors and audiences.

 

Legal battle

The First Amendment question, as demonstrated by five of the essays in "Unsettling Sensation," is still far from settled. The mayor withheld the Brooklyn Museum’s funding because he objected to Chris Ofili’s painting (see photo at left). Giuliani then tried to evict the museum; the museum sued the mayor on First Amendment grounds and won before federal Judge Nina Gershon.

According to the law professors writing in "Unsettling Sensation," the case was not the black-and-white issue it was popularly believed to be.

At the time, the city provided about $7 million of the museum’s annual $23 million budget. Those numbers roughly hold today.

In his essay "The False Promise of the First Amendment," University of Chicago law professor David Strauss theorizes that it may have been a Pyrrhic victory. If enough judges take the same road as Gershon and come down emphatically on the side of public art institutions against their government benefactors, "governments would begin to ask themselves exactly what they are getting themselves in for if they fund this exhibit, this group of performers, or these artists." After all, government is not constitutionally required to fund the arts.

Strauss’ underlying argument, which he shares with Stephen Presser, a professor of legal history at Northwestern Law School, is that the museum’s victory was far from assured. If it plays its cards right, the government does not have to fund offensive material.

Presser writes that Giuliani should have been able to sever the city’s partnership with the museum on the grounds that the museum violated that partnership. The city, represented by corporation counsel Michael Hess, raised this issue to no avail.

The mayor assured his own defeat by attacking the museum too strongly. Had he tried to use a more delicate method of withholding funds he might have had a legal leg upon which to stand.

Then again, Giuliani appeared less worried about removing Ofili’s painting from the exhibition than making political points with upstate Conservatives (to shore up his campaign for a Senate seat) writes David Ross, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art. If Giuliani’s role as the strident moral opponent was "scripted," so was that of Lehman, as the promoter of the show.

 

Being ’hip’

Narrowed to its component parts, Ofili’s "The Holy Virgin Mary" is paper collage, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins and elephant dung on linen. In a broader context it was part of a provocative appeal to younger audiences. When the museum began to print tongue-in-cheek advertisements warning that the exhibit might induce nausea or vomiting the point was clear: This is not your parent’s Brooklyn Museum of Art.

"We have a vast community of people for whom we’re not relevant," Lehman said in an interview last year. "We have to figure out how we can become increasingly significant in people’s lives. We can’t do it by insisting that they learn about Renaissance art."

His words just as easily apply to the Brooklyn Museum’s subsequent exhibit, "Hip-Hop: Roots, Rhymes and Rage" (Sept. 22 to Dec. 31, 2000), an attempt to attract younger black and Hispanic audiences and any youth who like hip-hop music and culture. The words also apply to the upcoming "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" exhibit (opening April 5, 2002) and to any of the record-breaking exhibits at Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum, like "Armani" (Oct. 20, 1999-January 17, 2000) or "Art of the Motorcycle" (June 26, 1998-Sept. 20, 1998) that, at least on the surface, appear more market driven than educational.

Such exhibits, it can be argued, seek to broaden and democratize a museum’s audience. At the same time, the broader demographics make the museum more appealing to corporate donors. There is no reason why a museum can’t satisfy its personal needs while meeting the public’s.

"Our audience today reflects in part a responsiveness to that exhibition [Sensation] in terms of the museum having a younger, somewhat diverse and increasingly committed audience," Lehman told GO Brooklyn.

 

Dwindling funds

The needs of these institutions have grown, however. Corporate and government funding for public museums has dropped dramatically in recent years. In the year "Sensation" opened, the Alliance for the Arts, which tracks New York City’s arts organizations, released a report on funding for non-profit arts organizations. In New York City, federal arts funding nose-dived by 88 percent to cover just 1.2 percent of arts organizati­ons’ budgets, according to the report. In that same period New York City cut funding to non-profit cultural institutions by half. Corporate funding dropped in those years from 5.6 to 3.9 percent of the New York arts organizati­ons’ budgets.

