ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Sensational: the PR battle behind the art. Was ’Sensation’ a sensational bit of PR by the Brooklyn Museum of Art? Jessica Sung looks behind the scenes at the thin line between a crisis and great publicity

In the fall of ’99, the little-known Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA) became a household name when it presented ’Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection.’ As details of the grizzly and gruesome exhibits emerged, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani caused a news sensation when he tried to use his political muscle to cancel the show. To the outside observer, the campaign was a cyncial marketing ploy to garner attention. Even the name - ’Sensation’ - seemed designed to attract publicity.

In the fall of ’99, the little-known Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA) became a household name when it presented ’Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection.’ As details of the grizzly and gruesome exhibits emerged, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani caused a news sensation when he tried to use his political muscle to cancel the show. To the outside observer, the campaign was a cyncial marketing ploy to garner attention. Even the name - ’Sensation’ - seemed designed to attract publicity.

In the fall of ’99, the little-known Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA)

became a household name when it presented ’Sensation: Young British

Artists from the Saatchi Collection.’ As details of the grizzly and

gruesome exhibits emerged, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani caused a

news sensation when he tried to use his political muscle to cancel the

show. To the outside observer, the campaign was a cyncial marketing ploy

to garner attention. Even the name - ’Sensation’ - seemed designed to

attract publicity.



But in fact, what emerged from our investigation was that the scale of

this controversy took even the PR department by surprise.



As head of a three-strong PR and marketing staff at the BMA, Sally

Williams carried out pre-exhibit publicity tasks for ’Sensation’ after

the showing was confirmed in April 1999. The museum’s strategy was to

attract an audience it had long desired: the young and hip of New York.

To that end, BMA intended to give ’Sensation’ the brassy ads it

required. The BMA ran an ad in Time Out New York that read like a

surgeon general’s warning: ’The contents of this exhibition may cause

shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety.’ Another

poster-size ad depicted a piece composed of a pail, two oranges and a

cucumber suggestively arranged on a tattered mattress.



’It was all done tongue-in-cheek,’ Williams says of choosing the image

that would present ’Sensation’ to the nation.





A seed is planted



Media interest soon followed. The New York Times ran a piece about

’Sensation’ in its arts section in early April. Vogue and W expressed

interest in doing a story around the exhibit’s October opening. Williams

also contacted arts marketing firm Resnicow Schroeder Associates in July

for assistance in alternative and broadcast media placement. Meanwhile,

the ads continued to run every week in Time Out without inciting much

reaction. It wasn’t until a September piece in the NY Daily News that

the first seed of controversy sprouted.



The ’nasty’ tone of the article surprised Williams, who didn’t think

much of the implications of the reporter having contacted the Catholic

League, the Office of the Mayor’s and People for the Ethical Treatment

of Animals for their opinions on Chris Ofili’s ’The Holy Virgin Mary.’

Ofili’s painting shows a black Madonna with a bared breast made of

elephant dung, with pornographic cutouts dotting the background. The

article was headlined, ’Brooklyn Gallery of Horror: Gruesome Museum Show

Stirs Controversy,’ but Williams counters: ’It was a controversy of the

reporter’s own creation.’



Predictably, after the controversy was reported, a controversy

ensued.



Giuliani pressed the BMA daily to cancel the show. When he finally

threatened to cut off the dollars 500,000 monthly subsidy to the museum

and evict it from its home of more than a hundred years, the BMA made

national headlines.



Even Katie Couric of NBC’s Today show came calling.



To control the 350 requests for TV footage, interviews and still

photography, Williams chose NBC to shoot pool footage of the exhibit and

allowed the AP to take still photographs. Writers, however, had

unlimited access to the galleries. ’The primary issue was protecting the

art, and then not disturbing the visitors’ experience,’ Williams

explains. Resnicow Schroeder provided six additional staffers to assist

with media relations. Williams felt director Arnold Lehman was the best

spokesperson for the BMA because of his ’engaging manner’ with the

press.



The BMA silenced nearly all attacks with a PR counteroffensive: filing a

preliminary injunction against the city in federal court for violating

the First Amendment. Resnicow Schroeder EVP Fred Schroeder says of the

lawsuit, ’It was the strongest proactive communications measure the

museum could make.



Williams and Lehman obeyed the communications rules the lawsuit

required, deflecting most questions to their lawyer, First Amendment

specialist Floyd Abrams. He answered the media’s questions during the

official press conference held a day before the October 2 opening. The

BMA’s partial silence led the news media to dig into other areas,

alleging that the museum engaged in unethical funding practices in

sponsoring ’Sensation.’ Weighing in on the brawl, The New York Times and

The Village Voice took the rest of New York’s museums to task, demanding

that they speak up in the BMA’s defense. All the while, Williams and

Lehman laid low.





Far from mute



But the BMA was far from mute in its overall marketing. Picking up the

controversy from the First Amendment debate and running with it, the

museum ran a half-page ad featuring the now-infamous Damien Hirst

installation of a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde. Printed across

the shark were the words, ’Make Up Your Own Mind.’ ’Our primary goal

during the controversy was to communicate that we were not just the

museum of ’Sensation,’ ’ Williams says. ’Some people were hearing about

the museum for the first time.’



The PR department then issued flyers to college students, and also

handed them out on the streets of Mahattan’s trendy SoHo district. The

museum benefitted from additional publicity when PEN International, a

writers group based in New York, came out in support of the exhibit in

the name of freedom of expression.



Also chipping in with its tentative support was the Cultural

Institutions Group, a coalition of 34 NYC-funded museums including The

Met.



However, the BMA didn’t really exploit this information. ’We didn’t want

to escalate the divisiveness,’ says Williams. Nor did the museum use the

independent polls conducted by The NY Daily News, Freedom Forum and

Marist College.



Williams acknowledges that the BMA ’could have harnessed the web site

more effectively.’ In a move that would have been more effective earlier

in the controversy, the BMA posted a letter from Lehman on its web site

that addressed all the charges and questions levied at the museum,

albeit two months into the fracas. Williams actively but unsuccessfully

sought permission to post three articles by the monthly Art in America

on the web site because ’they told the story the way we perceived it.’

Paul Ha, director of Manhattan contemporary visual art space White

Columns, asks: ’I wonder why the museum didn’t make a stronger emphasis

on the celebration that elephant dung represents. It seems a pretty

obvious argument to me.’



Los Angeles County Museum of Art spokesperson Adam Coyne says, ’The

museum couldn’t have been prepared for the controversy. It did

exceptionally well under the circumstances, especially because the

communications department works independently from the curatorial

departments.’



Was ’Sensation’ a sensational piece of PR? The bottom line is that the

exhibit attracted 175,000 visitors, though the museum would not disclose

ticket sales. On the other hand, the Monet exhibition attracted 250,000

visitors the previous season, without the need for lawyers and PR

firms.



Proof that controversy doesn’t always pay.





BROOKLYN MUSEUM



Internal PR staff: Sally Williams, public information officer; Ann Marie

Sekers, senior public information associate; Richard Myers, public

information associate; Julie Yamamoto, manager, media relations



External agency: Resnicow Schroeder Associates.



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