Last September, Arnold Lehman announced that he would retire from his position as the director of the Brooklyn Museum. The news was big: Lehman had been at the helm since 1997, and over the course of those 17-plus years, he reshaped the institution in his image in many ways. (Full disclosure: I worked at the Brooklyn Museum from 2009 to 2010). Some of the more high-profile ways: exhibitions of pop culture, most prominently 2002’s Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, which drew both crowds and criticism; the show Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, which in 1999 introduced New York audiences to the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin even as it prompted a skirmish with then mayor Rudy Guliani and brought the museum under fire for showcasing a dealer’s collection; the 2004 addition of a sheer glass entrance pavilion designed by Polshek Partnership Architects onto the 19th-century Beaux Arts building; the 2006 reorganization of the curatorial department, breaking off exhibitions from collections — a move that led three curators and two board members to resign; and the early adoption of social media platforms and online audience engagement, efforts spearheaded by Shelley Bernstein, the museum’s vice director of digital engagement and technology (some of which are now being rethought).
I suppose you might call a tenure like this “often tumultuous,” as Carol Vogel did in the lede of her New York Times article about Lehman’s retirement. You might also just call it 17 years of stubborn experimentation, with varying degrees of success. The Brooklyn Museum has always been somewhat cut off from the rest of New York City’s art museums due to its location, but there’s no doubt that Lehman’s unabashedly populist, community-driven approach has helped cement the institution’s outlier status. It’s also made for a museum whose visitors are far more diverse than most of its peers. In other words (and as with most things): Lehman leaves a mixed legacy, made all the more complicated by the question of what metrics you’re using to evaluate it.
The news of Lehman’s retirement has fueled much empty opining and speculation about who should or will fill his shoes. But before looking ahead, I thought it might be worthwhile to look back. And so I sat down with the outgoing director in his office at the museum to discuss how he made his way to Brooklyn and what he did once he was there.
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Jillian Steinhauer: You were born in Brooklyn?
Arnold Lehman: I was born in Brooklyn, moved away when I was barely able to know that I was in Brooklyn. Lived in three places [growing up]: Miami, Long Island, and Manhattan.
JS: And then you went to Johns Hopkins for undergrad, and then to Yale for your PhD in art history. What did you study at Yale?
Arnold: I started by working on late 19th-, early 20th-century French painting. But my thesis is on the Nabis, translated into “prophets.” The best-known Nabis were people like Bonnard and Vuillard. I worked on the more esoteric Nabis like Paul Ronson, Georges Lacomb, and Maurice Denis — people who were more into spiritualism, rosicrucianism, mysticism … a very interesting group!
JS: Yeah, that sounds fascinating.
AL: I spent a lot of time in Paris. At the end of those few years, I decided that I wanted to see a different aspect of art history, and I very much admired Vincent Scully, who was the great architectural historian in the department at Yale. My dissertation for him was about applied art to architecture in New York City from 1916 to 1939.
It was a good time to do that because people still had all of those records and the archives were still intact. Even some of the architects, owners, etc. were still living. It took a long time because it was heavily original research rather than documentation or looking back hundreds of years. Caused a little frisson of activity within the department at Yale. It was sort of too new …
JS: There you go! You’re always ahead of the curve. [laughs]
AL: Well, to me, it’s more interesting to look at and understand things that others haven’t pored over and gotten all the essence out of. I know someone who, for his dissertation, wrote on Jackson Pollock and got enormous pushback because, again, it was too early. There wasn’t enough history between when the writing took place and Jackson Pollock was alive and producing work. It’s not called the “history of art” for nothing.
AL: We did? [laughs]
JS: It seems to mirror your interest in contemporary culture. In some ways, museums are supposed to be repositories of the past.
AL: You know what I find interesting in the various articles that have come out since I announced that I was retiring? I tried to make the point, and no one has picked up on this: the Brooklyn Museum was always engaged with popular culture. It was always the dirty word — a “populist” institution. In the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, things that didn’t happen in other museums happened here. So, yes, I’d love to take all the credit in introducing popular culture to the museum, but it’s just not true. There’s a long, very vivid, and pretty illustrious history of dealing with what’s going on in the present so people can look at that and then get the sense of where it came from — whether it was Isadora Duncan dancing in the great corridor on the third floor to doing exhibitions about the design of the Industrial Revolution. It’s one of the reasons that Brooklyn was always such an attractive place to me.
JS: How familiar were you with that history when you came in?
AL: Very familiar. The museum was, in a very real sense, the museum of my childhood. Even though we didn’t live here anymore, I had a pediatrician just south of the park. We’d come to the museum, go to the pediatrician, and sometimes we’d go see a baseball game at Ebbets Field. I remember, we’d actually park in the parking lot here because if you parked your car in the garages around Ebbets Field, it took forever to get your car out.
I developed a great passion for specific objects in the museum, which really convinced me that the earlier you introduce kids to art, the more effective it is long term. I had a particular passion for an ibis coffin in the Egyptian collection. It was a beautiful ibis bird with a long neck and quartz eyes. Whenever I came here, I had to see that first. It was totally mine, and if for some reason it wasn’t on view or it was moved, my mother said I couldn’t be consoled.
When we moved from Baltimore to here, 17 and a half years ago, and we were packing up all my books and other things, I came across a folio which I didn’t even remember. I opened up the folio, and there was a large-scale photograph of this ibis coffin that I had taken when I was about 14 and an essay about it I had no memory of writing at all.
JS: Ha! That’s amazing.
