In 1987 Nelson, a Chicago art student, painted a portrait of the city’s recently deceased black male mayor in women’s underwear. The painting, entitled “Mirth and Girth” was displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago’s private student exhibition until, in a dramatic, televised event the painting was seized by several city alderman, wrapped in brown paper, somehow slashed and held in police custody for a day.
Nelson claimed his civil and constitutional rights were violated and sought damages. The court held that although the Art Institute received funding from the City, the City did not own or directly control the museum and therefore city officials did not have a right to enter its exhibitions uninvited and remove art from its walls. The aldermen did not have immunity from the lawsuit because it was clear at the time they acted that they were not acting in accord with the Constitution. The court rejected the city’s arguments that aldermen acted to prevent a community race riot and protect the painting, suggesting the officials should arrest violent rioters rather than seize controversial artwork. The court also held that the taking of the painting, although temporary, was still an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Finally, the court rejected the argument that all the publicity had actually enhanced the value of Nelson’s work, and held the officials liable for damages.