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Winter 2001
State of the Art
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Buttonholing visitors on their way out of the exhibit's gift shop, Halle and his graduate students peppered them with questions. What was their background? Were they offended? What pieces in particular were offensive?

Battles over art and censorship had been raging in America for more than a decade, but Halle's survey apparently was the first time that a researcher had actually asked museum-goers what they thought of such artworks and the controversies surrounding them. The findings were revealing. Few Catholics, for example --the group that critics expected to be most offended by Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary" --attended the show. When some exhibit-goers were offended, they tended to cite pieces that had not been flagged as troublesome by politicians. But even the most-offended visitors rarely felt the museum should have been prevented from displaying the works. In short, even those visitors who were most likely to be taken aback by "offensive" art offered scant support for "sparing" their sensibilities.

Now Halle is focusing his attention on Manhattan's Union Square/Chelsea District, which in recent years has evolved into the center of the city's --and America's --contemporary art scene. His study will examine the area's art-gallery scene, its gay community, dot-com companies and arrangements for taking care of the poor and homeless.

Eschewing the head-to-toe black uniform of the arterati and dressed, instead, in a blue Izod T-shirt and jeans, Halle looks less, on a recent afternoon, like a cultural insider than someone who thinks nothing of cycling to New Jersey with his older son, a University of Pennsylvania student, or playing soccer with a team of porters and clerks from the United Nations.

Born and raised in England, Halle might not be an obvious choice as a leading authority on American mores. Before emigrating, the most experience he'd had with MacCulture was as an Oxford undergraduate dating an American exchange student whose roommates were being pursued by a Rhodes scholar named Bill Clinton. Halle came to the United States in 1974 to study graduate-level sociology at Columbia.

"The London I grew up in was a nice city, but the subway closed at 11 p.m. and the last bus was at 11:30 p.m. so everyone had to go home," he says. "I loved the fact that New York is a 24-hour city."

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