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Judge Orders N.Y. to Restore Museum Funds

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 1999; Page C01

NEW YORK, Nov. 1 –– The Brooklyn Museum of Art today won the latest round of a bitter dispute over a provocative exhibit of British art: A federal judge ordered the city to restore the $7.2 million it yanked after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani deemed the show "sick," offensive and anti-Catholic.

In a 40-page decision, U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon granted the museum's request for a preliminary injunction and barred city officials from "taking any steps to inflict any punishment, retaliation, discrimination or sanction" against the museum--where the show, "Sensation," has drawn crowds since it opened last month.

The mayor, who had expressed particular outrage over an African Madonna wearing a single clump of decorated elephant dung on her chest, was traveling upstate today but took a moment to excoriate Gershon as "totally out of control" and "abandoning all reason under the guise of the First Amendment."

A more measured statement from the mayor's office said the city "continues to believe that an exhibit that includes works that desecrate the religious beliefs of a substantial portion of the community is a violation of the purpose of the Brooklyn Museum." It announced its intention to appeal.

The museum's statement claimed "victory for the citizens of New York and for freedom of expression across the nation." The museum stood to lose nearly a third of its annual operating budget had the city been able to enforce its financial threat.

Floyd Abrams, attorney for the museum, said the ruling "makes plain that the conduct of Mayor Giuliani with regard to the museum over the past month has violated both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment." The decision apparently shuts down the city's countersuit in state court, in which it sought to evict the museum from its landmark, city-owned building.

Though free-expression partisans celebrated--New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Norman Siegel applauded "a major win for the First Amendment"--the drama may not end here.

Before the museum seeks to have its preliminary injunction made permanent, Abrams wants to take depositions from the mayor and from cultural affairs commissioner Schuyler Chapin, who has taken the comparatively rare step of publicly disagreeing with the man who appointed him. The museum, Abrams noted, seeks punitive damages from the mayor.

At the same time, the museum, while expressing "fervent hope that now we all can move forward," has suffered the embarrassment of having its internal documents and discussions made public via court filings--and of having the New York Times question its ethics in a front-page story Monday.

There had already been muttering over the fact that the artworks in "Sensation"--including Damien Hirst's formaldehyde-pickled shark, a bust sculpted from an artist's frozen blood, Chris Ofili's African-inspired works incorporating dung, and other pieces that art types call "challenging"--are all owned by London ad tycoon Charles Saatchi.

Museum shows can help increase the market value of artists' works, and some museums avoid single-owner exhibits to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Among the Giuliani administration's complaints was that the city-funded museum was using taxpayer dollars to further enrich Saatchi, and it vowed today to "pursue discovery vigorously as the case proceeds."

The Times reported that the museum's fund-raising to mount "Sensation" included appeals to, and contributions from, art dealers, Saatchi himself and others with "a direct commercial interest" in the artists shown.

Museum director Arnold Lehman told the paper there was no discussion of commercial considerations in his approaches to funders, who he said were motivated by the desire to support the touring exhibit, already hugely popular in London and Berlin.

But the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a gadfly in this and other skirmishes in the culture wars, will issue a call for Lehman's resignation tomorrow.

The league says the suit has already had the desired effect of underscoring the risks of using public funding for exhibits some find objectionable. "I don't know that the museum would want to do this again, or any museum," said Susan Fani, director of legal research. "The whole country was watching."

The NYCLU's Siegel, however, argued that the decision "will ameliorate the tendency towards self-censorship. Many people across the country will believe, more than before, that you can fight City Hall--and you can win."

Meanwhile Ofili, a prize-winning London artist of Nigerian descent, made a quiet visit here last month as Gavin Brown's Enterprise, a West Chelsea gallery, opened a show of his work. Just as thousands of New Yorkers who rarely take in contemporary art made the pilgrimage to Brooklyn to see what the fuss was about, Ofili's opening drew a full house.

"Some people had seen the show at the museum and felt his work is of great value and is under threat," Brown said. "The act of coming to the opening was a way of showing support."

 
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© 1999 The Washington Post Company


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