The Brooklyn Museum Gives Open House On Dumbing Down

What used to be called the Brooklyn Museum of Art has lately rechristened itself the Brooklyn Museum, presumably in the hope that its fortunes will improve if it’s no longer openly identified as an art institution. Whatever its name at the moment, it has long been an institution in search of a public. Elsewhere in the country, art museums have become major attractions for both local residents and tourists, but Brooklyn’s residents seem to be indifferent to the pleasures of the visual arts, and the tourists who visit New York rarely feel the need to venture out of Manhattan in pursuit of aesthetic gratification. As a result, the museum suffers from a resounding deficit in public attendance.

To this longstanding handicap, moreover, the museum’s current director, Arnold L. Lehman, has in recent years added his own disincentives by pandering to lowbrow tastes and otherwise resorting to the kind of desperate measures that stimulate short-lived successes at the box office, at the cost of further alienating the very public that the museum is most in need of for its long-term survival.

First there was the sleazy Sensation exhibition in 1999, a show packaged and paid for by the London advertising mogul and art collector, Charles Saatchi, to promote his own art-market interests. Then, in 2000, came Hip-Hop Nation: Roots Rhymes and Rage and, in 2002, a Star Wars show featuring costumes and drawings from the movie. Both the Hip-Hop and Star Wars capers were promoted by Mr. Lehman under the rubric of “reaching out to the community”-a “community” Mr. Lehman apparently believes to be incapable of appreciating anything but the mass-market pop culture in which it is already saturated.

All of this is a ghastly reminder, if we need one, that when arts institutions invoke “the community” rather than the public at large as their primary constituency, you can be certain that something crucial-like, say, artistic standards-is being sacrificed on the altar of identity politics, in this case the politics of race and class. What follows from this descent into political accommodation is a surrender of the institution to a mind-set guaranteed to render it innocuous, if not something worse. The art-conscious segment of the public is meanwhile put on notice to lower its already dim expectations for the foreseeable future. Remember that village in Vietnam that we were told had to be destroyed in order to be “saved”? Well, Mr. Lehman seems to have embarked upon a similar program for the Brooklyn Museum.

Hoping to brighten up a dismal situation, Mr. Lehman and his image advisers also came up with what might be called Operation Face Lift: the museum’s glitzy new entrance, a costly postmodern extravaganza of glass and steel that effectively destroys the classical elegance of the building’s original design by McKim, Mead and White. (Classical elegance is now deemed to be too “elitist” for “the community” to endure.) We’re told that the new iniatives represent the “democratization” of the museum, but this is merely a euphemism for the dumbing-down initiative that has also been applied to the museum’s galleries, where you’ll now find an abundance of wall texts written for a grade-school reading level, computer touch screens, flat-panel video monitors and-adding aural injury to visual insult-background music.

This is not to say that there’s any lack of visual insult in the special exhibitions that Mr. Lehman has lately organized. The single largest of these is a show called Open House: Working in Brooklyn , which encompasses some 300 works by approximately 200 Brooklyn artists, a majority of whom have taken some aspect of identity politics as their principal theme. Open House is no worse than certain of the Biennales we have seen at the Whitney Museum in recent years; it’s only less various and more parochial in both style and content. Suffice to say that it’s largely an exhibition by “the community” for “the community”-and is thus wanting in the kind of art that does not conform to this narrow dispensation.

Separate from the Open House show is a mammoth mural, measuring eight by 24 feet, by Alexis Rockman. It’s a fantasy of disaster called Manifest Destiny , and is said by the museum to “portray a Brooklyn in which much of the borough is submerged under water as a result of global warming.” (I heard one visitor liken it to the Cross Bronx Expressway at rush hour, which allowing for metaphorical license is not a bad comparison.) Exactly why Mr. Lehman thought it appropriate to celebrate the reopening of the Brooklyn Museum by commissioning a painting that prophesies the destruction of Brooklyn itself is anybody’s guess. It has been suggested that this is the director’s sly revenge on a borough that has never provided the museum with an adequate public, but I’ve been unable to verify that allegation. I can point out that on the first day that the “new” Brooklyn Museum opened its doors to the public, there was very little public to be seen. I was there with a colleague, and in many of the galleries we outnumbered not only visitors, but the museum staff.

In any case, the galleries devoted to the museum’s permanent collection, which extends from Egyptian antiquities to 20th-century modernism, haven’t escaped a makeover, either. Now everything is overlabeled, overpackaged and otherwise divided into simplistic categories and classifications according to subject matter. The effect of all this has been to transform the museum into a kind of indoor theme park or mall-and the entire makeover is said to have cost some $63 million. When you think of the great works of art the museum might have acquired for a good deal less than that, you know everything you need to know about Mr. Lehman’s priorities. This is a shameful way to run an art museum.