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Death and bomb threats over an art exhibition! A major battle with the mayor of New York City and the New York Times! Looking back, Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, and his colleagues were not prepared for what was to happen. No one could have anticipated that SENSATION: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection would become the biggest art story in the history of art history. It has taken him two decades to fully absorb and clearly reflect on what happened at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999–2000.
The intense controversy swept the exhibition, the museum, and Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary painting to international attention for six months. While 175,000 people saw the exhibition and millions read and heard about it daily, they never knew of the threats and challenges that kept the museum staff awake at night. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who never saw the painting, focused his rage at The Holy Virgin Mary; rescinded the museum’s municipal funding to force it to close the exhibition; and attempted to evict it from its hundred-year-old landmark.
The city’s most conservative media and ultra-religious groups inflamed the conflict. SENSATION, selected from controversial collector Charles Saatchi’s contemporary British art collection, was first shown at London’s Royal Academy in 1997, to an outcry over the portrait of child murderer Myra Hindley. Its opening at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 drew tabloid headlines such as “B’klyn gallery of horror―Gruesome museum show,” and “Butchered animals, a dung-smeared Mary and giant genitalia.” The New York Times accused the museum of wrongdoing in high-profile but often false and inaccurate investigative reports, most dismissed earlier by the court. In a story as gripping as a fictional thriller, the mayor and city eventually settled with the museum, awarding it a permanent injunction, the restoration of city money, and substantial funds for its new entrance.