No surprise then that some museum directors were running scared.

"The ’greater’ scandal of the ’Sensation’ show was that it revealed (oh marvelous revelation!) that art museums are in competition with movies, shopping malls and theme parks," writes W.J.T. Mitchell, an art history professor at the University of Chicago, in "Unsettling Sensation."

"Sensation" was funded, in part, with $160,000 from Charles Saatchi, $50,000 from Christie’s and $75,000 from David Bowie. It was a four-way relationship. Christie’s stood to gain from any potential future sale of the art work; Bowie, who recorded the audio tour that accompanied the exhibit, was given the rights to use the art on his Web site; and Saatchi, well, Saatchi owned the art, and had a reputation of buying large quantities of contemporary art, aggressively promoting it, then turning around to sell it at a profit.

Mitchell suggests that Brooklyn was only guilty of indiscretion by hiding Saatchi’s donation, yet museums have long kept their internal operations cloaked because they are not as pretty as the objects inside. Artist Hans Haacke managed to offend the Guggenheim when he attempted to exhibit photos of tenement buildings owned by the museum’s trustees, Mitchell points out in "Unsettling Sensation." The incident took place in 1971, and the exhibition was cancelled six weeks before its scheduled opening. The Guggenheim fired the show’s curator.

Lehman has said he "begged" Saatchi to fund the exhibit after corporate sponsors refused to back it and that the secrecy was due to Saatchi’s desire to remain anonymous.

"To me that means if a reporter asks me about it I’m going to say ’no,’" Lehman said.

"I tried to convince [Saatchi] to help," Lehman told GO Brooklyn. "It was never a question of funding the exhibition. What he did was only a fraction [of the exhibition’s costs]."

The consensus on the Brooklyn Museum’s actions is described in "Unsettling Sensation" by James Cuno, director of the Harvard Art Museums, who writes: "In pursuing this exhibition and its funding as it did, the Brooklyn Museum took chances not many museum directors would take." Cuno acknowledges that Harvard has in the past taken donations from the owners of its exhibits.

The stamp of disapproval came when the American Association of Museums, which has more than 3,000 institution members, passed a new set of ethical guidelines the summer after "Sensation" closed.

 

Hype vs. reality

Even if the Brooklyn Museum went too far, there was something off in the media’s revelations of the museum’s funding practices, writes Andres Szanto, a deputy director of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. The press is ill equipped to handle the juncture of arts and hard news, he writes. The arts are "feature" section material, more emotional in response and often less rigorous in its reporting than the "news" sections, he claims.

For example, writers kept describing Ofili’s painting as "smeared" with dung, when in fact the dry, lacquered balls of dung were carefully placed and anything but smeared. A small point perhaps, but telling in the lack of reporting and the attempt to stir emotions.

When it came to the largely unknown world of financial relationships between museums and exhibitions, press reactions went both ways. Either it was standard practice for a museum to take money from the owner of an exhibition or it was scandalous. Museum directors around the country did not help by sending mixed messages, Szanto writes.

UCLA’s LeRoy Nieman Center for the Study of American Society bases an interesting essay in the book on UCLA’s survey of 860 visitors to the "Sensation" exhibit.

Forget Chris Ofili, the survey revealed that it was the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, who most offended museum visitors with their sexualized metamorphic teenage mannequins.

The disconnect between the reality of viewer response and the hype shouldn’t surprise - considering that neither the mayor nor Lehman had seen "Sensation" firsthand before they made their judgements of it.


"Unsettling Sensation: Arts-Policy Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Controversy," edited by Lawrence Rothfield (Rutgers University Press, $25) can be ordered at A Novel Idea Book Store [8415 Third Ave. (718) 833-5115] in Bay Ridge, Community Bookstore [143 Seventh Ave. between Carroll Street and Garfield Place, (718) 783-3075] in Park Slope and BookCourt [163 Court St., (718) 875-3677] in Cobble Hill.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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