The Lehman legacy: A retrospective

Doctors ditch scrubs for black-tie
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

When he steps down in mid-2015, Arnold Lehman will have spent 18 years as director of the Brooklyn Museum. In that time he has pushed boundaries, fended off controversy, and reached out to new audiences. Under his leadership the institution increased its focus on Kings County artists, cemented its commitment to feminist art, and booked exhibitions with mass appeal. Here is an expertly curated timeline to help guide you through Lehman’s legacy.


Lehman takes the director job

Lehman’s first official act was to march in the West Indian American Day Parade, an experience he said impressed upon him the need to make the museum a place for all of the borough’s people.


First Saturdays begin

Recognizing the old adage that the best things in life are free, the Brooklyn Museum starts opening its doors to all — and offering cash bars — on the first Saturday of every month.

Fall 1999


Culture “Wars”: The Brooklyn Museum's peers across the East River pooh-poohed exhibits such as “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth.”
LucasFilm Ltd.

The exhibition’s elephant-dung-laden painting of the biblical Mary gets Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s goat, big-time (the dismembered animal carcasses probably didn’t help, either). The mayor, a Catholic, not having seen the exhibit, pulls the museum’s funding, which constitutes nearly a third of its $23-million budget, and tries to evict it from the city-owned building it has occupied since 1897. Lehman would respond with a federal lawsuit and ultimately force Giuliani to back off.


“Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage”

An exhibition of artifacts and memorabilia makes the case for rap representing a major cultural shift in America and worldwide. Some in the museum world criticize the show as not befitting the museum, but the huge attendance it attracts convinces Lehman he is onto something.

“Star Wars: The Magic of Myth”

Another big-draw exhibition is met with hand-wringing from high-society types.


Name change, new entrance-way, and a Kings County review

Dance till you lose it: The First Saturday dance parties were a victim of their own success, but the free nights are ongoing.
Photo by Lauren Fleishman

The building’s new glass pavilion opens and the plaza’s fountains are unveiled, ending a three-year, $63-million renovation. Coinciding with the big reveal is the museum’s change to its current name, from “Brooklyn Museum of Art.” Also, the museum doubles down on its commitment to showing local artists with the show “Open House: Working in Brooklyn,” featuring 200 of them.



The Museum’s first solo show of the work of native son Jean-Michel Basquiat.


Graffiti show and curatorial shakeup

A graffiti exhibition and a rejiggering of how curators works together — separating the department into two groups, one for exhibitions and one for permanent collections, rather than the subject specialty divisions seen in most institutions — draws potshots from the likes of Metropolitan Museum of Art chairman George Goldner. The Manhattan arts bigwig tells the New York Times the pop shows are “razzamatazz” and compares the curatorial shift to forcing medical specialists to leave their departments.


Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art opens

Samo, Samo: Jean-Michel Basquiat got his due posthumously with a 2005 solo show.

An entire wing devoted to feminist art opens with Judy Chicago’s massive installation “The Dinner Party” as a centerpiece.


The “Raw/Cooked” series starts

The museum starts giving lesser-known Brooklyn artists solo shows as part of a recurring series.


First Saturday dance parties fall victim to own popularity

The museum calls off the dance parties that had been taking place on First Saturdays because, drawing crowds as big as 20,000 in warm weather, they had gotten too big to handle.


“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” “Swoon: Submerged Motherlands” and Lehman’s resignation

A seat at the table: Judy Chicago's triangular, 39-place-setting table installation “The Dinner Party” anchors the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
The Brooklyn Paper / Aaron Greenhood

The museum takes a less controversial stand for freedom of speech, showcasing dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s work, then stretches the limits of the rotunda with a 60-feet-tall tree installation by Gowanus artist Swoon. In early September, Lehman announces he will retire in mid-2015.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperl‌[email protected]‌ngloc‌al.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.