Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Brooklyn Art Exhibition Comes Down Amid Protest (NY Times)

Brooklyn Art Exhibition Comes Down Amid Protest

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."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
The Numberer Couldn't Sleep....

So I got up to read the New York Times on-line. And the story I read about today's events, if true, has made me apoplectic. Is it true that your works were moved without notice and that workers did this without the artists being involved in breaking down the works for transportation?

I really did assume, as I said before, that all parties would act in good faith. I empathized with the administration's position.

But this surprize move, if true, is a completely different matter. They acted with contempt and disrespect. They compounded the already cowardly failure to stand up for your rights with a new example of incompetence, i.e., violating the integrity of your work by moving fragile installations.

Is there no end to the heavy-handed, amateurish, and incompetent manner in which the Brooklyn administration will handle this situation? It's like a nightmare that won't stop.

I have to know one thing: Did they commence the move of your art while you were meeting with them? Again, this is something I can't believe happened. Please tell me it didn't.

So here's the mess they have boxed themselves into: They caved immediately to the Parks Department. They continued to issue amateurish and transparent press releases about how they support your freedom of expression. And then they moved fragile installations and art without your permission.

I have not seen as much contempt shown by administartors for students in years. And all while anouncing their supprt for you. Whew!

So now look what has happened. Instead of being open and honest with you each step of the way, whihc is always the harder path for adminsitrators, instead of making common cause with you, they have ended up with an even more ominous consequence. Lord, did they make make it worse.

Becuase by their actions, they nowhave seriously damaged the reputation of their MFA program in the art community and among propsective students.

They seemed to have no idea that adminstrative support for risky endeavors is the oxygen that fuels a good MFA. Chemistry programs need lab equiopment and research funds. Computer science programs need the latest software. And an MFA program NEEDS to have a reputation among its consituents that it has an administration that will support any infringement of the rights if its students.

Brooklyn College, in its amateurish handling of this and inept public relations strategy, may have essentially forfeited the right to have a first rate MFA. In three days it went from a superb program attracting great students to a program that, while still every bit as superb, will now always be known as the MFA that let its students twist in the wind.

I dont know what body accredits MFA Art programs, but if that body is doing its work it is now drafting a letter to Brooklyn that by acting with such contempt, they have been placed on a form of probation for acting in a manner inconsistent with the requirements of an MFA program.

Perhaps new and prospective students need an insert in their applications and registration packets:

"Warning: While you are about to enter an artistic community of which we are proud, a community with a superb faculty and students, we regret to inform you that you we cannot in good faith assure you that your rights of free expression will be adequately defended if you enroll here. We must further inform you that your art work, once installed, is subject to move wothout prior notice and witout your pasrticipation."

Last point for now: I am sure the Wallentas space is lovely and Ill bet it will be a wonderful exhibit. But consider what Brooklyn got by this off-camopus solution: After caving on the war memorial, and after continuing to claim that they supported your rights, and fater moving your work, the college now gets a place off-camous and can shift the site of the controversy away from the college.

And finally, will someone please tell me what loigc went into Brooklyn College hiring Colleen Roche, Giuliani's former press secretary, to speak for the college on a free expression issue. Prehaps no mayor im America showed more disdain for public art and freedom of expression.

3:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I continue to be sorry that the United States is so provincial and full of fear. It's time we grew up and realized art, whatever its content, has never been the thing to be afraid of.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just heard the provost pulled a bait and switch early yesterday morning with the students showing up for a meeting she called. they got there and found it was canceled at the same time trucks came to the war memorial to remove the art. fantastic move! right out of machevelli or the chinese war guy. or tony soprano.

anyone who was there, is this true? if so, the provost should be fired for making a legal decision to violate the first amendment and putting bc in a questionable legal situation. yes, violatiing a civil right is an actionable offense.

all sounds very underhanded and bush-like to me. a sign of very scary time. the students should absolutely sue.

9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the deal with the "verbal agreement" between BC and Parks? Seems like an awful lot will ride on that information. Who made it? And why was it verbal, not written?

9:34 AM  
Anonymous Tara said...

I like how Bloomberg thinks that a WWII memorial is best honored by censoring free expression. All this time I thought we went to war to fight against tyranny and the state's intrusion into private consciousness.

12:09 PM  
Blogger jennifert72 said...

i am really dismayed that they sent workers with no special knowledge for moving artwork to manhandle your work.
this whole insane episode points out the fact that although many like to think that we are not subject to the conservative culture wars in new york city... we are.
this city is not truly liberal (as reflected by its policies). guliani was a bastard and bloomberg is not much better.
the next time you think you are on free soil remember the republican national convention (nsa wire tapping... i could go on...!)
the only thing you can do is stay informed, get involved and keep fighting.

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When is someone going to say the obvious? This was totally avoidable and unnecessary because the gallery staff (director, curator, etc.) should have put in place the usual warning/advisory labels. period. Enough already with the homosexual panic. And what about this "verbal agreement" with the Parks Dept. Do City agencies really "loan" real estate to each other without paper? How are these places insured then? I certainly hope the gallery insured the art work now that its destroyed. You all seem to be going for the big brass ring - First Amendment, but what about something as simple as incompetence?

12:43 PM  
Blogger PlanC said...

Yes, it is true. The school tricked us and moved the artwork without our consent . We were going to meet with them in good faith to talk about this in a civilized matter. We got the call as we were going to the meeting and had to turn right around. We watched as they dismantled all of our long hard efforts in the span of hours . . .

When the professors who were supporting us showed up at the meeting they were told it was cancelled.

They have treated both us and the professors with complete disrespect. It is sort of unbelieveable that they can't even treat us as if we are human beings.

Thank you for your continued support people.

Plan C

12:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I object to the very fact of the Parks Department's requirement and I am suprised that the school would have agreed to it. The closing of this art exhibt is a public outrage and blatant censorship. Putting government constraints, even for the sake of "family appropriate" sensitivity, on artistic expression is no different than allowing journalists to print only "good" news. As the latter would have a diastrous impact on public political awareness, the former has a similar impact on public cultural awareness.

1:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is sad. What's more sad is some of the inaccurate reporting on the content of the artworks.

The New York Sun has an editorial today about how the exhibit should be shut down. However, they seem to have based that on an internet search of the folks who participated in the exhibit; I think the painting they describe as being particularly politically incorrect wasn't even shown at the exhibit.

Anyway, at least the NYT gets it right that at worst there was a naked phallus and a risque female form shown in one of the pieces. The phallus wasn't obvious (obscured behind "canvas"), and the spandex-clad videotaped figure part of a feminist work on the image of women. The so-called gay sex watercolors you hear all over the place - you'd think there was explicit sex being shown. No full frontal male nudity; the suggestion of sex comes out of the text written/painted with them.

So they may have banned thed show because there were some words they didn't like.

It's terribly unjust.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bet If the art was negative against gays you people would be the first ones wanting it closed. You are not for freedom of expression, you want to push your agenda. Senator McCain has been invited to the NEW School here in the village. The Students and teachers have a petition to cancel the invite. I really cannot believe it. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/05/05/mccain

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon 4:58


Gay sex was NOT DEPICTED in this show!!!

The penis in art has a long history from prehistoric times through Michaelangelo to Louise Bourgeois.
The straight man who made this piece, in which the penis in question is actually covered with fabric, is in very good company.

If IMAGINING A PENIS and IMAGINING GAY SEX is now offensive to the general public, what isn't? What will we do with the entire population, since everyone evidently thinks about both? PARTICULARLY you homophobes.

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