The Brooklyn Museum, which on Monday announced its landmark gift of a whopping $50 million from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (with Brooklynite Mayor Bill de Blasio personally delivering a giant check designated for “Gallery Improvements”), prides itself on the diversity of its audience and programming.
But how diverse is its staff? Or, to ask that question another way: What’s wrong with this picture?
Do you spot any masked men in this photo? It’s hard to tell for sure, but by my unofficial count (after expanding the image), there are only five males in this array of the museum’s celebratory staffers. What might be seen as “reverse sexism” is also evident on this web page for the museum’s curatorial staff, which includes only four men among the 17 curators. Two of the token males (both much admired by me for their detailed knowledge and keen insights) are “emeritus.” When curator emeritus Kevin Stayton stepped down from active duty, he had actually risen to a level higher than “curator”: He became chief curator and then “deputy director and director of collections and history.” Indispensable curator emeritus Edward Bleiberg, who oversaw the museum’s outstanding collection of Egyptian, Classical and Ancient Near Eastern art, masterminded (under Pasternak’s directorship) the reinstallation of two-thirds of the Egyptian galleries, reinterpreting the objects within a new thematic structure.
The museum’s predilection for a distaff staff has been bolstered by the just announced appointments of two new curators—for American art and for modern and contemporary art:
I understand the need to redress museums’ past hiring biases that had overwhelmingly favored one gender, especially for the top posts. As CultureGrrl readers may remember, the main objection that some had voiced to the Metropolitan Museum’s naming of Max Hollein as its current director was that he wasn’t a woman. As for my own biases: I’ve regarded myself as a feminist (an old-fashioned label these days) ever since my consciousness-raising encounters in the late 1960s and early ’70s with the writings of “second-wave feminists,” including Germaine Greer (“The Female Eunuch”), Kate Millett (“Sexual Politics”) and the foremother of Women’s Liberation movement, Betty Friedan (“The Feminine Mystique”). I recognize that the previous gender imbalances of museums’ staffs needed to be righted. But that doesn’t justify going overboard in the other direction. Discrimination that overwhelmingly favors women is still discrimination.
Now that I’ve possibly provoked the Thought Police, let me retreat to the main focus of this post—the welcome influx of city funds for the Brooklyn Museum’s capital improvements: That should help to address what former director Arnold Lehman had told me some 11 years ago were the Brooklyn Museum’s most pressing needs:
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. 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.
Writing this on Thanksgiving Eve (and posting on Thanksgiving Day, before heading out to our family’s mostly vaccinated gathering), I haven’t had time to investigate how much of Arnold’s infrastructure agenda remains to be accomplished by his successor. But I do wonder whether the Mayor will be as generous with other hard-pressed museums that have been suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic, or whether he’s showing favoritism to his favorite borough, a district that he represented in the New York City Council for two terms. (If I sound a bit testy, it’s because I grew up in the Bronx. Anyone who quotes Ogden Nash‘s infamous couplet back at me will be fined $100, payable to my blog’s PayPal account.)
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this post erroneously stated that de Blasio had been Brooklyn Borough President—a particularly embarrassing gaffe, given my Bronx bluster. My thanks to a loyal reader who politely alerted me to my mistake. My apologies.]
In this context, it’s worth mentioning the trials of the Metropolitan Museum, which (like the Brooklyn Museum) is a member of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG)—34 arts and culture organizations on city land that receive financial support from the city for certain expenses, such as capital projects (of which the Met has many, including this one), energy, and security. It’s true that the Met has a rich board. But trustee donations can only be one part of the funding mix. The Met relied much more heavily than other CIG museums on income from international tourism, which has plummeted since March 2020 due to pandemic-related travel restrictions and is not expected to recover to normal levels for quite some time, as explained by Met President Daniel Weiss at a recent press breakfast.
Will the city help compensate the Met for these setbacks with a Brooklyn-sized benefaction? Don’t bet on it. Back in January 2018, the Mayor and the then Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl announced their intention to “free up some funding for other parts if New York City.” As I then wrote: “The goal…is less municipal money for Manhattan behemoths; more for smaller, less established institutions and organizations in the outer boroughs.”
Will the incoming Mayor, who reportedly spends a lot of his time in my current hometown, Fort Lee, NJ, push to reinstate the previous “pay-as-you-wish” policy for visitors to the Met from my adopted city, just a stone’s throw from the Met? Don’t bet on that either. At least they should set up special traffic lanes allowing nearby suburbanites to bypass long lines at the Met’s “toll booth,” like our dedicated lanes to the George Washington Bridge that political operatives had unsuccessfully tried to eliminate after Republican Governor Chris Christie unsuccessfully sought an election endorsement from our borough’s Democratic Mayor, Mark Sokolich.
Speaking of which, I’ll be off to the GWB toll booth soon, on my way to my family’s Thanksgiving bash.
HAPPY THANKSGIVING to you and yours!
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