an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Brooklyn Museum in Transition: The Arnold Lehman Years

The museum world and the Borough of Brooklyn have caught up with Arnold Lehman.

The 17-year, 70-year-old director of the Brooklyn Museum, who has just announced he would retire in mid-2015, was a populist before it became fashionable, an early proponent of community engagement and crowdsourcing, an advocate of youth-attracting museum parties and, above all, a native Brooklyn booster. Even his museum’s latest digital initiative has a human touch—a planned new app that will “enabl[e] visitors to utilize their mobile devices to interact in real time with museum experts.”

The 1999 firestorm over the “Sensation” show of Young British Artists from Charles Saatchi‘s collection now seems quaint, given today’s general acceptance (for better or worse) of museum exhibitions drawn from a single private collection and of financial support for exhibitions from self-interested parties.

Lehman’s longevity in a difficult post that had daunted prior directors allowed him to live to see his off-the-beaten-track, collection-rich museum become the flagship art institution for a borough that has become an artists’ and collectors’ mecca. In her NY Times report on Lehman’s impending retirement, Carol Vogel noted that he “increased the museum’s annual attendance to 558,788 visitors from 247,000. He also more than doubled the institution’s endowment.”

I’ve had my own disagreements with some of the Brooklyn Museum’s practices under Lehman. I was appalled by its widely panned 2002 “Star Wars” exhibition and I’m no fan of its current Connecting Cultures—the mishmash mashup of disparate selections from the permanent collection in the Great Hall. I still cringe at the 2004 shingled-glass entrance by Polshek Partnership, tackily tacked onto the museum’s Beaux-Arts façade.

But Arnold has energized a formerly sleepy place, overseen worthy exhibitions, and done much below-the-radar, essential work to upgrade the museum’s aging infrastructure. (He once told me his tombstone should read: “He Loved Ductwork.”)

Others’ appraisals will differ. But I stand by what I wrote in a previous post:

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

For more on Lehman, see Judith Dobrzynski‘s 2011 Wall Street Journal profile and my 2010 CultureGrrl Video.

an ArtsJournal blog