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NYC, Brooklyn Museum come to terms over 'Sensation'

By The Associated Press
03.28.00

Crowds gather i...
Crowds gather in front of Chris Ofili's 'The Holy Virgin Mary' painting on Jan. 9, final day of 'Sensation' exhibit at Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.

NEW YORK — The city agreed to halt its heated attack on the Brooklyn Museum of Art yesterday, signing a settlement barring Mayor Rudolph Giuliani from withholding funds in retaliation for showing a British exhibit featuring a dung-decorated painting of the Virgin Mary.

The settlement came six months after Giuliani — calling the painting "sick" — froze an annual $7.2 million operating subsidy for the museum, then sued in state court to evict it from the city-owned site it has occupied for a century.

After the museum filed its own lawsuit in federal court, U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon declared the sanctions unconstitutional late last year in a preliminary order restoring funding. The mayor refused to back down, renouncing Gershon as "totally out of control" and appealing her decision.

"Today, Mayor Giuliani has agreed that the preliminary injunction that he ridiculed a few months ago will become permanent," museum attorney Floyd Abrams said at a news conference announcing the settlement.

The agreement requires both sides to drop their lawsuits and appeals over the "Sensation" exhibit and pay their own legal fees. It also commits the city to spend $5.8 million over two years for a museum renovation project.

In signing off on the settlement, Gershon specifically barred Giuliani and the city from "inflicting ... any punishment, retaliation, discrimination, or sanction of any kind" against the museum.

Giuliani — who had been scheduled to be deposed in the case next week — was meeting with Republican leaders in Albany and had no immediate response. But Corporation Counsel Michael Hess insisted the administration was "very gratified with the settlement. ... We felt at this time that it was time to end the hostilities on both sides."

Museum officials, meanwhile, portrayed the agreement as a resounding victory for the museum — which contains the country's second-largest art collection — and for free speech. Abrams characterized the City Hall offensive as "one of the most dangerous assaults on the First Amendment" that he had seen as a veteran constitutional lawyer.

"A loss would have empowered local and national politicians alike to transform their political, and sometimes deeply personal views of art or books, into officially enforceable ones," Abrams said. "A loss would have validated the efforts by the mayor to bully the museum into canceling an art exhibition, and then to cripple it for not doing so."

The Giuliani administration has a history of launching legal battles over speech it deems threatening — with mixed success. It failed in attempts to block demonstrations staged by the Nation of Islam and the Ku Klux Klan, but won tight restrictions on X-rated businesses.

In the museum dispute, critics accused Giuliani — who's running for U.S. Senate — of pandering to conservative voters. City officials accused the museum's board of directors, British collector Charles Saatchi and Christie's auction house, an exhibition sponsor, of trying to cash in on work by modern artists whose sole aim is to shock.

Aside from the Virgin Mary portrait featuring clumps of elephant dung and magazine cutouts of female genitalia, "Sensation" included mannequins with genitals as facial features, a glass tank featuring a fake cow's head and 20,000 live maggots, and farm animals bisected and displayed in formaldehyde.

The show prompted angry protests by religious groups; one man was arrested after smearing the Virgin Mary portrait with white paint. It also attracted record crowds during a three-month run ending in January.

"I feel like we have nothing to apologize for," Robert Rubin, the museum board chairman, said yesterday.


Previous
Controversial exhibit could cost Brooklyn Museum its city funding
'To have the government subsidize something like that is outrageous,' says Rudolph Giuliani. 09.23.99

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'The First Amendment has not repealed the ancient rule of life, that he who pays the piper calls the tune,' Supreme Court justice tells audience at Julliard School. 09.23.05

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By Tony Mauro Presidential candidate earned dubious distinction in 1999: a 'lifetime Muzzle award,' given to spotlight his attacks on the First Amendment. 07.11.07

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