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“Mr. Populism”: My Q&A with Brooklyn’s Arnold Lehman—Part II

Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum

It’s taken almost a week for me to post the second part of my Q&A with Arnold Lehman, the ever controversial (never dull) director of the Brooklyn Museum. (Here’s Part I of our conversation.)

Now there’s a new news peg—the opening last weekend of “Work of Art: Abdi Farah,” the exhibition that the museum promised to the winner of the The Next Great Artist, Bravo‘s reality show, which many art critics (but not juror Jerry Saltz) loved to hate. I was a first-episode dropout and never looked back (nor did I ask Lehman about it; I focused on matters more substantive).

In its description of the exhibition, the museum gives this rationale for embracing this dicey enterprise:

Contests such as “Work of Art” are not unfamiliar to art museums. In 19th-century France, the principal route to prominence for an artist was to enter his or (rarely) her work in a competition held every year or two at the Louvre….”Work of Art” is a direct descendent of the juried-exhibition tradition…

…except that the Brooklyn Museum didn’t oversee the jury selection and had only an advisory role (via curator Eugenie Tsai) in the final selection. We aren’t told, though, if the chosen artist was favored by Tsai.

But let’s get back to basics: During our June discussion, Lehman addressed in advance the chief issue—privileging the permanent collection—that was later raised by Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan Museum’s former director, who was one of the participants in the astonishing outpouring of unsolicited advice from 17 variously qualified commentators, published on Aug. 8 in the NY Times‘ “Arts & Leisure” section.

While Arnold told me (in Part I of our Q&A) that the Brooklyn Museum lacked a sufficient advertising budget to mount promotional campaigns highlighting its highly distinguished permanent collection, Philippe may be gratified to learn that much work is in progress to display the museum’s rich holdings to greater (and more copious) advantage.

But first, let’s talk about ductwork.

Lehman: We are now—because Boston jumped ahead—the last major museum in the United States that is not fully climate-controlled. That’s where we’ve been putting our money, with the very great support of the [NYC] Department of Cultural Affairs.

Q: What areas of the collection still don’t have climate control?

A: Asia, the arts of Islam, Africa, America, decorative art—they’re air conditioned, but not controlled for humidity. Only half of Egypt—only the newer part of Egypt—is climate-controlled.

There’s an old museum joke: Years ago, when people were in the Egyptian galleries and it was very hot, the guard would come over to them and say: “We try to simulate the climatic conditions of the country where the materials come from.”

Someone once said to me that I’m going to have on my tombstone: “He Loved Ductwork.” It’s been an issue that no one wished to tackle: We’ve got this gigantic building, and our temporary-exhibition galleries are climate-controlled, but, basically, our permanent-collection galleries aren’t. So we started about seven to eight years ago with something that’s really important to do—the library. The first thing that “Mr. Populism” wanted to do was to get the library in correct condition.

Q: Why was that more important than the artwork?

A: It’s not more important, but the library is totally fragile. It’s all paper. We have a great collection—not just reference works, but unique materials. It’s one of the great art reference libraries in the United States.

Then we did part of the fourth floor and we’re just opening climate control on the third floor in the Great Beaux-Arts Court [where European paintings are displayed]. What we used to call the Hall of the Americas, on the first floor, is being climate-controlled as we speak.

It’s an extraordinarily complicated project that has required tens of millions of dollars and it’s the kind of investment that people don’t even notice. We ultimately will have to provide a stable environment for all of these great works of art.

No one has ever written about this: “Arnold, I’d like to come in and interview you about climate control!” It’s going to take maybe six more years to get this done.

Q: What other plans and strategies are you thinking about for the future?

A: It has to do with reinstalling the collection in new ways.

Q: With the American collection [a chronological but also thematic installation] as a prototype?

A: I think the American collection has helped us to better understand complex collections and complex cultures. The key here is that the museum has such incredible holdings and that we know a lot more about the world now. We know so much more about the cultures and about the interactions of cultures over the years. Our hope is to reflect a more global approach to the history of art, highlighting these great collections in ways they’ve never been highlighted before.

Q: Are you talking about mixing different cultures and different areas?

A: We’re looking at it. It has to make sense and it has to reflect reality. It can’t be our reality. It has to be the reality of what in fact happened. People are taking a new look at the history of art, and if we have that ability to look back with much more information, we have a responsibility to reflect that information within the context of a museum.

Q: What kinds of new information are you talking about?

A: In the ancient world, we certainly know a lot more about where various peoples lived, coming from other nations. We know more about trading, in terms of the patterns and flow of objects all over Europe and the Middle East and Far East and part of Africa. We know more about what came to the United States and about the artisans of America looking at all this material in different ways and then trading back to the countries of origin. It’s very complex and I’m sure there are a million and one voices to be heard on all of this.

Q: Are you saying that instead of segregating Egyptian and African art, for example, you might show the intermingling, the affinities?

A: I don’t see a day in which the major collections are not identified as such. But I certainly see the day in which the corners of different cultures are brought together according to the historical record. One of the issues that is really important, when you plan this, is having the collections to fill in the lines of those affinities. This is a possibility here and at the Met and Boston and a few other places, because the collections are so incredibly rich and broad. We can make those connections.

For instance, we have a new curator who specializes in Spanish Colonial art. We have a fabulous Spanish Colornial collection, but we’ve really not had anyone with the expertise to deal with it. We’re going to show the public what extraordinary holdings we have and the relationship of Spanish Colonial art to the rest of Latin America and to the United States. We hope we’ll be able to start having more interchange with the Latino community, to increasingly diversify our audience.

We don’t have to borrow things from people. We just have to have the time, the faith and the money to be able to look within.

I came away from our talk with a greater appreciation of the more serious, less publicized aspects of Lehman’s long tenure. That said, I haven’t brightened my dim view of many of his wayward directorial directions (some of which I’ve already mentioned in Part I of our Q&A). Like Philippe, I’m no fan of the discordant shingled-glass entrance by Polshek Partnership, tackily tacked onto the Beaux-Arts façade. I believe that construction money would have been better spent on more ductwork, allowing areas of the collection that should always be on display (such as pre-Columbian and American Indian objects) to be seen elsewhere than in storage.

Quibbles and misgivings aside, Arnold deserves full credit for staying the difficult course and maintaining his joie de Brooklyn for 13 years, while facing down challenges (and media sniping) that would have caused less feisty aesthetes to throw in the towel. Arnold is Brooklyn-tough.

Or, in his own words:

We do some stuff that’s different from what other people do, and when you don’t do what everybody else does, you take a chance that it’s not going to be as widely accepted. We’re fine with that.

You gotta problem with that? Get used to it!

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