The Brooklyn Museum Cancels Controversial Graffiti Show

Sensationalism combined with the murky art market have burned the museum before

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The Brooklyn Museum pulled the plug on an exhibition on the history of graffiti called Art in the Streets. Museum director Arnold L. Lehman blamed "the current financial climate" in a vague press release and a more detailed email to the show's participants. The show was set to run in Brooklyn from March to October 2012. When it was first put on at Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art, the coverage of that controversy in the Los Angeles was largely framed in terms of whether it was an invitation for vandalism. But a scandal emerged in artistic circles over whether associate curator Roger Gastman's commercial interest in street art and graffiti amounted to an improper conflict of interest for a museum exhibition. Mike Boehm wrote in the Los Angeles Times in April:

Roger Gastman, hired as the show's associate curator, has both ironclad credentials as a historian of street art and a clear commercial interest in it via R. Rock Enterprises, a marketing company he has run for years. Dubbed R. Rock's "dictator" on his business card, Gastman sells his services -- and those of an array of artists with whom he has close connections -- to advertisers interested in generating buzz and sales by hitching their products to the street-art phenomenon…

[Los Angeles MOCA director Jeffrey] Deitch's hiring last year was itself a landmark moment in the debate over whether and how nonprofit art museums should distance themselves from the commercial art world. He didn't have credentials at other museums or in academia, having instead made his name as a leading New York City art dealer, acclaimed for a showman's knack for finding and exploiting convergences between visual art and alternative pop culture.

The New York Times's Kate Taylor played up the local threat of a debate over graffiti vs. vandalism in her report on the Brooklyn Museum's decision to cancel, pointing to a New York Daily News editorial that had already gotten the ball rolling by blasting Art in the Streets as "sticking their thumbs in the eyes of every bodega owner and restaurant manager who struggles to keep his or her property graffiti-free."

But this combination of press-friendly controversy and questionable art world ethics ought to be very familiar at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1999, the museum took fire for the Sensation exhibit featuring the works of advertising mogul and prominent collector Charles Saatchi. According to The New York Times, the show's financiers, including Mr. Saatchi himself, then held direct commercial interest in the hugely controversial and potentially very lucrative project. The Times reports that Lehman, who then held the same position as museum director, solicited donations from dealers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from those who stood to profit most from the exhibition of contemporary art, a practice that other museum executives say was practically unheard of and ethically problematic.

Then, too, the conflict of interest scandal was largely overshadowed by another, more press-sexy scandal involving what many believe to be vulgar art. Mayor Rudy Giuliani took issue with the Sensation exhibit on account of one work of art that featured a depiction of the Virgin Mary spotted with elephant dung and flanked by photos of vaginas. Lehman defended the museum vehemently, and filed a lawsuit against Giuiliani citing First Amendment rights in order to prevent the mayor from revoking the museum's lease. The controversy lasted weeks resulting in a nonbinding resolution passed by the United States House of Representatives that withdrew federal funding from the museum after the city had already done so. (Giuliani had cited the ethics controversy in doing so.) Only after a federal judge intervened did both restore funding.

It's little surprise the Brooklyn Museum would have little appetite for a repeat experience.

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