Art In the Streets show dropped by Brooklyn Museum

posted Jun 22, 2011, 8:59 PM by Eric Fretz   [ updated Jun 23, 2011, 12:12 AM ]
The "Art In the Streets" exhibition (discussed previously in this blog and containing some Basquiat works along with an attempted overview of graffiti and street art) was slated to come to the Brooklyn Museum next year (March 30–July 8, 2012) after ending it’s run at Los Angeles’s MOCA. However, we now learn that the Brooklyn Museum has dropped it’s plans to host the show.

The Museum’s Director Arnold L. Lehman officially stated:

“This is an exhibition about which we were tremendously enthusiastic, and which would follow appropriately in the path of our Basquiat and graffiti exhibitions in 2005 and 2006, respectively. It is with regret, therefore, that the cancellation became necessary due to the current financial climate. As with most arts organizations throughout the country, we have had to make several difficult choices since the beginning of the economic downturn three years ago."

However, the exhibition has already been organized at MOCA, where it has been very popular. As Brooklyn Street Art points out:

“The current home for ‘Art in the Streets’ has found the show receiving great critical and popular acclaim and the much sought after younger demographic forming lines… and yes, hitting up the gift shop. It really looks like it is proving to be a blockbuster for the museum and business in the community. That’s why it’s even more sad and a little confusing to find that Brooklyn can’t host what would surely be a boon to the organizers, the museum, and the city.”

Many are also thinking that the economic “difficult choices” may be related to the controversial nature of graffiti.

After the shows opening, “the Los Angeles Police Department reported a spike in graffiti and vandalism in the museum's Little Toyko neighborhood,” as reported by the LA Times in April.

In the same month, ART INFO used the exhibition to report on the “controversy” of should a museum “glorify” criminal activity?

The forces of philistine reaction took up the case.

Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, published an article in City Journal titled “Radical Graffiti Chic,” in which she called graffiti “the bane of cities” and accused MOCA of hypocrisy and glorifying vandalism.

This was followed on April 24th by a New York Daily News editorial, spewing that if the exhibition comes to Brooklyn:

“ mavens will be sticking their thumbs in the eyes of every bodega owner and restaurant manager who struggles to keep his or her property graffiti-free, not to mention the eyes of all New Yorkers who cringe recalling the days of graffiti-covered subway cars.

They will be doing this with taxpayers' help. While the city spends some $2.4 million a year to battle vandalism, and the transit authority spends plenty more, taxpayers also subsidize the Brooklyn Museum to the tune of about $9 million a year.”

The mention of graffiti and taxpayers money brought Queens City Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr on the warpath. Vallone (previously dubbed the “spineless city councilman who relies heavily on fighting graffiti to get his name in the press", see below) wrote to Brooklyn Museum director Lehman in May urging him not to do the exhibition. The letter repeated the figure of about $9 million given annually to the Museum by the city, and clearly insisted “taxpayer money should NOT be used to encourage the destruction of our taxpayers’ property.”

When Lehman later e-mailed the LA Weekly saying “We have already and will continue to face severe reductions in financial support that require the Museum to make very tough decisions in light of the challenges facing us in the coming fiscal year,” it makes you wonder if this refers not just to general lack of money, but to a fear that this particular exhibition could lead to controversy, and further cuts of city funds.

However,  Sally Williams, spokesperson for the Museum, said that museum officials were aware that the exhibition had caused some controversy in LA, but that it had "absolutely no role" in the museum's decision to remove it from its calendar.

LA Weekly has just updated on their blog that:

"We just talked with someone intimately familiar with the show, and he said, 'I think it could be a combination that the museum is afraid of the show and the negative press it could bring them. Why would New York not want this show? I don't believe that someone would not pay for this exhibit.' "

The New York Times reported that curator and MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch has already approached another, unnamed, institution in New York about taking the exhibition. “We will find a way to bring it to New York,” Deitch said in an interview. “If not in a museum, we’ll just do it on our own.” 

Despite the criticisms we may have of the show, we certainly want it to come to New York, and are very disappointed we will not be able to see it in Brooklyn. We hope it can get here by some means.

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The Gothamist web site spoke to Martha Cooper (photographer and co author of the legendary 1984 Subway Art, who has works in the show) who said "I'm seriously disappointed that the show isn't coming to NYC. I was really looking forward to seeing it here in my own town. However I am taking the museum's word about the reason for cancellation being a lack of funding. I think the fear of bad press was from potential funders, not because the museum got cold feet.” 

The Gothamist also quoted Carlos Rodriguez of NYU (also known as subway graffiti artist Mare 139) who also has work in the show. "It's surprising and not surprising at the same time” he said. “Anything that's as controversial and politically charged as graffiti in NYC is going to have some blowback. It's unfortunate, because if any place could have a great discourse about this art, it should happen here.”

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Peter Vallone (the Democratic Council Member from District 22 in Queens, and head of its Committee of Public Safety) is known for drafting and pushing through the toughest vandalism laws in the nation,” which were later struck down as unconstitutional.  The law banned the possession of spray paint and broad-tipped markers in New York City by people 18, 19 and 20. There had already been a law against the sale of graffiti instruments to those 18 and under. A group of seven high school and college students sued, opposed by a city lawyer, and a Judge of the Federal District Court in Manhattan agreed that the law unfairly singled out a narrow group. (see New York Times of May 2006). 

Vallone also campaigned against Greenpoint’s Alphabeta Shop for selling spray paint and graffiti related items. “I am determining what if any steps to take against it,” he said, “Maybe I should work to get a police camera outside.” (see Newsday story, also reprinted at GraffNews.)

His obsession with graffiti even led him to repeatedly campaign for an unsuccessful city ban on metal roll-down shutters for city storefronts, wanting them replaced with open grills that would be less of an encouragement to graffiti, with owners paying the cost (New York 1).  

After hearing that the Brooklyn Museum had dropped the “Art in the Streets” show, Vallone told the Daily News that the New York version of the exhibit would have created "more crime, as it did in L.A., and also send a message loud and clear that graffiti is commendable and worthy of posting in a museum exhibit."

Vallone is also pondering a run at Queens borough president, or Queens DA, on a record of opposing trans fats, cell phone towers, graffiti, and term limits for Mayor Bloomberg.

Whatever your views on graffiti, this attempted censoring of an art exhibit is beyond the pale.

Peter Vallone can be reached at 718-274-4500, or e-mailed here