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.

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.)

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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