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The Case of the "Sensation" Art Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1999

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" disagreeing.

Graph:  Do you agree or disagree that the Brooklyn Museum of Art should have the right to show the  Sensation exhibit? (Brooklyn Museum Art Controversy Survey, 1999)

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.

Graph: People have a first amendment right to attend museums which have art that might be offensive to others. (Brooklyn Museum Art Controversy Survey, 1999)

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.

Graph: Since the Brooklyn Museum is partially supported by public funds should the government have the ability to ban the "Sensation" exhibit? (Brooklyn Museum Art Controversy Survey, 1999)

Graph: Should the government be able to withdraw public funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of its decision to show the "Sensation" exhibit? (Brooklyn Museum Art Controversy Survey, 1999)

 

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