Parsing Pasternak: What Were the Brooklyn Museum’s Trustees Thinking?

Help Wanted: Direct one of this country’s major encyclopedic museums. No museum experience required.

If Phillips Oppenheim, the headhunting firm responsible for the Brooklyn Museum’s director’s search, had put out such a wacky solicitation, an uproar of incredulity would have ensued.

More likely, its job description (which I have not seen) for the position now awarded to museum neophyte Anne Pasternak would have included a variation on the requirements in the same search firm’s publicly posted job description for the still unannounced new director of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Among the listed “personal characteristics” that Detroit’s new director must have are:

—Credibility and extensive experience in the field, and a strong support network

—Prior experience with museum operations, government, governance and best museum practices; community driven and civic minded

As everyone (including the Brooklyn Museum’s board of trustees) ought to know, heading that complex institution is no starter directorship. “Prior experience with museum operations, governance and best museum practices” shouldn’t be optional; it’s essential.

Notwithstanding her considerable strengths in commissioning acclaimed public art projects and in administering and raising funds for Creative Time (not to mention her proven skills in networking with New York’s cultural and philanthropic community), Anne Pasternak lacks what I would have expected to have been the Number One qualification for Arnold Lehman‘s successor—extensive museum experience.

Anne Pasternak, next director of the Brooklyn Museum

Anne Pasternak, named to be the next director of the Brooklyn Museum

Lehman, who directed the Baltimore Museum for almost two decades before coming to Brooklyn in 1997, had that essential prerequisite. So did his predecessors, Robert Buck and Michael Botwinick.

Pasternak, having spent the last two decades at Creative Time, a nimble, innovative public art organization, has never had a monumental, aging physical infrastructure to maintain and improve; nor a permanent collection to develop and preserve; nor substantive professional contact with world cultures throughout the ages; nor a large work force (more than 300 at Brooklyn)—ranging from guards to distinguished art scholars—to manage.

What, then, are the qualities that helped her gain the trustees’ trust? The museum’s press release extols her for being “deeply passionate about engaging broad audiences that transcend geographic, racial, and socioeconomic divisions. Anne Pasternak has continually championed artists and works relevant to the contemporary age.” (An artist-centric leader, Pasternak, 50, is married to the Mike Starn of “Big Bambú” fame.)

She would be the first woman to head one of NYC’s largest art museums, joining (in the press release’s words) “a trio of female leaders of the Brooklyn Museum”—Elizabeth Sackler, chair, Stephanie Ingrassia, president; and Barbara Knowles Debs, vice chair of the board of trustees.

All of these attractive traits have caused the initial press reaction to her appointment to be giddily upbeat, as illustrated by this tweet from the NY TimesRoberta Smith, who (as astonishingly trumpeted by the Brooklyn Museum yesterday on its own website) was given an “exclusive” (Brooklyn’s word) on an important artworld announcement that, by rights, should have been all-media inclusive:

This was my contrarian reaction yesterday to the announcement:

Hearing Pasternak speak this morning on WNYC, New York’s public radio station, only reinforced my fears that she has a very limited grasp, based on limited experience, on what managing an encyclopedic museum entails.

What concerned me most was that we heard nothing from her about the deep, rich permanent collections and the curators who love them. It was all about contemporary art and community engagement—worthy but limited preoccupations for a museum whose foremost responsibility is to collect, preserve, display and elucidate its holdings (as well as temporarily borrowed works) from all areas of art and design, for the benefit of the public.

Pasternak spoke about the importance of “hear[ing] from our audiences” before setting her first priorities. Perhaps it was just an oversight, but she never mentioned the importance of an internal listening tour to understand the priorities and concerns of own her staff’s scholarly experts. We heard about “work[ing] on exhibitions that deal with important issues of our time through art” and “get[ting] art outside of the museum walls and into our neighborhoods”…not a word about Brooklyn’s rich historic collections.

The press release cites her expertise in dealing with Mayor’s Office of the City of New York. But what about the gauntlet of international institutions and state, national and foreign government entities through which major museum directors must deftly navigate?

Even Pasternak’s educational background falls short of the usual résumé of a major museum director. The press release tells us that she “holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Arts Administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and was a Master of Arts candidate [emphasis added] at Hunter College.”

