|The Case of the "Sensation" Art Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1999
Only a slight majority of Americans (57%)
supported the right of the Brooklyn Museum to show the controversial
"Sensation" exhibit in the fall of 1999, according to a poll commissioned by the First
In October 1999, the First Amendment Center commissioned the Center
for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut to conduct
a study of Americans' attitudes toward freedom of expression issues
arising from the Brooklyn Museum's decision to host the
controversial "Sensation" exhibit.
Given that a number of studies have found strong public support for
freedom of expression in the abstract -- see, for example, the annual
State of the First Amendment surveys sponsored by the First Amendment Center -- the "Sensation" exhibit
presented an opportunity to find out how supportive the public would
be when freedom of expression was put to the test in a concrete situation.
Americans were, in fact, split over whether the Brooklyn Museum should
have the right to show the "Sensation" exhibit. While a majority
(57%) of Americans agreed that the museum should be able to show the
exhibit, a significant proportion (39%) disagreed, with 31% "strongly"
Despite opposition to the exhibit from nearly 4 in 10 Americans, more than
8 in 10 (84%) agreed that people had a First Amendment right to attend museums
that show art that might be offensive to others.
Six in ten Americans (60%) thought that the government should not have the power to ban the "Sensation" exhibit, even though
the Brooklyn Museum is partially supported by public funds. The
same proportion (60%) also felt that the government did not have the right to withdraw public funds
from the museum because of its display of controversial artwork.