Dung Jury

Jockeying for Position in the Culture Wars

For the record: Charles Saatchi is not Rudolph Giuliani's campaign manager. The advertising mogul, who got Margaret Thatcher elected prime minister, seemed to be giving Giuliani's Senatorial bid a similar boost with a well-timed controversy by loaning his collection to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Giuliani grabbed headlines and the museum garnered publicity, leading some political observers to declare the situation a "win-win" proposition. However, in the dispirited atmosphere of New York City in 1999, it is clear that many have already lost. Whatever the outcome of the "Sensation" battle in the courts, the cultural community— already weakened by fear, intimidation, and financial setbacks of the last six years under the Giuliani administration— is deeply divided and beholden to a conflicting set of political and economic supporters.

By now, it has been thoroughly reported that Mayor Giuliani, responding to complaints by William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, threatened to cut off all city funds to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and evict its board from the city-owned institution. The museum, which has been in an arrangement with the city of New York for over 100 years, had never before experienced such an attack on its curatorial integrity, and responded by suing the city and the mayor for violating its rights under the First Amendment. Giuliani's position— that he has the unilateral right to withhold funds from the institution due to its exhibition of "discriminatory," "anti-Catholic," and "inflammatory" art— is a major escalation of the tactics of the federal government in the Mapplethorpe case and the NEA litigation. However, a wide range of political agendas and conflicting interests have muddied the waters, making a clear-cut response to the mayor's attack nearly impossible for arts organizations.

Response by Democratic political leaders has been swift, though hardly a roaring show of support for contemporary art. When Giuliani announced on September 21 that he would cut off all city funding to the museum— $7 million a year in operating expenses, plus a capital grant of $20 million for building improvements— City Council speaker Peter Vallone reacted immediately. "As a Catholic and as the speaker, I urge the people of this city to avoid these negative images by staying away from the museum. At the same time, I urge the mayor not to set a bad precedent that cuts off critical funding of our cultural institutions." Vallone's pronouncement was first out of the gate and has been used to define the moderate position in the "Sensation" sensation. Public advocate Mark Green, City Council members Herb Berman and Steve DiBrienza, and Democratic senatorial prospect Hillary Clinton have joined Vallone in this "we don't like it but we can't stop it— that's democracy" stance.

Hanging at the Brooklyn Museum of Art: Jake & Dinos Chapman's Great Deeds Against the Dead (Detail, 1994)
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein
Hanging at the Brooklyn Museum of Art: Jake & Dinos Chapman's Great Deeds Against the Dead (Detail, 1994)

With elections right around the corner, politicians' support for the museum was characterized as a sideshow to the Senate race and mere campaign rhetoric. Vallone and Green are the likely candidates in the Democratic primary for mayor. Berman, head of the City Council's finance committee, has his hopes for comptroller, now held by Alan Hevesi (who has been silent on the "Sensation" issue). DiBrienza, the most outspoken of the Brooklyn councilmembers' contingency, is prepping for public advocate. In this situation, it's easy to perceive all this as mere party politics. However, Jene Russianoff at New York Public Interest Research Group doubts that Vallone's response was motivated solely by politics. "He is a Catholic and his constituency is Catholic," he says, "and you cannot underestimate the risk involved when he took this position. He may also be concerned that if this precedent is set, he will have to take over as arts czar when he becomes mayor, a position he may not want to hold."

Caught between hopes for the future in the next administration and fear of retribution from the current one, arts leaders have been cautious, a response that some say has been too slow, even hypocritical. However, until the lawsuit was officially filed September 28, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman had no desire to appear to be organizing the arts community against Giuliani or escalating animosity when a settlement was still possible. Lehman understands political process and chose to keep negotiations going for as long as possible, encouraged by advice from Vallone and Berman. He, as well as other members of the art community, had no reason to question this advice. Over the past six years, the City Council had managed to override Giuliani's consistent proposed cuts to arts through similar tactics. A national organization, the Association of Art Museum Directors, issued a statement supporting the Brooklyn Museum on September 23. Dr. Alan J. Friedman, director of the New York Hall of Science and chairman of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG), and Norma Munn, chair of the New York City Arts Coalition (NYCAC, which represents hundreds of arts organizations not based in city-owned properties), began polling their constituents over the weekend of September 24, but held off on public announcements to avoid escalating the situation. Likewise, Gil Edelson, vice president of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), began preparing a statement from his membership, but awaited the outcome of the talks.

The timing could not have been worse. By Tuesday, September 27, New York City politicians appeared to be out in front on the First Amendment, without the support of the cultural community. Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, had called for a demonstration, but it was not scheduled to take place until Friday, October 1, the day before "Sensation" 's opening. Meanwhile, the faces on the news included councilwoman Annette Robinson, shouting, "We don't need this mayor to tell us what we should put in our museum," while the Metropolitan Museum of Art and even the Studio Museum in Harlem remained mute. It did not help that Giuliani's corporation counsel, Michael Hess, and deputy mayor Joseph Lhota leaked a story to the press that the Brooklyn Museum was willing to compromise by pulling the offending works. That account was completely disowned by Lehman, and has since been seen as a ploy to maintain visibility for the city's position while the mayor was out of town.

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