Sensation: The Madonna, The Mayor, The Media, and the First Amendment


AFA Trustee and former Director of the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman, joins AFA Director and CEO Pauline Willis for a conversation about his newly released book, Sensation: The Madonna, The Mayor, The Media and The First Amendment, and his career pioneering diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in museums.

It took Arnold Lehman nearly two decades to fully absorb and clearly reflect on what happened at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999–2000. The intense controversy swept the exhibition, the museum, and Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary painting to international attention for six months. While 175,000 people saw the exhibition and millions read and heard about it daily, they never knew of the threats and challenges that kept Lehman and the museum staff awake at night. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who never saw the painting, focused his rage at The Holy Virgin Mary; rescinded the museum’s municipal subsidy to force it to close the exhibition; and when that didn’t work, he threatened to oust the trustees and evict it from its hundred-year-old landmark. The city’s most conservative media and ultra-religious groups inflamed the conflict.

In his new book, Sensation: The Madonna, The Mayor, The Media, and The First Amendment, Lehman finally tells the story from his perspective, giving insight into what it means to run a major cultural institution amid controversy.

A bold and progressive museum director for over 40 years, Arnold Lehman has always advocated for freedom of expression, diversity, social justice, and accessibility. Under his guidance as director, over 500 exhibitions were presented at the Brooklyn Museum and, earlier, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He served in major cultural leadership roles nationally and in New York City throughout his distinguished career.

Lehman (M.A. Johns Hopkins University; M. Phil. and Ph.D., Yale University; DHL (Hon.) Pratt Institute) was a Ford Foundation Fellow and currently serves on numerous not-for-profit boards focused on culture, education, and social justice. He chaired the board of Legg Mason Funds, were he served as a director for 40 years; and is presently a trustee of funds in the Franklin Templeton complex. Since 2015, he is Senior Advisor at Phillips.


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