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Jewish World Review March 2, 2001 / 7 Adar 5761

Evan Gahr

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Only in New Yawk --- NOT! -- IT sounds like an only in New York City story. But taxpayers nationwide have good reason to follow the latest battle between New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

At least three federal agencies have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Brooklyn Museum in recent years. Nevertheless, congressmen and senators remain largely oblivious to this dubious use of taxpayer dollars.

Once again, Mayor Giuliani is the rare elected official--city, state or federal--who would hold the Museum fully accountable for its perverse use of taxpayer dollars. In 1999, he tried to deny City funds to the Museum after it displayed a dung-splattered photo of the Virgin Mary, but a federal judge ruled against him on free speech grounds.

This February, Giuliani vowed to cut off City funding for the Brooklyn Museum over its latest foray into anti-Catholic bigotry, "Yo Mamma's Last Supper." This photo collection in the Museum's new exhibit of works by black photographers, features Jesus as a naked woman in the Last Supper. Giuliani says that a decision to de-fund the Museum because of "Yo Mama's Last Supper" and similar "art" could be narrowly crafted to withstand court scrutiny. Perhaps. Or maybe another federal judge will fancy himself the reincarnation of Thomas Jefferson by proclaiming that de-funding the Museum would violate the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, as the ferocious battle over City money seemed headed for court, other sources of public money for the Museum are overlooked. Indeed, the Brooklyn Museum, long subsidized by National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is just one example of how congressmen and senators don't quite notice how they spend their constituents' money. Often times, they even denounce the very institutions which they unwittingly fund. For example, in early May 1999, the American Psychological Association came under fierce Congressional attack for publishing an article that seemed to condone pedophilia. But the APA could cry all the way to the bank. According to subsequent interviews by this writer, Congressional critics didn't even realize that the APA itself received nearly $5 million in federal funds for research and development the previous year-and the federal National Institutes of Health routinely awards hundreds of millions of dollars for research by individual psychologists.

A similar spectacle unfolded when elected officials denounced the Brooklyn Museum in September 1999. Yes, prominent critics did say that the NEA had given the Brooklyn Museum $500,000 the previous three years. But New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith (Independent) and Rep. Vito Fossella (R-NY), were oblivious to other sources of government funding-including a $135,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities some two months earlier. In fact, the Brooklyn Museum had even received money from an obscure federal body named the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the American Spectator disclosed

The federal government continues to underwrite the Brooklyn Museum, although perhaps not so generously. The NEH last year awarded the Museum an outright $91,000 grant, with $7000 in matching funds, for a community web site project.

Other times, assistance is indirect. The NEA even indemnifies or insures for up to $500,000 exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum. Of course, money is fungible. If Uncle Sam foots the insurance bill you have more money for "artistic endeavors."

Taxpayer dollars run amok is not limited to Washington. New York's Gov. George Pataki is apparently unaware of financial assistance the New York State Education Department has provided the Brooklyn Museum over the last year. For this cautious politician, ignorance is bliss. In 1999, he claimed New York state did not fund the Museum, until New York Post reporter Fred Dicker proved otherwise.

The current controversy has occasioned more calls for abolishing public funding for the arts because, claim social conservatives, the money invariably subsidizes repulsive works. Is it really beyond the realm of government to establish reasonable standards for the use of public funds--or even keep track of how the money is spent? It seems that way. Hopefully, Mayor Giuliani can reverse this sorry trend. Then, this really would be an "only in New York" story, but with a happy ending.

JWR contributor Evan Gahr is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. To comment click here.


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© 2001, Evan Gahr. Adapted from the American Spectator online edition