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  May 8, 2000

Public Funding of Arts Debated at Law School

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's threat to evict the Brooklyn Museum of Art and cut its city financing because it mounted an exhibit he found offensive and sacrilegious brought the debate about government funding of the arts - ever-present in the art world - to the public's attention. Last week, the debate came to the University of Connecticut School of Law.

On May 2, the Center for First Amendment Rights and the law school co-sponsored the Milton Sorokin Symposium on Public Art, Public Money &The First Amendment. During a spirited discussion, panelists and audience members debated the government's place in the arts.

"The topic of public art, public money is particularly vivid to us all," said Hugh Macgill, dean of the law school and moderator of the symposium. "We may not like what we hear, we may not like what we see, but where the hell would we be if we liked everything we heard and saw?"

According to Paul Master-Karnik, the director of the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., museums serve a variety of purposes from educational to moralistic. Above all, they are the place where one expects to find the free exchange of competing ideas.

The issue is not the exchange of these ideas but the lack of a coherent system to support the arts, Master-Karnik said.

"We really have not come up with a solution to fund the human spirit in American society," he added.

The government may not be the best source for that funding, said Alan Feld, a professor at the Boston University School of Law. Good art and good government have different sets of goals and values, which may conflict when the government sets out to subsidize the arts, he noted.

Though advocates of government funding have suggested a number of solutions, such as indirect funding, any type of subsidy presents a problem.

"The cost is that the art which government supports becomes blander, not more exciting," Feld said.

But according to Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, government-funded art won't become blander if the government understands that it cannot interfere with the content of the artwork.

"The government can't stand at the gateway to the market of free ideas and decide which ideas are worth expressing," Siegel said.

While Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum of Art demonstrated a grave misunderstanding of the First Amendment, Siegel said, the controversy could prevent other government officials from trying to censor artwork.

"What goes on the walls of a museum," he said, "should be left to the curators not the government."

Allison Thompson