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November 02, 1999 12:03pm
Mayor Loses Art Museum Dispute
Source: Reuters
by: Ellen Wulfhorst

(NEW YORK, NY) -- A judge Monday ordered New York City to restore funding cut off to the Brooklyn Museum of Art for displaying a controversial exhibit, dealing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani a major blow in his effort to close the show. In a strongly worded ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Nina Gershon said the mayor and city cannot inflict ``punishment, retaliation, discrimination, or sanction'' over the museum's exhibit ``Sensation'' that includes a dung-spotted portrait of the Virgin Mary that the mayor found offensive.

Led by Giuliani, the city yanked funding from the taxpayer-supported museum the day before the exhibit opened on Oct. 2.

The mayor also has moved to evict the museum from its city-owned location, where it has been for more than a century, and to oust its board of trustees.

Rebuffing the mayor, the judge wrote: ``There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by governmental officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution.''

The museum, with the nation's second largest art collection, receives about $7.2 million a year from the city, about a third of its $23 million budget, in monthly allotments.

At the center of the turmoil is the portrait entitled ``Holy Virgin Mary,'' decorated with pornographic cut-outs and a clump of elephant dung, by artist Chris Ofili.

Giuliani has declared the portrait, one of about 90 works by about 40 contemporary British artists in the exhibit, ''offensive'' and ``sick.''

He has said he does not think taxpayers' money should be used to fund art that he says desecrates religion.

However, wrote the judge, ``If anything it is the mayor and the city who by their actions have threatened the neutrality required of government in the sphere of religion.''

Given that the city admits its motivation was its objection to the content of the exhibit, she said: ``There can be no greater showing of a First Amendment violation.''

``Whether or not the city and the mayor agree with the museum's judgement that a particular exhibit is worthy of showing is no different, in constitutional terms, from whether or not they agree that particular books are worthy of being made available to the public in a public library,'' she wrote in the 40-page ruling.

The mayor was out of town Monday afternoon, but his press office issued a statement saying the city will appeal the judge's ruling, which granted a preliminary injunction to the museum.

``The city is disappointed that the district court apparently ruled that once the public starts funding a museum, it must continue to do so no matter how inappropriately that money is used,'' the statement said.

``The city continues to believe that an exhibit that includes works that desecrate the religious beliefs of a substantial portion of the community is a violation of the purposes of the Brooklyn Museum,'' it said.

The ``Sensation'' was first shown in 1997 at the Royal Academy of Art in London. After Brooklyn, it is slated to move to the National Gallery of Australia and to the Toyota City Museum outside Tokyo.

The controversy sparked protests outside the Brooklyn museum by Catholics and other religious supporters, who say they find the Ofili portrait blasphemous, and by free speech advocates who call the Republican mayor's move an attempt at censorship.

The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 9, also features pickled cow parts, human blood and live maggots with a cow's head.

Public opinion has run against Giuliani, who is weighing a run for the Senate, most likely against first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She has said she finds the exhibit objectionable but disagrees with the withholding of city funds.

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