On a muggy Thursday morning in late June, the Brooklyn Museum held a press preview for the exhibition “Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior,” which features statues of vibrant, twisting figures frozen in combat.
The museum’s Asian Art curator, Joan Cummins, had just finished explaining to The Observer the exhibition’s organizing principal—the various avatars used by Vishnu the 10 or so times he came to earth, usually to save it—when the museum’s instantly likable director, Arnold Lehman, rounded a corner. A squat, jowly man with bright eyes, he began to promote “Hide/Seek,” an exhibition traveling to the museum from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The Observer asked if David Wojnarowicz’s artwork A Fire in My Belly, removed from the D.C. exhibition after right-wing flak, would be on display. “Oh yes,” said the man whose 1999 “Sensation” exhibition was called “sick stuff” by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, eyes dancing. “We wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of reconstituting the show to just pick and choose,” he said.
One show that won’t be coming to the museum is “Art in the Streets,” organized by Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles director Jeffrey Deitch and currently on view at that museum; a day before the “Vishnu” preview, the Brooklyn Museum announced it had nixed “Art in the Streets” for financial reasons. A week before, citing financial strife, the museum ended its year-long experiment with late hours on Fridays. The museum appears to be in trouble. Will Mr. Lehman, like Vishnu in one of his many guises, be able to save it?
The Brooklyn Museum has never been flush with cash, and the recent financial crisis hit it hard. Thirteen people who sat on the board of trustees in 2007-08 are no longer there. Alongside the scale-backs of recent weeks, the museum announced three new board members—bringing the current total to 25—as well as a new chair in John Tamagni, formerly the board’s treasurer.
There was tumult before the financial meltdown, in the form of a heavily critiqued staff reorganization that saw seven curators leave in 2006, but the board is the best lens through which to understand how the museum found itself taking over a quarter of its $26 million operating budget from the city, as it did last year—the Met, by contrast, received just over 10 percent of its operating budget from city funds—and how Mr. Lehman has done his best to pull the museum out of dire circumstances.
Fund-raising has almost never come easy to the museum. Until 2001, there was no minimum standard donation to be on the board and it generally attracted members who had an interest in some aspect of its robust 1.5 million-piece collection (South American art, say, or Egyptian art).
There was no concerted attempt, according to a former curator of many years, to cultivate donors. When, in the mid-1980s, the museum received an offer of a significant monetary donation to turn the space holding its costume collection into storage for an area of art that interested the potential donor, then-director Robert T. Buck rejected it. The costume collection would later be ferreted out to the Met to make space for the museum’s feminist art wing, just next to the Vishnu exhibit (which, in disclosure, The Observer sponsored), and the donor would go on to make significant donations to the city’s other cultural institutions.
The competition for donations is no small factor in the Brooklyn Museum’s struggle—prolific donors like Karen B. Cohen and Wynn Kramarsky seemed to have been quite active in their giving to the museum until around 2000, when their names stopped appearing on additions to the collection.
Mr. Lehman, who canceled an interview with The Observer for this article, citing time constraints, came to the Brooklyn Museum in 1997 after 18 years as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, where he tripled memberships. Despite his reputation as a fixer, he fought accusations of cynicism and crassness from the beginning of his tenure in Brooklyn, thanks largely to “Sensation,” an exhibition of Young British Artists from the collection of British advertising magnate Charles Saatchi that included an image of the Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili embellished with elephant dung. Mayor Giuliani attacked the Ofili, but the show also came in for criticism for its funding, from Saatchi himself and Christie’s. According to Martin Baumrind, a former trustee, the exhibit actually made the director physically ill from all the criticism he received.
It’s an ironic turn for the museum to now be criticized for withdrawing from a graffiti show, as it has been on blogs since “Art in the Streets” was canceled. It usually takes its beatings, under Mr. Lehman, for hosting other shows with just such populist streaks. From his very first act as director, marching in the West Indian American Day Parade that passes the building, audience building has been Mr. Lehman’s chief goal—bringing in the institution’s rousing Target-sponsored First Saturdays and shows like 2000’s “Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage.”
Seth S. Faison, a former insurance executive who served on the board off and on from 1972 until the recent exodus, said that, from the beginning, he found Mr. Lehman’s goal of attendance boosting to be admirable.
