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"Sensation" Ruling

by Kati Kormendi, Jan 01, 2000
 

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Nina Gershon ruled that the Mayor's efforts to punish the Brooklyn Museum for mounting "Sensation," its controversial exhibit of British shock art, violated the First Amendment. Judge Gershon ordered the Mayor to resume monthly payments to the Museum, and to halt his campaign to remove its Board of Directors. Lawyers for the Museum are now seeking a permanent injunction (Judge Gershon's is temporary) while the Mayor, who called her ruling "the usual knee-jerk response of some judges," is appealing to have it reversed.

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Mr. Giuliani now alleges that the Museum conspired with British advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, owner of the art on display in "Sensation," and with Christie's, the auction house which has sold works for Saatchi in the past, to inflate the value of his collection.

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While these allegations seem unsubstantiated, hundreds of emails, memoranda and financial statements produced in court have raised serious questions about the probity of the Museum's fundraising methods.

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David Barstow laid out some of the details in a 6 December New York Times article: Not only did Museum Director Arnold Lehman deliberately conceal the fact that Saatchi donated $160,000 to help foot the bill for "Sensation," but he also gave the collector a major role in determining the exhibition's content, provoking museum staff to worry aloud that Saatchi was taking over control.

Barstow describes an intricate web of ethically dubious wheeling and dealing. Lehman binds himself more tightly to Saatchi, enlisting the collector's aid in soliciting $50,000 from Christie's. Lehman has lunch with Patricia Hambrecht, president of Christie's America, and suggests that the Museum needs to "rethink its entire approach to contemporary art," an area of interest to Christie's. Weeks later, Christie's sells off $ 21,000 of art from the Museum's collection. Dealers representing artists featured in "Sensation"come up with more bucks. Rock star David Bowie donates $75,000. Bowie's for-profit website acquires exclusive rights to show "Sensation" on the Internet and Bowie himself records the audiotour. Lehman asks the Third Millenium Foundation, a Swiss foundation promoting arts education, for $200,000, falsely claiming he has already secured "several gifts" of up to $350,000. Lehman also presents the foundation with an "artificial budget" inflating the price tags of the programs it will fund.

The most conspicuous questions surrounding "Sensation" - whether the Mayor should withhold funding from a publicly-supported museum just because he doesn't like the art it chooses to display, whether a man should splatter white paint on a canvas - are easy. More complex and more nuanced are the questions now emerging about how art institutions fund, mount and promote mammoth exhibitions in a climate of limited public support.

L'AFFAIRE MARY BOONE: On December 6, Manhattan art dealer Mary Boone was cleared of a charge of unlawful distribution of ammunition. Ms. Boone, arrested in September after displaying handmade guns and a vase filled with live 9-millimeter cartridges that visitors were invited to take home as souvenirs at her Fifth Avenue gallery, described her subsequent overnight stay at the Tombs as an "adventure." "Art is the only thing I believe in and I'm glad to be arrested over it," she declared.

Kati Sounds Off:

There is something entertainingly Tom Wolfean about the goings-on at the Brooklyn Museum - to say nothing of Mary Boone's recent brush with the law. And it's easy to point a finger at Arnold Lehman for putting the resources of a publicly funded institution behind an exhibition that - religious issues aside - was arguably low on artistic merit, though high on radical chic. It also appeared to embroil him in questionable financial practices. The truth is, however, that when public support of the arts is at best partial, visibility (ergo hype) is at a premium. Further, one finds the money where one can - be it from Charles Saatchi, Christie's, Phillip Morris, or Rudolph Giuliani. The Arts today make strange bedfellows.

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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