NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union has demanded that city officials explain why they ordered a private art school to remove a banner displaying an image of Josef Stalin.
In a Nov. 13 letter to the Department of Buildings, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman expressed concern that the banner was taken down from the Cooper Union after some residents of the local Ukrainian community complained that it "seemed to promote" the Soviet dictator on the 75th anniversary of a famine he imposed. The famine, called the Holodomor, killed millions of Ukrainians.
The banner was part of an art exhibit, "Stalin by Picasso, or Portrait of Woman with Mustache." Norwegian artist Lene Berg created the banner and said it was intended to provoke discussion about the relationship between art and politics.
The banner features a reproduction of a 1953 Pablo Picasso portrait of Stalin. At the time, the image was viewed as a critique of the Soviet leader.
But the Ukrainian community found it offensive, said Tamara Olexy, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
"It's like hanging a portrait of Hitler in a synagogue or in a Jewish community," she said.
After receiving several complaints, the Department of Buildings investigated the banner's legality and determined it violated construction and zoning regulations, the agency said on Nov. 14.
"We determined the sign was too high, too large, lacked a permit and blocked the building's windows," buildings spokeswoman Kate Lindquist wrote in an e-mail. "The department does not regulate sign content."
But Lieberman said the NYCLU's understanding was that the complaints were about the banner's content, not its size.
"The question remains as to whether the building code was enforced because of objections to the content. If so, that raises questions about censorship," Lieberman said in a statement.
In a Nov. 13 letter to Donald Ranshte, buildings department community affairs director, Lieberman said the banner's removal would raise First Amendment concerns if regulations had been selectively enforced based on complaints about the banner’s content.
Buildings officials told the school on Oct. 31 to remove the banner because it didn't have a permit, Cooper Union spokeswoman Jolene Travis said on Nov. 14. The school immediately took down the banner, which had been put up on Oct. 26.
Cooper Union initially planned to apply for a permit to display the banner again, but not until after Nov. 15, when the Ukrainian community in the nearby East Village planned to hold events commemorating the famine, Travis said.
But the school abandoned the effort after being told by buildings officials Nov. 6 that banners can't block windows because of fire hazards.
The 52-foot-by-36-foot banner was created by Berg, who said she was bothered that she hadn't been told it was going to be removed. Berg, who lives in Berlin, said she wasn't given an explanation when it was taken down.
"I think the complaints were the main reason" for the removal, she said.
The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America met with Cooper Union officials after residents expressed their displeasure with the banner in e-mails, telephone calls and in person, Olexy said.
The committee rejected school officials' initial offer to cover the banner on the day of the famine commemoration, she said.
The banner controversy comes less than six months after a Roman Catholic watchdog group protested a Cooper Union student art exhibition that included what the group considered vulgar depictions of religious symbols such as a crucifix and a rosary.
Founded in 1859 by industrialist Peter Cooper, Cooper Union awards full scholarships to all its students. It awards degrees in art, architecture and engineering.