NEW YORK -- Far more than has been previously disclosed, the "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art has been financed by companies and individuals with a direct commercial interest in the works of the young British artists in the show, according to court documents and interviews with people involved in the exhibition.
Faced with rising costs and the unwillingness of major corporations to support the show -- whose works have provoked furious protests in London and more recently in New York -- Arnold L. Lehman, the museum's director, embarked last summer on an aggressive campaign to finance "Sensation" by other means.
He and his assistants raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from those who stood to profit most from the exhibition of contemporary art, a practice that other museum executives say was practically unheard of and ethically problematic.
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said as much when he began a legal campaign to close the show, accusing museum officials not only of recklessly staging an exhibition of vulgar and sacrilegious art, but also of conspiring with the owner of the "Sensation" collection, Charles Saatchi, to inflate the value of the works on display.
Giuliani's lawyers have dropped the conspiracy issue, but the financial arrangements behind the "Sensation" exhibition, which have surfaced in the court battle between the museum and the mayor, are highly unusual.
Lehman and his assistants solicited donations of at least $10,000 from dealers who represented many of the artists whose works are on display. They offered Christie's special access to the museum to entertain clients in the market for contemporary art. They secured a pledge of $160,000 from Saatchi, and then they attempted to conceal his financial support from the public.
In an interview Thursday, Lehman insisted that commercial considerations had never entered his discussions with those who donated money to the exhibition, which he estimated would cost the museum $2 million. He said those who agreed to give money were motivated by their enthusiasm for an important body of art, not by any desire for profit. In any event, Lehman asserted, the exhibition has not increased the market value of any works by the "Sensation" artists.
At one point, according to a letter written by Lehman, a representative of the museum asked Saatchi to guarantee the entire cost of the exhibition. Saatchi, who has made substantial profits buying and selling contemporary art, declined but agreed to cover the insurance for the exhibition. Art experts said such insurance could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
David Bowie's donation
David Bowie, the popular rock musician, pledged a donation of about $75,000 and agreed to provide the voice-over for the exhibit audio tour without charge. Soon after, his private, for-profit Internet company was given the right to display the "Sensation" exhibition on Bowie's personal Web site, www.davidbowie.com, which sells art, clothing and memberships to Bowie's fan club. While Bowie's financial contribution has been kept in confidence by museum officials, traffic on the Bowie Web site has more than tripled.
Larry Gagosian, a prominent contemporary art dealer in New York City who is a friend of Saatchi's and who also represents several of the artists in "Sensation," said he had paid $10,000 for tickets to a "Sensation" fund-raising dinner. Museum officials solicited contributions from other major contemporary art dealers. In a letter to an associate, Lehman wrote that the dealers' contributions were in "their own best interests."
And though it has been known for months that Christie's contributed $50,000 toward the exhibition, the documents reveal for the first time the extent to which Christie's was allowed to use its sponsorship to promote sales in its coming auction of contemporary art. The auction will include works by some of the "Sensation" artists, and for its donation Christie's was given, among other benefits, "unlimited opportunities to entertain in the museum during the run of the exhibition with the $5,000 rental fee to be waived," according to an internal Christie's memorandum.
Representatives for Saatchi, Christie's and other donors denied they were trying to profit from the exhibition. And Lehman said Saatchi's donation was concealed because he wished to remain anonymous.
Lehman, known for being adept at boosting museum attendance through aggressive marketing tactics, defended his fund raising as no different from what other museum directors have done.
It is naive, he said, to think that banks, insurance companies or utilities sponsor art exhibitions without any thought to the business benefits.
"Corporations are giving money for marketing purposes, for publicity purposes, for promotional purposes, for whatever reason that is ultimately going to support their business, and that's nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "I'm not ashamed of it, they're not ashamed of it, and if they didn't do that, if they didn't believe that they were going to somehow be able to put themselves forward, whether it is to their client base or the world at large, they wouldn't give this money."
Some authorities on museum ethics say that potential conflicts of interest are best handled when they are fully disclosed to the public. While officials at the Brooklyn Museum made Christie's involvement public, they tried to conceal Saatchi's financial support, documents show.
Peter B. Trippi, vice director of the museum, was asked by a reporter for the New York Observer last month whether Saatchi had contributed money toward the exhibit. At the time, Saatchi had sent $50,000. In a memo to several museum officials, including Lehman, Trippi described his response: "I said no," underlining the words for emphasis and adding at the end of the memo, "I hope this works for you."
Honoring donor's wishes
Lehman enthusiastically endorsed Trippi's response to the reporter. "Peter -- great," he wrote on the memo, twice underlining the word "great." In Thursday's interview, Lehman said that museum officials concealed Saatchi's involvement not out of discomfort about how the public might view the arrangement but simply to honor Saatchi's wish to remain an anonymous donor.
Lehman, impressed by the huge crowds that attended "Sensation" in London and Berlin, said he was determined to create the same buzz for the often-overlooked Brooklyn Museum. He joked in the interview that he had scabs on his knees from begging Saatchi for financial support.