There’s a reason why directors of this country’s top art museums generally have PhDs in art history: They need a deep grounding in art scholarship to talk the language of their curators in discussing proposed acquisitions and exhibitions in their diverse fields.

As for the challenges of fundraising for a much larger organization, Pasternak told WNYC that “$35 million [the 2014 operating budget of the Brooklyn Museum, but only one of many things for which it must raise money] is just a number. It’s intimidating in some ways, but I think people are excited to join this institution.”

Every new director has a learning curve. Pasternak will likely be starting way behind the curve. That said, mine is (so far) a minority view on this appointment: Anne has justifiably generated a lot of goodwill in the New York art community.

The right cautionary note was recently struck by Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution’s soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

In comments she made to Jennifer Smith of the Wall Street Journal about Brooklyn’s director search, before Pasternak’s appointment was announced, Conwill said this:

The challenge…for this new director is to be careful not to be trendy, to listen to your curators [emphasis added], and to not be guided by what is hip.

Success at the hip, spunky Creative Time doesn’t mean that Pasternak is ready for the Big Time. But perhaps if she’s a very quick study and if Arnold Lehman (who remains at the museum through Aug. 31) proves to be a masterful mentor, she’ll make me eat my words.

I hope she does.

Pro Bono Ono: Yoko Sees Her MoMA Show as Encouragement for Those Long Overlooked (with video)

For those (like me) who sometimes feel that no one notices the quality of the work they’re doing, Yoko Ono‘s remarks about the significance of her belated close-up at the Museum of Modern Art, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, should resonate.

Then again, most of us don’t have an internationally famous partner to participate in our projects and help boost our public profiles:

Screenshot from Yoko Ono's and John Lennon's "Bed-In for Peace," 1969 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Screenshot from Yoko Ono’s and John Lennon’s “Bed-In for Peace,” 1969
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Coincidentally, Ono’s partial retrospective (covering only 11 years of her long career) opened at the same time that the NY Times was publishing a piece, Works in Progress, that ostensibly honored 11 other late-in-life female artists who “we should have known about decades ago.” (Of course, many of us have known about most of those artists for decades, but perhaps not the readership of the “T,” the Times’ style magazine.)

Lamentably, only four of those 11 worthies are profiled in the glossy hardcopy version of the magazine. To learn about the rest, you have to go to the online version. For the Slighted Seven—Joan SemmelLorraine O’Grady, Etel Adnan, Faith Ringgold, Judith Bernstein, Michelle Stuart, Rosalyn Drexler—this partial “recognition” must have seemed like a left-handed compliment.

As you’ll hear in my CultureGrrl Video, below, Yoko says that one of the reasons she decided to accept MoMA’s invitation was to let people know “that everything you do is being recognized by people and understood by people and one day it’s going to blossom.”

You’ll also hear her say that for women “life is an ordeal” but that she “just recently realized that men suffer too.” This remark (as you will see in my video) caused MoMA’s embattled curator-at-large, Klaus Biesenbach, to grin.

Although he was co-curator of the show (and, as Ono recounted, he made the initial call to her), Biesenbach did not, to my knowledge, appear in the galleries during the press preview, whereas curator Christophe Cherix was a conspicuous presence. But Klaus was up on the stage for the artist’s comments and must have appreciated her acknowledgment that “both Christophe and Klaus understood what I did in 1971 [when she conceived a self-imagined, self-advertised show—Museum of Modern F(art)].…I thought it was incredible.”

Whither the Whitney? Outtakes from My Tour of the New Whitney with Donna De Salvo and Carter Foster

“We’re expecting a very detailed review from you now,” the indispensable Donna De Salvo warned me, with a slight edge to her voice, when we had reached about the midway point of the very extensive tour she gave me (for my Wall Street Journal article) of the Whitney Museum’s expanded, reinterpreted and refreshed installation of its permanent collection.

Chief curator and deputy director Donna De Salvo, taking a breather in front of Jonathan Borofsky's “Running People at 2,616,216" Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Chief curator and deputy director Donna De Salvo, taking a break during my tour, in front of Jonathan Borofsky’s “Running People at 2,616,216″
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I gulped and said nothing, knowing l that the WSJ’s “Arts in Review” page could allow me only about 1,200 words, tops, to evaluate the entire installation (which I greatly admired, with some quibbles), as well as the interior architecture (about which I had some serious reservations).

