Actors' Equity Association has written New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, stressing the union's concerns about his efforts to sabotage $7 million in funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA), and evict the institution.
In other action on the BMA issue, The Creative Coalition (TCC) has joined other activist organizations in support of the museum's lawsuit to halt Giuliani's attempts to cut funding. And the arts' chief supporter in the state legislature, Sen. Roy Goodman (R-Manhattan), has issued a statement on government's legal standing with the arts in matters of financing and censorship.
Giuliani has blasted a BMA exhibition called "Sensations," and taken specific aim at a painting, "The Holy Virgin Mary," which depicts a black Madonna decorated with elephant dung. He has used the exhibition and painting as a vehicle to both eliminate arts funding for the museum, and to evict the institution from the city's property.
"I write on behalf of more than 16,000 members...residing in the greater New York area to express our shock and dismay at the position you have taken" regarding the museum, said Carol M. Wasser, Equity's eastern regional director, in an Oct. 8 letter to the mayor.
"Freedom of speech and artistic expression is one of the basic tenets of democracy," Wasser explained. "It is especially important in a city of such broad ethnic, religious and cultural diversity that these freedoms be preserved. As citizens, we should be trusted to exercise our freedom to judge for ourselves whether or not an art exhibit, theatrical production or any other artform has artistic merit. It is not the job of government to dictate how an artistic exhibit should be viewed. Your current position has cast a pall over the entire New York artistic community and threatens to shackle the very creativity that lifts this city to greatness."
Wasser concluded by urging Giuliani "to withdraw your threats to the Museum's financing and, indeed, to its very existence and restore reason and sanity to this debate."
The day before Wasser sent her letter, Martin Garbus, a noted First Amendment attorney, filed amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the The Creative Coalition and four other progressive organizations supporting the BMA. The museum has taken the City of New York to federal court to quell Giuliani's efforts. Those joining TCC are The New York Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, The Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Coalition Against Censorship.
The amicus curiae briefs state that the First Amendment prohibits the mayor from punishing the museum because of displaying artwork the mayor considers offensive, and from "using the power to the purse to dictate the views conveyed in the exhibition."
Earlier in the month, Goodman issued a statement on New York state senate stationery, noting that-during his 1989-96 tenure on the National Endowment for the Arts Council-the U.S. Supreme Court "upheld the right of Congress to legislate advisory standards of decency." But, he added that the high court also "made it quite clear that once government decides to provide funding, it has no right to impose a "penalty' on artists or those who exhibit art of which government disapproves. Quite clearly, public financing of the arts cannot provide a basis for government censorship no matter how offensive a work of art may be perceived to be by any government official."
Goodman noted, "I strongly deplore any so-called work of art which seeks to express bias," but went on to conclude, "The rights conferred by the First Amendment... which guarantee freedom of expression irrespective of disagreement with any viewpoint, are a precious part of our heritage which must never be sacrificed."
Meanwhile, Chris Ofili, the artist whose painting stands at the center of the controversy, is presenting five new works in the "Afrobiotics" exhibit which opened last Saturday at New York's Gavin Brown gallery. According to the Associated Press, the artist's new pieces include abstract and portrait-like paintings.