Joe Lhota's handling of 1999 Museum controversy may come to haunt him shall he become the Republican nominee for mayor, raising questions about how he would operate in a diverse city whose current mayor champions unpleasant speech from every quarter.
In 1999, Lhota, as deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration threatened to cut funding and evict the Brooklyn Museum over a controversial piece of art that incorporated elephant feces in a depiction of the Virgin Mary. "The mayor and Mr. Lhota decided this exhibition offended their sensibilities. O.K. Then they said that if the museum did not kill it, they might evict it," Michael Powell recalled in a December article. Mr. Lhota offered his “8-year-old rule”: “I would not want my daughter to see a naked man, a statue or a caricature or a painting.”
“You need a framework, mental architecture, to understand what you’re looking at so that you don’t go home at night and have nightmares,” he said then, according to the NY Times.
"His blunt message to the museum’s chairman: Unless the “Holy Virgin Mary” was removed from the show, the city would cut off the museum’s financing, its $7 million-a-year lifeblood. When the museum balked, Mr. Lhota searched for ways to prevent it from using taxpayer money for the exhibition. He scoured the museum’s century-old lease with the city, discovering what he believed was a violation of its agreement to use a city-owned building: “Sensation” planned to charge attendees $9.75 and restrict entry for children under 17, despite lease rules that required free admission for all.
“I advised the mayor at the time,” Mr. Lhota later testified, that “I thought there was a problem here.” Soon after, he took the unusual step of attending an emergency meeting of the museum’s directors, warning them that it would be illegal to proceed with the exhibition, testimony shows. When the directors voted to proceed with the show, Mr. Lhota, as the mayor’s representative on the board, cast the sole dissenting ballot.
"Outside of the museum’s lobby, he announced the city’s punishment: withholding the museum’s first payment of the year, a check for $500,000. Schuyler Chapin, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, was outraged by the threat of cutting off the museum’s funds and demanded an explanation from Mr. Lhota, in person at City Hall. “What is this?” Mr. Chapin asked. “We want a nuclear explosion,” Mr. Lhota replied, according to Mr. Chapin’s account in “Rudy Giuliani: Emperor of the City,” a book by Andrew Kirtzman.
"When a federal judge, Nina Gershon, ruled in November 1999 that the city had violated the First Amendment, she cited Mr. Lhota’s testimony. It “reinforces the conclusion,” Judge Gershon wrote, “that it has never contemplated that the city or the mayor would have veto power over the museum’s decisions as to what to display.”
"After its court defeat, the Giuliani administration reached a settlement that required it to restore financing to the museum and barred City Hall from any acts of revenge. Mr. Lhota, however, found ways to vent his frustration. Near the end of 1999, he learned of a critical essay about the episode written by the executive director of the United States Conference of Mayors, J. Thomas Cochran. Mr. Lhota wrote two letters to Mr. Cochran: the first rebutted the essay, calling it “oddly biased and inaccurate”; the second said New York City would quit the conference of mayors, copies of the letters show.
"Mr. Lhota denies that the move was retaliatory, but Patrick Lally, a high-ranking aide to Mr. Lhota who was involved in the decision to leave the group, said in an interview that “there was a very clear linkage.” At the bottom of his letter quitting the mayor’s group, Mr. Lhota included a message about membership dues, visible only to his staff and with an echo of the Brooklyn Museum case.
“DON’T PAY THE BILL!!” he scrawled."
14 years later, Mr. Lhota, a candidate for mayor, is unapologetic. “I don’t regret the tactics — at all,” he said. Lhota now says his views on free expression have changed, and he wouldn't oppose any art piece now. “I have a much clearer understanding of the First Amendment now,” he said.
Still, he defended his conduct and stands by his negotiating tactics, telling the Times that "he was looking for 'leverage points to force the museum’s hand. Asked how, as mayor, he would respond to an art display that offended him, he replied: “Ask them nothing. Probably go see it. Enjoy it. Hope there is a ribbon cutting.”
"Should Mr. Lhota become the Republican nominee for mayor, his Democratic opponent would most likely pounce on his role in the museum controversy, linking him to an administration that, in pursuit of a better-behaved New York, ran afoul of the First Amendment," the NY Times concludes.
For many involved in the Brooklyn Museum debate, bitterness toward Mr. Lhota still lingers. “He did it once; he could certainly do it again,” Jack A. Josephson, a museum board member at the time, told the Times. “If you are a museum person today, you’d have to keep this in the back of your mind. They all should be worried that they might do something that would offend a Mayor Lhota.”