In the spirit of today’s designation as International Museum Day, let me belatedly to give the Whitney’s chief curator and deputy director more space (albeit in a less widely read forum). Below are excerpts from De Salvo’s own narrative of the Whitney’s new narrative, with interjections by Carter Foster, curator of drawing, who accompanied us on most of the tour.

It was evident from their interactions (and from a cameo appearance at the beginning of my tour by curator Scott Rothkopf) that a warm esprit de corps had developed among the four members of the installation’s core curatorial team (also including Dana Miller, permanent collection curator). They had fun disrupting the canon and making discoveries, while enlisting other curatorial colleagues for their expertise in specific areas (including Barbara Haskell for the section on synesthesia, David Kiehl for prints, Chrissie Iles for film and video).

Visitor's line outside new Whitney, with end of High Line in the background Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Visitors lining up outside the new Whitney (with the end of the High Line behind it)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One point I’d like to make forcefully at the outset: Sanctimonious critics who have scolded the Whitney for insufficient representation of black and Latino artists are not telling the curators something they don’t already know. As you will hear and see, they have been inspired by their increased gallery space to proactively address this problem through a “diversity initiative” to broaden the museum’s holdings of under-represented groups (also including women).

Also reflecting a commitment to diversity is the decision to launch the special exhibition program (once the initial permanent-collection show comes down) with a retrospective devoted to Archibald Motley (Oct. 2-Jan. 17), a lesser-known Harlem Renaissance artist.

A more intractable problem (as I further discussed here) is diversifying the overwhelmingly white audience (not to mention the curatorial staff).

For now, though, over to Donna and Carter…

On the overriding principles of the installation:

DONNA DE SALVO: [We are] looking very closely at works of art and then deriving the history from them, as opposed to having them fit into a preconceived idea of the history. That said, there are certain moments that are somewhat established within the narrative and are somewhat of a guiding principle. But we didn’t want to get stuck in those categories. That’s part of the reason why each of the [23] sections is named for a work of art.

[We are] doing it in a very cross-media way, so we have paintings, photographs, prints, drawings [combined in the same gallery]. It’s very much the methodology of how we designed the building. There are no designated galleries for photography or works on paper. [As I suggested at the end of my WSJ piece,  I had some reservations about that.]

How can you do “Machine Ornament” [one of the show’s sections] as an expression of Precisionism or industrial landscape without looking at photography? This is what makes it a more richly textured narrative, because it’s much more the way things work:

Some of the photographs in "Machine Ornament," including Toyo Miyatake's 1932 self portrait, center Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Some of the photographs in “Machine Ornament,” including Toyo Miyatake’s 1932 self portrait, center
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On why two paintings by Marsden Hartley were chosen as the signature works at the chronological beginning of the narrative on the top floor:

CARTER FOSTER: Marsden Hartley is widely considered one of the most original artists of this period. He was coming up with his own language and these were two of his strongest works, so we really thought it would be a bang to open it.

DE SALVO: They’re great paintings and we like the idea that they were painted in Germany, because it sets up whole issue of the dialogue of an American artist working there and coming back here. It’s really about challenging the notion of a monolithic idea of American art and about how ideas moved around.

And then the dialect: It’s very distinctly American and it’s influenced by what was going on at this time in Germany. And they have a lot of wall power!

The two Marsden Hartleys that confront visitors coming off the elevator at the beginning of the Whitney's installation Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Two Marsden Hartleys that confront visitors coming off the elevator at the beginning of the Whitney’s installation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On works acquired or brought out of storage in the “diversity initiative”:

DE SALVO: We’ve added some things, as a result of an analysis of the collection. We worked with some outside consultants and we were able to see some areas where we needed to grow the collection and we’re going to continue to do that.

This is a great beginning. If artists aren’t in this display, we will have so many more possibilities of being able to show them. We had scholars we consulted with who were experts in Asian-American art, African-American art, Chicano/Latino art. We worked with outside academics, curators.

You can trace the incredible shifts that took place in U.S. culture and the world by looking through the lens of the artist.

