The move will provoke certain retaliation from the city and its Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who has called the exhibition of works owned by Charles Saatchi "sick" and "disgusting". The Mayor has decried a depiction of the Virgin Mary by Ofili featuring dung and body parts as offensive to Catholics.
The decision to sue was taken at an emergency meeting of the museum's board last night. It came as the city was threatening to freeze funding if the museum if it did not remove the Ofili painting from the exhibition, which is scheduled to open to the public this Saturday.
"This litigation is not just about the Brooklyn Museum of Art," the chairman of the museum's board, Robert Rubin, said. "It is being undertaken in the interests of all public institutions". The museum is the second largest in New York and receives $7m (pounds 4.3m) in annual funding from the city.
With just three days left before the exhibition of paintings is meant to open, the next episode in the Sensation saga is anybody's guess. On the one hand, more buzz is being generated for the show than any publicist could ever dream of. On the other, it is not clear how far Mayor Giuliani will push his demands for censorship of the Ofili work. He may attempt to shut the show entirely.
There was a suggestion last night that the Mayor would start by evicting the museum's entire board of directors, presumably to allow the appointment of directors more in tune with own views. "The lease tells us what we're required to do, which is to evict them and to stop dealing with them as a board," the Mayor said last night. "Over time there will be a substitute board put in place".
At the very least, it seems that the flow of city money to the museum will be interrupted from this morning. "We will be stopping funding to the museum starting [immediately]" pledged Deputy Mayor Lhota, who sits on the museum's board as Mr Giuliani's representative.
Now that the issue is in the courts, it is unclear how long Mr Giuliani will retain the upper hand. In past struggles where the Mayor has pitted himself against free expression, as guaranteed in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, he has usually ended up losing.
The row is also spilling on to the wider political stage and Mr Giuliani's likely battle next year with Hillary Clinton for the New York seat in the US Senate. While Mrs Clinton has expressed her own dislike for the Virgin Mary piece, she chastised the Mayor for attempting censorship. "Our feelings being offended should not lead to the penalising and shutting down of an entire museum," she said.Reuse content