Checkin’ in with Brooklyn Museum’s director as he eyes the exit

Checkin’ in with Brooklyn Museum’s director as he eyes the exit
Photo by Jason Speakman

The outgoing Brooklyn Museum director has a piece of advice for his successor: march in the West Indian American Day Parade.

Arnold Lehman is retiring after 17 years spent trying to make sure that the borough’s biggest art collection attracted everyday Brooklynites while also maintaining its reputation as a world-class institution. How he balanced the two missions sometimes garnered him criticism, but his experience marching in the Labor Day parade up Eastern Parkway during his first day on the job reminded him of who he was going to work for, he said.

“It gave me a sense of how diverse of a community it is,” Lehman said, sitting at his desk in front of a painting by French artist Jean Dubuffet. “Every few blocks the community changes.”

The world outside his office window has informed how he does his job ever since, he said.

“It’s the community’s museum. They’re the taxpayers. You want everyone who is part of that community to patronize and enjoy it,” he said.

Lehman took the helm at the institution in 1997 and, two years later, began the free First Saturday promotion, opening up the museum on the first Saturday of every month for people to eat, drink, dance, and check out art and artifacts they might otherwise never see.

“We were saying, ‘It’s your place, and for the evening, it’s yours,’ ” Lehman said.

But his tenure has rarely been free of controversy. The fall of 1999 marked the opening of “Sensation,” the now-legendary exhibition of contemporary British artists that included Chris Ofili’s mixed-media painting “Holy Virgin Mary,” which used elephant dung and cut-up pieces of pornography to depict the biblical figure. The painting drew the ire of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Catholic, who, not having seen the exhibit, responded by pulling the museum’s $7 million in city funding and trying to evict it. Lehman sued the mayor and ultimately won the subsequent political and legal battle that drew worldwide attention, cementing his cred as a free speech defender and doubling the museum’s previous single-day attendance record in the process.

“Not only did it introduce those artists to a broad American public — it showed that this museum would stand up for what it believed in,” he said.

Later exhibits about hip-hop, graffiti, and “Star Wars” brought Lehman under fire from the same elite art world he defended in the “Sensation” fight. But the shows drew people in droves and the criticism that they did not keep up the highfalutin standards expected of an art museum never stung, Lehman said.

“ ‘Populist’ was never considered a dirty word here,” he said. “You have to be willing to take some risks. Taking risks is really important.”

As a matter of fact, the hip-hop exhibit marked a turning point in how the borough sees the museum, as well as the first time that kids dragged their parents to see a show rather than the other way around, Lehman said.

“It was a key change agent in how the museum was perceived,” he said.

On Lehman’s watch, the average visitor age has dived from more than 55 to 35, according to the museum.

Lehman also re-imagined the way the museum was managed, restructuring the curatorial department in 2006 to allow for more collaboration among scholars who formerly worked only within a specialized niche — a move observers questioned at the time.

Another feather in Lehman’s cap was the 2007 opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, featuring Judy Chicago’s famed installation “The Dinner Party” as a centerpiece. But even that did not pass without controversy, as longtime feminist artists staged a counter-show to coincide with the center opening, claiming they had been passed over in favor of trendy, young talent.

Today, as Lehman eyes the exit — he wraps up his stint as director mid-2015 — First Saturdays are still running, though the dance parties that at times drew crowds as big as 20,000 got the kibosh in 2012. Attendance at the museum has more than doubled on his watch, from 247,000 in 1997 to 559,000 so far this year, as has the museum’s endowment, from $55 million to $123 million. And out in front stands a permanent reminder of his tenure in the form of a grand glass entrance pavilion flanked by fountains, the result of a three-year, $63-million revamp that Lehman oversaw in the early 2000s.As for his retirement plans, Lehman says he hasn’t quite figured it out, but he knows he’ll be active.“I don’t do ‘nothing’ well,” he said. “I used to write poetry. Maybe I’ll start doing that again.”

This much he knows: he’s not going anywhere.

“It’s taken Brooklyn this long to become the hottest place on earth,” he said. “I can’t leave now.”

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperl‌[email protected]‌ngloc‌al.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
The museum is in: Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman is stepping down from his post next year. He'll have spent 18 years at the helm.
Adam Husted