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New Year’s “Resolutions,” Pasternak Edition: What Artworld Uncertainties Should Be Resolved in 2016?

This is the second in my series of how thorny artworld issues that vexed us in 2015 could achieve satisfying resolution in the year ahead:

Parsing Pasternak

Memo to Arnold Lehman: Be careful what you wish for!

The last time I saw the veteran populist director before he retired from the Brooklyn Museum, he described his successor, Anne Pasternak, as “my reward for having been here for 18 years. I’m a great admirer of what she does….She is coming up to speed really quickly and she shares all the values that we stand for—community, accessibility, collaboration.”

Maybe so, but one thing that Pasternak doesn’t seem to stand for is Arnold’s provocative reinstallations of parts of the permanent collection.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Arnold Lehman at the July 8 press preview for "Sneaker Culture" Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Arnold Lehman at the July 8 press preview for “Sneaker Culture”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In my post analyzing Pasternak’s appointment—What Were the Brooklyn Museum’s Trustees Thinking?—I slammed her for lacking I would have expected to be the Number One prerequisite for directing a major encyclopedic museum—extensive museum experience. I tweeted that her appointment was “shockingly reckless.”

Anne Pasternak Anne Pasternak Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Anne Pasternak
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Then I read the NY Times‘ coverage of Nancy Spector‘s imminent departure from the chief curatorship of the Guggenheim Museum to join the Brooklyn Museum as its deputy director and chief curator, effective in April.

Anne’s plan, as reported by Randy Kennedy in his article about Spector, was a pleasant surprise:

“The permanent collections need attention,” she said. She has already begun to initiate basic redesigns of gallery space, including demolishing what she called all the “faux architecture” in the museum’s beloved Egyptian galleries, “to get rid of as much visual interference as possible so that we can commune with the art.”

Here’s the garish “faux architecture”:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here’s the “excavation” in progress, in an image from Pasternak’s Instagram feed, captioned in her typically effusive fashion: “Recognize this gallery? Oh yes! Egypt is about to be reborn at the #brooklynmuseum and I am tingling all over with joy.”

Egyptian ruins in Brooklyn From Anne Pasternak's Instagram feed

Brooklyn’s Egyptian ruins
From Anne Pasternak’s Instagram  feed

Let’s hope they also trash those anachronous quotes stenciled on the walls, including one from Gloria Steinem, someone whom I’ve always admired, but not as an authority on Ancient Egypt.

At the end of my Dec. 23 post on Brooklyn’s Francisco Oller retrospective (recently closed), I praised the plan for an Egyptian makeover, adding that Pasternak should also undertake “some serious rethinking of the permanent collection’s somewhat chaotic American art galleries and its “Connecting Cultures” mishmash on the lobby floor.”

To which Anne replied on Twitter: “Already on it, #CultureGrrl.”

Whoa! Really?

Then I pushed my luck and tweeted that European paintings should be returned to the galleries, from which they had been exiled on Arnold’s watch. They now ring the wall of the large atrium on the third floor, obviating interplay among related works.

As it happened, the previous day Anne had posted a letter on the museum’s website stating this:

Our Egyptian Gallery is under renovation, with European and American galleries to follow [emphasis added]. The goal is to create more space to see more works, and to explore our collections from a fresh lens.

What’s more, she had told Kennedy of the Times that she “planned to increase the size of the curatorial staff—now fewer than 20 people for a collection of more than 1.5 million objects.” I had been shocked to learn from the curator of European art, Richard Aste, after he squired me around the Oller show, that he was the sole curatorial presence in that large department (i.e., no assistant or associate curators).

Richard Aste with Francisco Oller’s “Mountain Landscape with a Figure,” c. 1900-1903 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Richard Aste with Francisco Oller’s “Mountain Landscape with a Figure,” c. 1900-1903
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It would seem that Pasternak has a knack for hitting the ground running. But does she also have a talent for raising the megabucks needed to support all these sweeping initiatives? More importantly, what will be the interpretive thrust of the reconceived installations? Anne’s passion, as the former president and artistic director of Creative Time, is contemporary art. In light of this, the bumping from the chief curatorship of Brooklyn veteran Kevin Stayton, a decorative arts specialist (who will assume the new post of deputy director and director of collections and history), is not surprising but it is a bit troubling. His reassignment will allow Spector, a contemporary art specialist, to assume the chief curatorship. Given the richness of Brooklyn’s diverse, historic collections, art-historical counterbalance is needed at the top.

There was even more cause for concern in Spector’s comments to Kennedy:

“Here’s a museum in which the collections are in fact global, and I began to think about what it would mean to examine that through a contemporary lens,” she said, “so that they are relevant to the world we live in today.” She added, “We’re in this global age and the model of an encyclopedic or a global museum is very old, and maybe it’s outdated, but it’s here to stay and we need to think about how to use it.” [Emphasis added.]

There was a “relevant-to-today” vibe in the Oller show’s introductory wall text, which (as I noted in this post) “explicitly and provocatively drew a connection between the exhibition and the current political status of Puerto Ricans.” Fair enough. But a museum that insistently and consistently emphasizes the contemporary relevance of its historic art is likely to alienate the many members of its audience who prefer to understand art on its own terms, not to drag it into the 21st-century.

Is it time for some fresh blood, fresh perspectives and refreshed installations at the Brooklyn Museum? Absolutely. Until I learn more about Anne’s plans, I’ll have to reserve judgment. She’s already come up with some good ideas. We need to learn more about how she and Nancy intend to implement them.

In the meantime, art-lings, I’ll be abandoning you soon for a workation, because I have a lock on the coveted Midwest-in-the-Winter beat. This time (if all goes according to plan), I’ll be Squawking in Milwaukee, instead of Cleaving to Cleveland. Once again, I’ll be enduring single-digit temps.

Will they have to de-ice the wings?

Milwaukee Art Museum's Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion Photo by Jeff Millies

Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion
Photo by Jeff Millies

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