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"Sensation" Debate

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's battle against the Brooklyn Museum over "Sensation" has turned into the biggest arts/public policy story to hit the stands since Karen Finley's crusade against the NEA. Mayor and Museum are now duking it out in the courts, with the Museum suing the City in Federal court for violating its First Amendment Rights, while in State court City Hall petitions to evict the Museum from the premises it has occupied since 1893.

On 20 October, in the latest in a series of plot twists, Deputy Mayor Joseph Lhota acknowledged under cross-examination in State court that the Brooklyn Museum Corporation - not the City - owns the Museum's 1.5 million artworks, the second largest collection in the country after the Metropolitan's, and, if evicted, could pack them up and take them somewhere else - to Los Angeles, for example.

That the Mayor would desire the dissolution of a collection which took over a century to acquire seems extreme, but his lawsuit calls for a court order to compel the Corporation to "surrender the premises and the building thereon to the City." "I just can't believe he means it," said Frieda Rosenthal, one of the Museum's trustees. "What would the city do with the building? It's all been redone."

Commented another trustee, Barbara K. Debs: "I think it's always been threatening gestures...It's very hard for me to figure out the real motives of any of this. It just strikes me as bizarre."

According to a recent survey of the executive directors of 70 leading NYC cultural institutions, 95% of those polled support the museum in its battles. Many expressed fury with hizzoner. "He is an embarrassment to all intelligent New Yorkers," declared one respondent under the veil of anonymity. Charged another: "The Mayor is fascist and dangerous."

And the Museum? While almost half of those polled believe it put on "Sensation" for commercial rather than aesthetic reasons, few were appalled. As one respondent put it: "Why shouldn't they want crowds?"

Most interestingly perhaps, the survey suggests that the Brooklyn Museum's experience may influence others to take fewer risks. Asked if they thought the controversy would have a "chilling effect," 58% said yes. Offered one pollee: "It already has...All arts groups are terrified of losing city money."

One player who probably isn't suffering financially, however, is Chris Offili, creator of the now infamous Black Madonna, who is currently on a roll with a one-man show in Chelsea. As for "Sensation" - which, incidentally, opened to less than sensational reviews - it can be viewed online on David Bowie's official web site.

Kati Sounds Off:

One night late last month I splurged and took a cab home from way uptown to our apartment near Union Square. The traffic was terrible - they're making a movie the driver explained - oh god a movie I thought, steeling myself like a proper New Yorker to react with contempt for the biz. (New Yorkers are too cool to turn their heads when a film is shooting down the block - too hip to stop and ask one of the guys with walkie talkies who the star is. This is New York after all: we're about High Art, we're not LA.)

The cab sputtered along and I became more and more restive every time the meter ratcheted up another thirty cents; and then suddenly there we were, swinging past the Flatiron building, onto Fifth Avenue - the entire avenue awash with violet and white light, festooned with Christmas garlands and mistletoe stars. Arnold Schwartznegger look-alikes prowled around looking important. Enormous trailers and sleek Cadillacs lined the sidestreets. Cameras strained overhead and a huge spot poured light onto the scene as though onto the set of Truffaut's "Day for Night."

They're making a movie! I thought - a remake of "Shaft," as it turned out, with Vanessa Williams and Samuel Jackson - and it was as if we had turned a corner, accidentally, into an unexpected and magical world: a world of expanded possibilities.

The police love film shoots for the overtime they pay, the Mayor for the revenue generated: $2.57 billion in 1998 alone from film and television combined. There are, however, other reasons to root for moviemaking in the Big Apple. It makes life here more exciting, sets up a tension on the streets between make-believe and reality, and transforms the City itself into a giant stage-set on which narratives and meta-narratives are created. NYC as an actuality exists side-by-side with a celluloid city - a compound pieced together from the NYC of every movie ever shot in New York from "King Kong" to "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to "Saturday Night Fever." This celluloid city is itself a kind of giant artwork - an historical artifact - and perhaps, in the end, will prove as important culturally as Lincoln Center or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So what if filmmaking interferes with parking? Real New Yorkers never park anyway!

Kati Kormendi is a freelance writer and actress; the former Artistic Director of the Magellan Project, a multiarts theater; and the creator of The Serpent's Eye an online eco-art gallery. She has written for Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, and Talking Leaves magazine. 

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