FOSTER: We bought a work by Richmond Barthé shortly after it was made [1933]. It was worked in terracotta but cast in either plaster or bronze, if he could afford it. [The Whitney’s is plaster.] It’s called “African Dancer,” so it’s a synesthetic expression of music.

It has a traditional form: He was deeply interested in classical sculpture and Renaissance sculpture but is grafting that onto African subject matter. It’s a theme that a lot of artists of the Harlem Renaissance were doing—looking back to Africa as a way to counter their history of slavery. They had no connection to Africa but intellectuals were encouraged to look back at Africa.

This is probably a direct nod to a poem by Langston Hughes called “Danse Africaine.” It has been shown, but I don’t know the last time it was shown.

Richmond Barthé, "African Dancer," 1933 (and purchased in 1933) Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Richmond Barthé, “African Dancer,” 1933 (and purchased that year)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

FOSTER: Miguel Covarrubias was a Mexican artist [born and died in Mexico City] who influenced Al Hirschfeld, with whom he shared a studio. He made caricatures for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. When he lived in New York, he was deeply involved in the Harlem nightclub scene, where he befriended a lot of the writers and intellectuals.

This was a new acquisition. He was a name that came up in our diversity initiative, as a Mexican-American artist who is quite well-known. But we didn’t own his work.

He was a seminal artist of the Harlem Renaissance, even though he was a Mexican artist depicting African-Americans.

[The label notes that there are aspects of his images “that are troubling to contemporary eyes. The facial features share some qualities with the stereotyped racist imagery that had pervaded popular culture.”]

Miguel Covarrubias, "Scene: 'The Last Jump,' Caberet on a Saturday Night," 1924 (purchased in 2014) Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Miguel Covarrubias, “Scene: ‘The Last Jump,’ Cabaret on a Saturday Night,” 1924 (purchased in 2014)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

DE SALVO: These woodcuts [of western U.S. landscapes] by Chira Obata were a real discovery. Obata was born in Japan, was in California, was very interested in Yosemite and knew Ansel Adams. Dana Miller really championed this acquisition.

Woodcuts by Chiura Obata, acquired by gift in 2015 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Woodcuts by Chiura Obata (acquired by gift in 2015)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

FOSTER: These were made on site but obviously in this very Japanese ukiyo-e style. They utilized Japanese tradition to make American imagery, so they’re a perfect hybrid.

DE SALVO: The Hedda Sterne in our collection was a bit of a discovery. It was acquired in 1956, and I don’t know when it was last shown. She was the only woman in The Irascibles [the famous photo of seminal Abstract Expressionists].

Hedda Sterne, "New York, N.Y., 1955" Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Hedda Sterne, “New York, N.Y., 1955″
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On making counter-intuitive juxtapositions:

DE SALVO: The new building gave us opportunities to consider different artists and to figure out how to weave them into this idea of different kinds of subjects and approaches—a kind of cut-and-paste aesthetic. Romare Bearden is now in dialogue with Yayoi Kusama.

FOSTER: Both are collages, and both use found material.

DONNA: Both deal with notions of an everyday landscape.

[HmmI still don’t get it.]

Odd couple: Left, Romare Bearden, "Eastern Barn," 1968; Right, Yayoi Kusama, "Air Mail Stickers," 1962 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Odd couple: On left, Romare Bearden, “Eastern Barn,” 1968; Right, Yayoi Kusama, “Air Mail Stickers,” 1962
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On plans for the future:

DE SALVO: Artists not in this show include Clyfford Still, Milton Avery, Dan Flavin, Elie Nadelman. There are artists we’d love to show and will show, but we thought this was an opportunity to add some other figures. It is not an aesthetic judgement. You can’t do everything. It’s not definitive.

That’s why we called it, “America is Hard to See”: One, you can’t define it. Two, it’s impossible to show it all.

I often joked we could have done an A-to-Z show, with one artist each, and we could have all gone home early. [That in fact, is the organizing principle for the Whitney’s new collection handbook.] But that doesn’t make a visual experience that’s provocative.

What’s great about this is that it’s a great beginning. If artists aren’t in this display, we have so many more possibilities of being able to show them.

