In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum displayed Holy Virgin Mary, a painting by the Turner Prize-winning painter Chris Ofili that incorporates elephant feces and images of female genitalia alongside an image of the Virgin Mary. The work offended the delicate sensibilities of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani and his Roman Catholic deputy mayor Joe Lhota, and what followed was a protracted battle in which Lhota threatened to cut the museum’s funding and have it evicted if the painting wasn’t taken down. Eventually, clearer heads prevailed, and the museum continued displaying the work.
Fourteen years later, though Lhota is positioning himself as a moderate, with-the-times Republican candidate in the race for the mayoralty, he says he has no regrets about the bullying in his past, though he admits he has a “Much clearer understanding of the First Amendment now,” and wouldn’t go after controversial art as mayor.
Some in the art community, understandably, are still worried. “He did it once; he could certainly do it again,” said Jack Josephson, who served on the museum’s board during the conflict. “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.”