Brooklyn Art Exhibition Comes Down Amid Protest (NY Times)
By RANDY KENNEDY and JANON FISHER
Published: May 9, 2006
A dispute between Brooklyn College and a group of its graduate art students over an exhibition that some officials found objectionable deepened yesterday after the college sent trucks to remove several works of art from a temporary gallery space in Downtown Brooklyn.
On Thursday, a day after the exhibition opened, the Brooklyn parks commissioner, Julius Spiegel, ordered it closed and changed the locks on the building, declaring that some of the students' artwork — featuring, among other things, a live rat and a sculpture of a hand holding a penis — was not appropriate for families.
Mr. Spiegel said the subject matter violated a verbal agreement reached six years ago between the Department of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn College for the use of the space, a World War II memorial hall near the Brooklyn Bridge.
College officials said later that they would respect the department's decision and planned to relocate the show, called "Plan B," to its campus. But the 18 graduate students whose art was featured in the show as part of their thesis requirement condemned the decision as censorship at a rally on Saturday and said there was no equivalent space for the exhibition on campus.
Yesterday morning around 8, a pickup and a moving truck arrived at the building, on Cadman Plaza West, and a dozen Brooklyn College workers took away several artworks. Students, a few armed with video cameras, claimed that some of the works — including a delicate-looking white foam sculpture covered with push pins — had been damaged and told the workers that they could be held liable, a threat that seemed to halt the removal for several hours.
But later in the afternoon the workers took more art out of the building and put it in a pickup truck. Several students jumped into the back of the truck and took the works back out. Three plainclothes police officers arrived and began talking to the students while the workers put the artworks back in the pickup and continued to dismantle and remove the other artworks in the building.
They included paintings, video installations, sculpture and one work that apparently provoked Mr. Spiegel to order the show closed: a watercolor by Carl James Ferrero of a man's torso, with a narrative about a sexual encounter between two men, one of whom used the computer screen name Dick Cheney.
"Nobody communicated to the students that any of the art was going to be removed this morning," said Zoë Cohen, an artist in the show. "We don't consent to any of this."
Yejin Jun, who created the foam-and-pins sculpture, said it took her more than a year to complete the 52-pound work, with tens of thousands of pins placed by hand. She said it was damaged yesterday when it was put on the floor of a flatbed truck, with nothing covering or protecting it. "The foam is damaged, it's destroyed," she said. "I cannot fix it." She added: "Our college did not support us."
Late yesterday afternoon, Brooklyn College officials offered the students another venue for the show, in the Dumbo neighborhood, after David C. Walentas, a developer, said he could provide 6,000 square feet of commercial space for the exhibition at least until the beginning of June. (The show at the World War II memorial was scheduled to close on May 25.)
The space, at 70 Washington Street, would be in some ways a strange choice for the show. Mr. Walentas leased space in the 12-story building for several years, at low rents, to artists and small galleries, but all had to leave in 2004 to make way for luxury condos and retailers. It was unclear yesterday whether the students would accept the college's new offer.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose administration has strongly supported public art, deflected questions about the exhibition over the weekend. But he said yesterday that he believed that the closing of the show was appropriate. "Nobody's suggesting that anybody shouldn't be allowed to exhibit art," Mr. Bloomberg said. "The issue here is this is not a museum. This is a war memorial." He added, "There has been an understanding ever since art was put here that the art would be appropriate for families and respectful of and appropriate for a war memorial and this time it was not."
Norman Siegel, a lawyer who is working on behalf of the students, said yesterday that he was disappointed at the mayor's comments. "One would think he would be better on this issue, given his record in the past," he said.
Mr. Siegel said he planned to file suit later this week in federal court claiming that the students' rights to free speech were violated. He added that the filing would proceed even if the students accept the college's offer of space in Dumbo.
"I think what's happening here illustrates a serious misunderstanding of the First Amendment to the Constitution," he said. "The government cannot excise certain artistic visions simply because a public official dislikes them or finds them inappropriate. It's censorship plain and simple."