Sensation Art Show, 1999

Things were different back then. The Twin Towers still stood tall at the tip of Manhattan. Brooklyn was more dangerous than hip. Trump and Giuliani were New York names but largely unknown to the rest of the country. Yet, all was not quiet.

It was into this Pre-9/11 New York that an art exhibition came to town and caused a furor. It was called “Sensation” and featured works from the private collection of British advertising tycoon, Charles Saatchi.

It was hosted by the Brooklyn Museum, which was considered a relatively insignificant and minor museum in the city. Something which made total sense, given that world-class institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim, and The Museum of Modern Art, were just a subway ride away. But “Sensation” would put the Brooklyn Museum on the map for almost all the wrong reasons.

The “Sensation” show featured a group referred to as the YBAs, or Young British Artists. Among these upstarts were; Tracy Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Sam Taylor-Wood and Damian Hirst. Several of whom had won critical recognition but were still largely unknown the to the greater public. Especially, in the United States.

The show had already caused an uproar in London. It featured a work by Marcus Harvey made of hundreds of children’s handprints to create a portrait of Myra Hindley.

Hindley was infamous for her role in the Moors Murders. Along with her husband, Brady, she had sexually assaulted, tortured and killed several children. The press dubbed her “The Most Evil Woman in Britain.” The work by Harvey was considered by many to be incredibly insensitive and offensive. Protests, including those lead by the mothers of some of the victims, ensued.

However, it was not the portrait of Hindley which would stir controversy in New York, it was a work by Chris Ofili. The painting was called “The Holy Virgin Mary.” It featured an image of a black Virgin Mary surrounded by pornographic images and spattered with, resin-covered, elephant dung. Many of New York’s Catholics, including the Archbishop of New York, and the city’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, were deeply offended.

Giuliani called the work “sick and disgusting” and went on a media blitz to denounce the painting and the Brooklyn Museum. He also lead a campaign to strip the Brooklyn Museum of its funding, a third of which came directly from the city.

Giuliani was successful in withdrawing those funds, putting the financial health of the institution at risk. He then began the process of evicting the museum from its building.

The controversy was not limited to New York. The United States House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution to strip the museum of the federal portion of its funding.

Hillary Clinton and a slew of artists and celebrities including; Susan Sarandon, Norman Mailer, Steve Martin, Kurt Vonnegut and Arthur Miller, stood up in defense of the museum. A court battle ensued.

Eventually, a federal judge ruled that Giuliani, and the City of New York, had violated the First Amendment of the Constitution which guaranteed freedom of expression. All funding was restored and eviction proceedings were dropped.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The Ofili painting was vandalized. Not once. But twice. It was successfully restored. However, following those attacks, it was only displayed behind plexiglass and protected by a police officer and museum guard at all times.

The show was then supposed to leave the Brooklyn Museum and continue its tour to the Australia National Gallery. However, given all the controversy and problems that had occurred in London and New York, the Australians canceled the show. But it wasn’t just the protests and vandalism which had caused the Australians to take such action, there was also another issue.

During the court proceedings, records had been disclosed that had not been previously known of to the Australians. Among them was the revelation that Charles Saatchi, Christie’s auction house and the art dealers who represented many of the artists in the show had contributed over $200,000 to fund the “Sensation” show.

The value of the work by the artists who took part in the show would increase dramatically as a result of being included in it. Something which clearly gave the contributors incentive to make sure the “Sensation” tour happened and was a success in terms or attendance, publicity, and marketing. As Brian Kennedy, the Director of the Australian National Gallery put it, that made the show “too close to the market.”

The mix of government funds and commercial reward for Charles Saatchi and other interested parties was simply too difficult to accept for the Australians. Given that many of the artists, Damian Hirst, in particular, would soon reach mind-boggling heights of financial reward for their work, you can see their point.

It’s hard to think of many other art shows that caused such a furor. It was, of course, an extremely popular exhibition. The protests and controversy only served to lure more and more visitors in. Oddly, for all the problems in London, New York, and Australia, the exhibition’s only other stop, Berlin, proved entirely uncontroversial.

Many of the personalities involved, Giuliani among them, would go on to play roles on a much larger stage. The mix of art of commerce would only become more unsettling. The political extremes demonstrated would only grow and divide many nations around the world.

Given all that, you can see how little trifles like the actual art might seem almost insignificant. Which is a shame. There was actually some really cool stuff in that show.