Students plan lawsuit after city closes art show

NEW YORK -- Some Brooklyn College graduate students are contemplating legal action after city officials closed down their graduation art show last month because several works of art were deemed not ''family friendly.''

The exhibit, titled ''Plan B,'' was part of a final thesis project for the 18 masters of fine art students, but the show was open for only one day at its original location, a World War II memorial in Brooklyn. Officials from the city's Department of Parks and Recreation shut the show down May 4 because some of the featured works, including a veiled sculpture of a hand holding a penis, were considered unsuitable for families, according to an article in The New York Times.

Marni Kotak, one of the student artists, said some other students were working in the gallery May 4 when city parks department officials came in, asked them to leave and then changed the locks on the doors to the gallery. Kotak said that after the confrontation, the artists were not allowed access to their work for five days, and during this time Brooklyn College sent movers to pack up the exhibit.

A number of pieces were damaged during moving, including one student's 7-by-8-by-10 foot wooden house, part of which was later found dismantled outside by a loading dock, according to Plan C(ensored), a blog the students created.

''I don't think any of us had any idea our work would be so badly damaged,'' Kotak said. ''Our stuff was in trash bags.... It was just totally an abomination.''

Kotak said the students plan to file a lawsuit against Brooklyn College, the parks department and the City of New York. Although they have not filed suit yet, Kotak said they have enlisted former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel to represent them.

Warner Johnston, spokesman for the city parks department, declined to comment on a potential lawsuit.

Johnston said the city decided to close the exhibit because of a verbal agreement made with Brooklyn College six years ago that all student art displayed at the war memorial would remain ''suitable for families and children.''

''The show had some art that was questionable whether or not it was suitable for families and children, and the borough commissioner made the decision to close the exhibit so he could discuss the content with the college,'' Johnston said. ''And the college made the decision of its own volition to move the artwork to their own space.''

Latoya Nelson, assistant director of public relations at Brooklyn College, declined comment and referred questions to Colleen Roche, who works for the public relations firm Linden, Alschuler & Kaplan, Inc. Roche, who also was a press secretary for former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani, is serving as the college's spokeswoman on the issue.

Roche said the college did not decide on its own to move the artwork, but did so because the city rescinded its permit to display artwork at the memorial. In a press release, Roche said the art was removed ''under supervision of the art department.''

Roche declined to comment specifically about who in the art department oversaw the moving process. She said the students were not allowed to move their own work because the college had to act quickly.

''There was a matter of some urgency in getting it [the artwork] out of the space, and the college decided that this would be the most efficient way to move it,'' Roche said.

Roche and Johnston also declined to comment about whether the city or the college informed students about their ''family friendly'' verbal agreement. Both Kotak and fellow student artist Carla Aspenberg said none of the students knew about the agreement between the school and the city until after the show was closed.

Kotak said that so far officials have not given the students a straightforward explanation as to why the show was shut down.

''All I heard was that it had something to do with sexual content, but I'm not sure what the story is anymore,'' she said. ''And what art doesn't have sexual content? I guess not all art does, but this was a graduate student art show, was it really supposed to be PG-13?''

Kotak said that on May 24, the students were able to open a new show, now called ''Plan B Prevails,'' at a venue donated by a local developer. This show will run until June 16. She said that for this show, some students left their work in its damaged state, and others created new art in protest.

''I think that a lot of people felt that they didn't want to participate in any act that would minimize, I guess, the violation of our rights to freedom of expression and our rights to our own property, which the parks department and Brooklyn College perpetrated,'' Kotak said.

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