an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

MeTube: “Populist” Arnold Lehman Strikes Back


Arnold Lehman, left, director of Brooklyn Museum, with Tom Campbell, director of Metropolitan Museum, at press preview for the “American Woman” show at the Met

[NOTE: Read more from my interview with Arnold Lehman, here.]

The Brooklyn Museum’s fundraising gala in April famously featured an Andy Warhol piñata, anticipating the museum’s big summer show, Andy Warhol: The Last Decade, which just opened today.

If one were to choose the museum director most resembling a piñata, it would surely be Brooklyn’s long-serving director, Arnold Lehman, who periodically gets bashed in the media (most recently in Tuesday’s NY Times) and has, at times, even been a whipping boy among some of his usually discreet director-colleagues.

I caught up with Lehman at
yesterday’s press preview for the Warhol show and asked if I could
video his response to the issues raised in the Times article. We chatted in his
office (where you’ll get to see his latest decor choices—Dubuffet and O’Keeffe).

Kicking off the latest round of Lehman-pummeling, the Times’ Robin Pogrebin reported on a recent drop in his museum’s attendance and observed:

The Brooklyn Museum has long faced criticism that its populist tack and
exhibitions on topics like the “Star Wars” movies and hip-hop music have
diminished its stature. And now the attendance figures raise questions
about the effectiveness of those efforts to build an audience by
becoming more accessible.

It’s time to give Star Wars a rest, pundits. It’s been eight years since that rightly deplored exhibition discredited the museum. It’s also worth noting that the show was organized not by Brooklyn but by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, and it appeared at a long list of museums that, unlike Brooklyn, don’t seem to have suffered permanent reputational damage because of it—the San Diego Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Field Museum, Chicago; Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Toledo Museum of Art.

I’m second to none in my scorn for “Star Wars.” And I’m even more disturbed by reinstallations under Lehman of the museum’s American art collection and part of its renowned Egyptian collection, which seem to me to have been dumbed down and tarted up. But there’s a lot more to Brooklyn than the high-profile missteps that we’d all like to fuhgeddabout.

So what are some of the good things that Brooklyn, under Lehman, has done for us lately?

—The Warhol show (organized for the Milwaukee Art Museum by Joseph Ketner II), was praised by the Times’ own respected critic, Roberta Smith, in today’s paper.

American High Style, the companion exhibition for the Met’s American Woman, sees the two institutions essentially flipping their expected roles in jointly displaying works from Brooklyn’s large costume collection, which was recently transferred to the Met. The Met’s show, organized by Andrew Bolton, curator of its Costume Institute, uses the apparel to illustrate the “archetypes” (to my mind, “stereotypes”) that supposedly defined women in different decades.

Scanty on details about the individual costumes and featuring a decidedly “populist” video montage of female celebrities at the end, the Met’s show is sumptuously installed but superficial, whereas Brooklyn’s show (organized by Jan Reeder, consulting curator for the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the
Met) is deeply informative about fashion design, individual designers and the evolution of style.

The Mummy Chamber, an engrossing new long-term installation, is populist in the best sense: It draws upon the Brooklyn Museum’s deep curatorial expertise (its indispensible Egyptian art curator, Edward Bleiberg) and superb collections to explain and illustrate the complexities of burial practices in ancient Egypt in a way that’s both informative and engaging to a broad public.

Extended Family: Contemporary Collections is an under-the-radar but consistently engaging display in newly created contemporary galleries, juxtaposing astutely chosen recent acquisitions with related works from the collection. It was co-organized by Eugenie Tsai, Brooklyn’s contemporary art curator (formerly of P.S. 1 and the Whitney)
and Patrick Amsellem, its associate curator for photography:

Partial installation shot from “Extended Family”: Tara Donovan’s mylar sculpture, foreground. On wall, left to right: works by Polly Apfelbaum, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mary Heilman, Ghada Amer. Glimpsed behind visitors in the doorway: Nick Cave. Glimpsed on floor to the right: Shinique Smith

—Also under the radar is a continuing longterm project of the highest importance: extending complete climate control (including humidity control) to all the permanent-collection galleries. It could reasonably be argued that this essential condition for object preservation should have been a higher priority than the recent expansion. (Unlike the above insights, which resulted from my unaccompanied exploration of the
museum yesterday, the climate-control information came from my
conversation with Arnold.)

In my opening question on the video, below, you’ll hear me mention (but not name) an online detractor. He’s Andrew Goldstein of ArtInfo, who extensively rehashed Pogrebin’s article, but added his own kicker that “perhaps it’s time that the Brooklyn Museum size itself up, trust in
quality rather than betting its name on every populist crapshoot that
comes along
[emphasis added], and consider a change in leadership.”

Like Pogrebin, Goldstein fails to acknowledge that while the occasional “populist crapshoots” have indeed been disturbing and high-profile sideshows at Lehman’s museum, they are far from the main event.

But let’s hear Arnold speak in his own defense. (His last word, which I somehow managed to cut off in uploading this online, is “nonsense.”):

an ArtsJournal blog