Unsettling "Sensation": Arts Policy Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Controversy

June, 2001

In September 1999, Sensation, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, opened its doors, igniting a controversy that would rage for many months in the world's art capital. This collection of cutting-edge art from the Saatchi collection in England, and the museum's arrangements with Charles Saatchi to finance the show, so offended New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani that he attempted to shut the museum down by withholding city funds that are crucially needed by that institution. Only a legal ruling prevented him from doing so. Like the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition before it, Sensation once again raises questions about public spending for "controversial" art, but with the added dimension of religious conflict, animal rights, and charges of commercialization.

The contributors to this volume use the Sensation exhibition as a springboard to analyze larger questions such as what authority the government has to withhold public funds; how to interpret the First Amendment; how to reflect the cultural and religious values of a diverse metropolitan area; and the ethical dilemmas of the relationship between museums and dealers in art. In their articles — written expressly for this volume, and spanning the disciplines of law, cultural studies, public policy, and art — the contributors consider these issues at the center of arts policy. They propose various legal strategies, curatorial practices, and standards of doing business intended to serve the public interest in the arts.

Contributors are Carol Becker, Homi K. Bhabha, John Brewer, James Cuno, Gilbert S. Edelson, Esq., Teri J. Edelstein, Richard A. Epstein, David Halle, D. Carroll Joynes, W.J.T. Mitchell, Stephen B. Presser, Kimerly Rorschach, David A. Ross, Lawrence Rothfield, J. Mark Schuster, Geoffrey R. Stone, David A. Strauss, Cass R. Sunstein, András Szántó, Elisabeth Tiso, and Gihong Yi.

Thanks to Richard Behrenhausen and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Provost Geoffrey R. Stone, Dean Janel Mueller, Dean Robert Michael, and the Smart Museum of Art.

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