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Stalin banner taken down

A N.Y. civil liberties group wants reasons why an art display featuring the Soviet dictator was removed.

November 16, 2008|Marcus Franklin | Franklin writes for the Associated Press.

NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union has demanded that city officials explain why they ordered a private art school to remove a banner displaying an image of Josef Stalin.

In a letter Thursday to the Department of Buildings, NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman expressed concern that the banner was taken down from the Cooper Union after some residents of the local Ukrainian community complained that it "seemed to promote" the Soviet dictator on the 75th anniversary of a famine he imposed. The famine, called the Holodomor, killed millions of Ukrainians.

The banner was part of an art exhibit, "Stalin by Picasso, or Portrait of Woman with Mustache." Lene Berg, the artist who created the banner, said it was intended to provoke discussion about the relationship between art and politics.

The 52-foot-by-36-foot banner features a reproduction of a 1953 Pablo Picasso portrait of Stalin. At the time, the image was viewed as a critique of the Soviet leader.

But the Ukrainian community found it offensive, said Tamara Olexy, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

"It's like hanging a portrait of Hitler in a synagogue or in a Jewish community," she said.

After receiving several complaints, the Department of Buildings investigated the banner's legality and determined it violated construction and zoning regulations, the agency said Friday.

"We determined the sign was too high, too large, lacked a permit and blocked the building's windows," buildings spokeswoman Kate Lindquist wrote in an e-mail. "The department does not regulate sign content."

But Lieberman said the NYCLU's understanding was that the complaints were about the banner's content, not its size.

"The question remains as to whether the building code was enforced because of objections to the content. If so, that raises questions about censorship," Lieberman said in a statement.

In a Nov. 13 letter to buildings department community affairs director Donald Ranshte, Lieberman said the banner's removal would raise First Amendment concerns if regulations had been selectively enforced based on complaints about its content.

Buildings officials told the school Oct. 31 to remove the banner because it didn't have a permit, Cooper Union spokeswoman Jolene Travis said Friday. The school immediately took down the banner, which had been put up on Oct. 26.

Cooper Union initially planned to apply for a permit to display the banner again, but not until after Saturday, when the Ukrainian community in the nearby East Village plans to commemorate the famine, Travis said.

But the school abandoned the effort after being told by buildings officials that banners can't block windows because of fire hazards.

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