Chris Ofili’s controversial artwork “The Holy Virgin Mary” has been gifted to MoMA by Steve Cohen.
The billionaire hedge fund manager is a board member and supporter of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)—he gave $50 million to its capital campaign last year. But this donation is of particular significance to the work’s new home city. In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum hosted “Sensation,” an exhibition dedicated to the brash Young British Artists, a group that included Ofili. On view as part of the show was his artwork The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), a 8-foot-high canvas resplendent in gold depicts a black madonna—and set atop two orbs of elephant dung, upon which read the words “virgin” and “mary.” Rudy Giuliani, New York’s mayor at the time, was so offended by what he saw as an insult to Catholics that he cut off public funding to the Brooklyn Museum and attempted to have it evicted, setting off a nationally-covered legal skirmish in the culture wars. A federal judge quashed the mayor’s quest on First Amendment grounds. But as MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture Ann Temkin told Bloomberg, the museum acquired the work on its merit, not for its role in the the controversy. “Setting aside its history and notoriety, it’s a magnificent painting,” she said. The work last sold at auction in 2015, fetching $4.6 million—an auction record for Ofili.