A Fort Greene museum is drawing fire from police union brass in Manhattan for what they believe is an anti-cop exhibit, but Brooklynites are defending the museum in a fight over arts funding and free speech.
In an echo of the “Sensation” controversy almost a decade ago, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is questioning whether tax dollars should fund an art display that it considers obscene. The two works in question are part of “Welcome to America,” the first retrospective of the Brooklyn artist Dread Scott, which opened last Thursday at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts.
The pieces are nothing if not controversial: “Sign of the Times” is a yellow street sign depicting a cop shooting an unarmed man. “DANGER,” the sign warns. “POLICE IN AREA.”
Across the room, in a piece called “The Blue Wall of Violence,” mechanized police batons pound on a wooden casket. Six shooting range targets hang above the casket, each labeled with a date when police shot an unarmed New Yorker. The human bull’s-eyes grasp household objects that police have mistaken for weapons, such as a squeegie, a candy bar, and, in reference to the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, a wallet.
Artwork is bound to have its critics.
“We don’t like it,” said spokesman Al O’Leary. “We don’t think it’s accurate in terms of what police officers do. It makes it look like police officers are simply out there to shoot innocent people.”
O’Leary admitted that the PBA has only seen media coverage of the exhibit rather than the artwork itself. As such, he said the union was mostly questioning whether government subsidies should be going to MoCADA, which gets about 30 percent of its funding from taxpayers, according to curators.
“We object to state or city funding [being] provided to something that proffers misunderstanding, hatred, or ill will towards police officers,” O’Leary said.
The PBA’s opposition to the exhibit created a media frenzy, with Manhattan-based news outlets eager to jump in on the controversy. The Daily News described Scott’s art as “cop-bashing,” stating that his works “portray the city’s Finest as trigger-happy racists who have put bull’s-eyes on the backs of black New Yorkers.” But Scott wouldn’t bite.
“These works are against police brutality and murder,” said Scott, who has lived and created art in Brooklyn for the past 15 years. “What should be controversial is these killings, not this artwork.”
“I think that people need to know about these issues,” said Dessanaya Miller, 19, of Clinton Hill. “No matter who they may offend or hurt, these issues are real.”
Most visitors believe that the tiny museum should continue to receive taxpayer support.
“The public should continue to fund the museum,” said Lewis, a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident. “They say they don’t like the fact that government money funded this exhibit, but no one seems to be talking about the fact that government money also funded these instances of police brutality.”
Even those who disagree with Scott’s art believe that his works should stay on the walls.
“It’s this guy’s point of view,” said Isaac Cohen, a carpenter from Park Slope. “I don’t know if I agree with it completely, but it’s certainly valid.”
Agree or disagree, it’s MoCADA’s right to show the work, constitutional experts have said — even if it’s on the taxpayer’s dollar.
“The First Amendment dictates that artists have freedom of expression and museums have the right to show whatever works they choose,” said Eddie Rodriguez, an attorney from Sunset Park who came to see the exhibit on Sunday.
Art experts aren’t surprised that Scott’s work is inciting such strong emotional responses.
“I can see how it engenders both the admiration and the ire of some people,” said Donna Moran, chair of fine arts at nearby Pratt Institute. “I think his work has a real, political message — it’s not just shock value.”
Scott is no stranger to controversy — and neither are Brooklyn art museums. Scott drew scorn from the first President Bush for his 1989 piece, “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” — which required viewers to step on the Star Spangled Banner in order to sign a book to answer the question.
But the brouhaha over the MoCADA exhibit is more reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 show, “Sensation.” The provocative exhibit included Chris Ofili’s painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which depicts the religious icon as a black woman, surrounded by elephant dung and butterfly-shaped clippings from pornographic magazines.
The work outraged Catholic organizations and then-Mayor Giuliani, who attempted to cut the museum’s funding. The museum won the subsequent court case, and Giuliani failed in his bid for president.
While the Giuliani administration lined up against the Brooklyn Museum nearly a decade ago, Brooklyn’s elected officials are siding with MoCADA.
“I will fight vigorously for MoCADA against oppression and censorship of any kind,” said Councilwoman Leticia James (D–Fort Greene). “The only group that’s making this a controversy is the PBA.”
As such, MoCADA founder and curator Laurie Cumbo sees a threat to her museum’s future.
“I think the PBA should retract their remarks until they at least see the exhibit — then we can have a discussion,” Cumbo said. “It seems that they should make an investigation before making inflammatory remarks. I hope this is not an example of how they conduct police work.”
Dread Scott’s “Welcome to America” runs through June 1 at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora (80 Hanson Pl., between South Portland Avenue and South Elliot Place in Fort Greene), 11 am–6 pm. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Scott himself will conduct a tour of the exhibit on Thursday, March 13 at 7 pm for a $4 additional charge. Call (718) 230-0492 or visit www.mocada.org for information.