Give Yoko Ono a Chance: Pioneering Conceptual Artist Belatedly Gets Her MoMA Show

There are very few museum shows that make me smile from beginning to end. But I suddenly realized that I and several other women I encountered at Tuesday’s press preview were walking around with goofy grins at Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, which opens Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art.

Yoko Ono at MoMA press preview Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Yoko Ono at MoMA’s press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One could argue that the trajectory of a show devoted to a living and still working artist should have been a full retrospective, rather than ending in 1971. But as Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, explained it, this was the show that MoMA could have (should have?) done in the year when Yoko had advertised her imaginary one-woman show at that august institution, “Museum of Modern [F]art.”

In 2010, Ono did get to commandeer MoMA’s rotunda for “Voice Piece for Soprano,” inviting visitors to shriek into a microphone. Her original 1961 instructions for that is one of 151 typewritten postcards from her artist’s book, “Grapefruit,” 1963-64, all of which are arrayed in the current show. They give instructions to notable people in her life, which “range from the possible to the improbable,” in the words of the wall text:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But some of the museum’s own staff “found it utterly unacceptable that noise from someone else could bleed into spaces that they had curated,” as Lowry told a 2013 conference organized by Asia Society in Hong Kong. (The volume was eventually lowered in response to complaints, against the artist’s wishes.)

Early in the current show, curated by Christophe Cherix and the embattled (now “redeemed”?) Klaus Biesenbach, you’ll encounter Ono’s celebrated “Cut Piece,” 1964, in which she stoically endured the indignity of having her “best suit” and undergarments snipped off by members of an audience. The film at MoMA was shot by Albert Maysles and David Maysles during a 1965 performance at Carnegie Recital Hall:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Also near the beginning of the show, two people (supposed to be naked, according to the instructions) are making mischief in a wriggling black cloth bag (“Bag Piece, 1964/2015):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Are the hanging bags and additional box for shoes meant as invitation for others to participate? I didn’t do that, but I did plant my foot on a scrap of black painted fabric labeled, “To Be Stepped On.”

Near the end, we come upon the personage we’ve been waiting for—a slow-motion 1968 film of John Lennon, who helped bring wider recognition to his partner’s work. Very gradually, he breaks out into a beatific Beatle-ific smile:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Lennon’s image bookends the show with the slow-motion film of Ono at the exhibition’s beginning, in which she gradually blinks.

Another set of  bookends is “Apple.” 1966, which introduces the display…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…serendipitously echoed by the Apple record label at the end of the show, in a room devoted to the music of the eponymous founder of the amorphous “Plastic Ono Band”:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I admit that my nostalgia for the transgressive, utopian counterculture of the ’60s was part of this show’s appeal for me. But more than that, I was both captivated and amused by the droll wit, absurdist sensibility and utopian humanism of this pioneering conceptual and performance artist.

Below is my Storify report from the press preview. Be sure to read Holland Cotter‘s laudatory, perceptive review from today’s NY Times, linked at the bottom of these tweets.

Finally accorded the recognition she wanted in 1971, the peace sign she flashed at the press conference could have also been a “V” for victory:

Christie’s Maintains Contemporary-Art Dominance with $658.53-Million Sale

I’ve attended countless major art auctions, both in person and online, but I’ve never seen an ending quite like the one at Christie’s contemporary sale tonight.

The ingratiating and efficient auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkänen, perhaps seeking to avoid an uncomfortably anemic ovation like that received by Oliver Barker the night before at Sotheby’s, called upon whoever was still left at the end of the 82-lot sale to applaud the winning bidder on the final lot.

“Let’s have a round of applause for Larry,” he gamely urged the stragglers. That was mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, who had obeyed Pylkkänen‘s request that attendees stay to the end and successfully offered $800,000 (plus buyers premium) for a Jeff Koons donated by the artist (whom Gagosian represents) to benefit the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

Last lot standing: Koons, "Balloon Monkey Wall (Blue)," 2011 Sold for $965,000

Last lot standing: Koons, “Balloon Monkey Wall (Blue),” 2011
Sold for $965,000

But enough amusing (or not) anecdotes. Here’s my running Twitter commentary on Christie’s solid $658.53-million sale which, despite its impressive take (following close upon an even bigger take at Christie’s on Monday night for just 35 works), had surprisingly few fireworks: