It began, as do so many New York controversies, with a provocative tabloid headline that ran in the Daily News on September 16, 1999: “B’Klyn Gallery of Horror”
According to the paper, a new Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibition, SENSATION, was an offensive “R-rated” display of “animals sliced in half, and graphic paintings and sculptures of corpses and sexually mutilated bodies.”
Despite the provocative enticement, perhaps no hysteria would have ensued if New York had had a different mayor. But Rudy Giuliani ruled over the city and promptly went ballistic — not over mutilated bodies, human or animal, but over British painter Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, a Black Madonna wearing a blue cape parted to reveal a breast made of elephant dung, surrounded by fluttering cherubim crafted from images of women’s buttocks clipped from porn magazines.
“Sick stuff,” Giuliani dubbed the painting — and he didn’t stop there. Notorious even then for his disregard for the First Amendment, he threatened to pull the $7 million the museum received in annual city funding and to evict it from its landmark building.
Within a week, the museum had filed for an injunction against the city. And amid suits and countersuits, Archbishop John Joseph O’Connor weighed in by calling the work “an attack on religion”; luminaries including Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Joyce Carol Oates lined up to support the Brooklyn Museum and its brave but beleaguered director, Arnold Lehman, to stop the mayor’s assault on freedom of expression.
The Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center is honored to welcome Dr. Arnold Lehman and Floyd Abrams upon the publication of Mr. Lehman’s new book, Sensation, for a discussion of the extraordinary controversy and how it echoes today in ongoing debates about freedom of speech and artistic expression.
Arnold Lehman spent two decades leading the Baltimore Museum of Art before becoming the director of the Brooklyn Museum, a position he held for 18 years. Lehman served as president of the national American Association of Art Museum Directors, chair of the 33-member NYC Cultural Institutions Group; and a Ford Foundation Fellow. He is currently a senior advisor at Phillips auction house.
America’s leading First Amendment attorney, Floyd Abrams has represented dozens of journalists and major media outlets, including The New York Times during the Pentagon Papers case. He is currently Senior Counsel at Cahill Gordon & Reindel.
Free (with option to buy book)
If Covid-19 restrictions prevent large gatherings, this program will become virtual-only. All in-person tickets will automatically transfer. A link to the virtual program will be emailed to buyers the day prior. If a book is included in your ticket purchase, it will be mailed to the address you provide.
No refunds will be available.