“We should be welcoming everybody in Brooklyn and having things that everyone in New York City will want to see,” Mr. Faison said. “That’s how you get a museum to be alive. If it’s just catering to Manhattan WASPs and WASPs in Brooklyn, we don’t deserve to be alive.”
And if this goal hasn’t quite been achieved—the attendance for 2009 was 340,000, a 23 percent drop from the previous year according to The New York Times—Mr. Lehman has stayed true to his interests in pursuing pop culture themes and contemporary art. The former director of the Miami Art Center, he still goes down for the contemporary art fair Art Basel Miami Beach most years and is clearly enthralled in a YouTube video of his talk with British duo Gilbert and George in 2008. A Yoram Wolberger statue of an oversize toy soldier, similar to a Wolberger Indian that was on display at the museum from 2009 to 2010, greets visitors as they walk into his home.
Mr. Lehman’s strategy is not just sound in recruiting more attendees, said Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and former director of New York’s Whitney Museum, but should serve him well as he continues to recruit a new wave of trustees.
“You just need one hedge fund person who says this is my pet cause, and God knows there are a lot of those people floating around with a lot of ability and desire to make that happen, and that’s really the only magic that a lot of places have,” Mr. Anderson said. “One hedge fund manager with a strong sense of loyalty and commitment to the Brooklyn Museum could have the same impact that Peter Lewis had on the Guggenheim or Eli Broad had on the LA MoCA.”
And if some former trustees have perceived Mr. Lehman’s enthusiasm for contemporary as neglect for the museum’s permanent collection, it’s not exactly unconventional. “There are very few major museums in the country that have historical collections that aren’t at least dipping their toes into the contemporary world,” Mr. Anderson said.
Standard though it may be, Mr. Lehman’s zeal for contemporary led to friction with those trustees who had been at the museum for years, if not generations, and suddenly felt left behind. Some opposed the de-accessioning of the costume collection, generally perceived as a smart move for the overcrowded museum, or were irked at small things like the fact that certain collection galleries were not properly climatized until 2010, which hindered selections for exhibit loans and prevented the full range of collections from being displayed. And not everyone goes in for those rabble-rousing Saturdays.
In speaking with The Observer, many who’d quit the museum’s board, or staff, didn’t single out Mr. Lehman for blame—their decisions just came down to individual circumstances. But some trustees, faced with new initiatives, simply chose flight over fight.
“It wasn’t a schism in the board with new trustees asserting themselves,” said 22-year trustee Michael de Havenon, who left in 2006. “The long-standing trustees who disagreed with the director’s agenda, which generally involved populist and contemporary exhibitions, tended to resign rather than fight the issue.”
Mr. Baumrind, a realtor who joined the board 15 years ago, quit last year, reportedly over the museum’s partnership with the Bravo network for the reality show Work of Art—the show’s winner, Abdi Farah, was given an exhibition at the museum—but told The Observer that the show was really just the final straw.
“It had to do with what the trustees were interested in,” Mr. Baumrind said of his departure. “My wife and I have been great collectors of prints and paintings by Ohara Koson since 1973, and it was always my hope that the core of our collection would find a home in the Brooklyn Museum. But I find the interest lacking.”
Referring to the BMA’s high-profile 2008 exhibition of Japanese pop superstar artist Takashi Murakami, which came complete with a Louis Vuitton store, Mr. Baumrind added, “Perhaps if I’d collected Murakami instead, we’d have a better fit.”
The transition remains fraught with uncertainty as Mr. Lehman moves forward with new sources of funding and new partnerships. One of the new trustees is a law professor with a background as a corporate lawyer, another is Williamsburg-based artist Fred Tomaselli, whose retrospective exhibition appeared at the museum last year, and yet another is general counsel for Forest City Ratner Companies. (The museum is close with Bruce Ratner and was criticized for honoring him at a 2008 gala that featured a performance by Kanye West.)
One thing is certain: all eyes are on Mr. Lehman, whose tenacity will be tested by his ability to save what appears to be an ailing institution. Mr. Baumrind recalled that when he joined the board, Mr. Lehman told him that he intended to retire at 65, a birthday Mr. Lehman celebrated last year.
“When I asked him about it a couple of years ago, he said, ‘How can I retire? I love being around the young people!’ and I think that’s probably in fact how he does feel,” Mr. Baumrind said. “Arnold is many things, but he is consistent.”
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