Dung Jury

Jockeying for Position in the Culture Wars

On the evening of September 28, the Brooklyn Museum, represented by Floyd Abrams, the preeminent First Amendment litigator, officially announced its intention to sue the city. (The museum has since amended its complaint, redirecting it against Giuliani both "individually and in his official capacity.") Immediately, a statement in support was issued by the Cultural Institutions Group, 35 city-based institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History, joined by leading non-CIGs such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim. The NYCAC, which represents non-CIG arts organizations, gathered over 350 supporters to its statement. The ADAA, American Federation of the Arts, and others also issued statements deploring Giuliani's stance and supporting Lehman.

Still, it seemed to be too little too late. According to Friedman, whose confidential e-mail correspondence was leaked to The New York Times, revealing the countervailing positions of various arts leaders, it is wrong to view the arts institutions as cowardly or hypocritical. "Once we knew that negotiations were breaking down, it took 72 hours to get 35 institutions to sign on. This did not just require the consent of one curator or director, but their entire board. I think we worked with all deliberate speed." However, according to another arts advocate who preferred anonymity, smaller arts groups hesitated to sign NYCAC's letter because "they are tired of supporting the CIGs who automatically get funding. Where are they when we need support?" Or as Martha Wilson, director of Franklin Furnace and no stranger to the culture wars, put it, "In 1989, there was a breakdown between the museums who support dead artists and those who support living artists. Now, the Brooklyn Museum is getting the kind of lukewarm response the rest of us have suffered over the past decade."

The ultimate irony in this controvery is that by far the most radical analysis came from the Giuliani administration itself, when it switched its attack from Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary to one of "Sensation" 's sponsors, Christie's auction house. In a move more appropriate to Marxist art historians than a Republican political candidate, Giuliani, losing ground on the First Amendment issue and facing an imminent court date against Abrams, decided to attack the interrelationship of the art market and cultural institutions by attacking Christie's relationship with its client Charles Saatchi, arguing that the museum show would enhance the value of the works. This information surprised no one in the field of contemporary art who has watched Saatchi make money— time and again— by promoting his selection of artists. However, it was shocking— shocking— to Giuliani that corporate support and private assets could collaborate in a public arena to make a profit. (This from the man who officiated Christie's inauguration of its new Rockefeller Center headquarters, using the occasion as an opportunity to publicize his role in economic and real estate development.)

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)

Though it is late in his administration, Giuliani should take a look at the history of museums in the United States— places like the Morgan Library, the Phillips Collection, and the Frick Collection. In this country, there has been a long-standing symbiotic relationship between museums, private collectors, the art market, and the IRS. In fact, arts advocates vehemently argued for independence from the stranglehold of the private art market when they lobbied for the creation of the NEA back in the 1970s. In the face of Republican cuts to the arts over the past decade, museums have had no alternative but to find support from corporate sources and private collectors.

"Nothing in the Brooklyn Museum's presentation of 'Sensation' comes close to being illegal," acccording to attorney John Koegel, former counsel to the Museum of Modern Art. "It does not even violate museums' code of ethics. These situations only become a conflict of interest, which can result in the loss of tax-exempt status, if a board member abuses his position to promote his own collection or business." Christie's spokesperson Andrée Corroon, who noted that the firm sponsored more than 30 museum exhibitions and underwrote countless benefit auctions in 1998 and '99, stated that "Christie's is a leading member of the arts community, and if the arts industry does not support museum exhibitions, who will?" Indeed, without ignoring the financial interest the auction houses have in the promotion of contemporary art, it's true that they are less incongruous corporate sponsors than Daimler Benz, Phillip Morris, or Nokia, who associate with culturally chic exhibitions to raise the visibility of their products— cars, cigarettes and cell phones.

Sure, Lehman chose an exceptionally high-profile show with an exceptionally art-market-oriented corporate sponsor. But as Lehman reminded a crowd of reporters at "Sensation" 's press preview, "Museums should be filled with people. This is not a bad thing!"

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