The mayor was offended by the inclusion of elephant dung and images of buttocks, so he cut the museum’s funding. A federal court ruled that his action violated the First Amendment.
In 1989, Senation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, was preparing to open at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Chris Ofili’s artwork, The Holy Virgin Mary, was part of this exhibition. The piece features a glittering African woman as the Virgin Mary with a lump of elephant dung near one of the breasts, surrounded by photo cutouts of genitals. Ofili, a British artist of African descent, used elephant dung in much of his artwork. As Ofili told the New York Times in a September 1999 article, he was inspired to use it as a result of what he "saw and felt" while in traveling in Zimbabwe. He chose to rest this painting and others on two large clumps of dung: "It's a way of raising the paintings up from the ground and giving them a feeling that they've come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall."
The mayor of New York City at the time, Rudy Giuliani, said several of the pieces in the show were “sick’ and “disgusting.” He was particularly offended by The Holy Virgin Mary piece. Giuliani ordered the museum to cancel the entire show. If they did not comply, the mayor threatened to cut museum funding and evict them from their space, which was public property.
When the show opened, protestors picketed outside museum. Many local Catholic leaders spoke out against Ofili’s artwork, calling the work disrespectful to their faith. They were also joined by leaders of other religious faiths who felt that religious symbols like the Virgin Mary shouldn’t be desecrated in the name of art.
Arts and cultural organizations in the city banded together to defend the museum, issuing their own letter condemning Giuliani’s comments as a “dangerous precedent” that could cause “lasting damage” to New York’s cultural life. After city officials announced they would be withholding monthly funding, the museum filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the city.
Judge Nina Gershon ruled that withholding funding would be engaging in viewpoint discrimination and that the city’s actions to suppress the artwork and penalize the museum were unconstitutional.
Gershon wrote in her opinion that “there is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy.”
The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra cancelled the opening of the Sensation show in 2000 after the controversy in New York.