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September 30, 1999 03:10pm
Senate Takes On the Brooklyn Art Museum
Source: ABCNEWS.com

WASHINGTON — The Senate unanimously approved today a measure stating that the federal government should withhold funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art unless it cancels a controversial exhibit featuring a picture of a feces-embellished Virgin Mary.

By voice vote, the Senate attached the nonbinding measure sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith, a conservative independent from New Hampshire, to a spending bill covering the Labor, Health and Human Services departments.

“People can do what they want to do and they can draw what they want to draw,” Smith said from the Senate floor. But, the senator and independent presidential candidate said, “the government doesn’t have to fund this garbage.”

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani this week called the painting “sick” and demanded it be pulled from “Sensation,” an upcoming exhibition of British work at the museum.

Giuliani, a Roman Catholic who is expected to run for Senate, has threatened to freeze $7 million in public funding to the museum unless the painting is pulled — a move artist Chris Ofili’s London representative has called an infringement on free expression.

The museum fired back Tuesday by filing a lawsuit to prevent the city from withholding the funds for the show.

Smith said the museum has received $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts in the last three years. Although the nonbinding resolution expresses the opinion of the Senate, it has no effect on federal spending.

NEA Familiar With Controversy

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have targeted the NEA, which was created by Congress in 1965 with the mission of “encouraging thought, imagination and inquiry.”

The agency’s troubles began in 1989 with the exhibit of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe, renowned for his homoerotic themes. Critics of the exhibit were infuriated to learn the show was partially funded by a grant from the NEA, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., canceled the exhibit.

Since then, other artists have found themselves the subject of scrutiny: In 1990 NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer stopped funding the performance artist Karen Finley, known for pouring chocolate on her naked body. Finley and other artists, known as the “NEA Four,” eventually sued the government agency on First Amendment grounds.

When the House came under control of the Republican Party, the NEA became a target. In 1994, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich wanted to eliminate the agency altogether. The NEA survived, but in 1996 its budget was cut by nearly 40 percent. Its 1999 budget is $98 million, and the average cost to the taxpayer is less than 40 cents a year.

Since then, funding has increased, but the Supreme Court ruled in June of 1998 that the NEA could choose not to fund artists it considers indecent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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