"Sensation", the Charles Saatchi-owned collection which took the Royal Academy by storm in 1997, was due to open at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on October 2 for a three-month run. But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the city would withhold its annual $7m (pounds 4.3m) subsidy, almost a third of the museum's budget, unless the exhibition was cancelled.
Particularly offensive to him was Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili's portrait of the Virgin Mary stained with clumps of elephant dung. "You don't have a right to a government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion," he said. "This is an outrageous thing to do."
Mr Giuliani's reaction came as a complete surprise to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which has arranged a gala opening with many of the British artists in attendance. A spokeswoman for the museum said yesterday: "We are respectful of the mayor's opinion, but there is something in the United States called the First Amendment. We believe that these artists have a right to express their version of the world, and that we have a right to present their works."
The museum's director, Arnold Lehman, was yesterday in meetings at City Hall. "We are trying to resolve this conflict. We would hope that Mr Giuliani would not move to deprive the City of New York of one of its finest cultural institutions," said a spokeswoman.
Having provoked outrage and acts of public vandalism in London - as well as widespread praise - for its controversial use of pickled cow parts, pornographic magazines and human blood, the show is now enraging Catholics, animal rights activists and others in the United States.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals denounced Damien Hirst as a "shock jock... contributing to the slaughter of animals for no other reason than his own aggrandisement", even though Mr Hirst claims to work with animals that are already dead. Catholic groups also called for a boycott of the exhibition.
If the exhibition is called off, it will not be the first time Hirst has seen his work censored in New York. Four years ago, the Gagosian Gallery banned his rotting sculpture of a cow and a bull copulating after the New York health department said it posed a public health risk.
Mindful of the strong reactions, the Brooklyn Museum later said it will not admit unaccompanied children to the exhibition, and has posted a "health warning" that reads: "The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder or palpitations, you should consult your doctor."Reuse content