AL: I was just stunned, particularly at the coincidence. We were moving here, and I came across that.
JS: You were at the Baltimore Museum of Art for even longer than you’ve been here, right? One more year?
AL: Yes, for just short of 20 years.
JS: I’m curious what you learned there that you brought here.
AL: You know, I sort of came to the museum world and I sort of left the museum world. Because my interest had really begun more and more to focus on social issues and people, how they — people, communities — can be supported. And so I guess temporarily, or some people would say perennially, I morphed into a community organizer.
JS: Where were you doing that work?
AL: I ran the Urban Improvements Program for the Fund for the City of New York, and I ran the Parks Council — not knowing a maple from a petunia. But I learned … I learned a lot in those few years about what was important to communities. Even in the worst of times, throughout New York City in the ’70s, there was still community after community who were held together by permanent values. I kept coming to the museum, even though I wasn’t involved at that point, and so that became indelible. I went all over Brooklyn because many of our projects were in Brooklyn, everything from planting trees to doing sanitation programs to playgrounds to streetlighting to crime prevention to community organizing, getting people together into neighborhood associations. I really did love doing that. So, I think I took all of that into the concept of building community around an institution. And that was something I did a lot of in Baltimore.
Baltimore was very blessed in one regard: the Baltimore Museum was one of the few institutions that always welcomed the African-American community. Very few other places were open. That created a sense of a relationship that I appreciated and worked on really diligently. Even though a lot of it was destroyed in the riots of the ’60s, there remained enough of that history that people of influence, particularly in the African-American community, recalled that the Baltimore Museum of Art was a friend and a place where their kids could learn about art, make art. So I worked on getting that back to where it was. Coming to Brooklyn and seeing the richest possible opportunity to work within a hugely disparate community … I mean, Baltimore is pretty much black-white. Brooklyn is the world! What better treasured laboratory could you have than here?
JS: On that topic, in Carol Vogel’s New York Times piece about your retirement she said the attendance here is something like 40% people of color, based on a recent survey. That sort of blew my mind because, compared to most art institutions in the city, mainly in Manhattan, that number is already incredibly high. I know why I think that’s important, but I would like to hear you explain why you think that’s such an important focus for an art museum.
AL: It’s really very simple. I always believed that museums, libraries, and parks were the most — and should be, if they weren’t — democratic of all institutions. Particularly when those institutions are owned and operated through a relationship with the municipality. Museums have a variety of bases for their operations, but when an institution like Brooklyn is, in fact, owned by the city, on city land, the people who pay for that are you and me and everybody out there. Maybe they pay $20 in taxes, or they pay $2,000, or they pay $20,000. Whatever they pay, they are supporting the institution and they are due a place that is welcoming and responsive and reflects more than one culture. My goal has always been to mirror the demographic composition of the communities that surround us, whether it’s just Brooklyn or throughout New York City. I mean, this is our democratic base, our tax base, our commitment base.
JS: Have you tried to bring that diversity to the staff here as well?
AL: Completely. When I first arrived, I asked some of our our senior staff: we’re in the middle of Brooklyn, why isn’t the staff more diverse? And I got a kind of non-response. Those people aren’t here anymore. There’s a greater degree of difficulty in diversifying the board, because the reason you serve as a board member is not only because you love the institution, but you’re there in both a leadership and fiduciary responsibility. And that fiduciary responsibility is constraining. The other marker which I also think is very important is our average age: it has, in the past 15 to 16 years, come down by 20 years.
JS: Thinking about younger visitors, I know the museum gets a ton of visitors for a program like First Saturdays. I’m thinking about different levels of engagement and whether you value differently people who come for a dance party and don’t really look around much and leave.
AL: When we first determined to do First Saturdays, my position was that I didn’t care if anybody who came here walked into a gallery. My goal was for those visitors to make a choice on a Saturday night to come to the museum, as opposed to any number of other choices they could make. It was probably not what everyone wanted to hear, but I didn’t care. Because, I said, little by little, we’ll see that change. And it didn’t take very long for the galleries to be filled with people, for the education programs to be overwhelmed with people.
I don’t know if you’ve been to a recent First Saturday, but it’s changed dramatically. We ended the dance parties.
JS: Yes, I remember that.
AL: We were so overwhelmed with people we couldn’t function! So we ended the dance party and we started to program that space much more effectively. And the education and public programs department really has been incredibly thoughtful about how to make people more engaged while still having a lot of fun doing it. We have fewer people, thank goodness, but the engagement level — the intensity of that engagement, the thoughtfulness — has been raised.
JS: In line with this discussion of accessibility and populism, do you see a point at which something would be … where’s the line, I guess? You received a lot of criticism for the Star Wars show and Hip-Hop Nation. In terms of contemporary culture, does it just have to be visual? Or is there a certain line where something is too far outside the bounds of the museum?
AL: Now, let me back up and I’ll get to that, I promise. My problem with the criticism of Star Wars was that I would be willing to wager most of that media criticism came from people who never came to the exhibition. Because what we did is we worked very hard in bringing together galleries with works of art from the collection that talked about heroism, myth making, everything that Joseph Campbell put into the Star Wars story … and we thought, by seeing and understanding that, you’d have a deeper understanding of this explosion of popular imagery that Star Wars was. Nowhere did anyone mention that material, so one has to think that either they didn’t care about it or they didn’t see it. Despite what the press said, I think it was a productive exhibition and continued to bring the age of our visitors down.
Hip-Hop Nation, I think, is one of the best things we’ve ever done.
JS: I wish I’d seen it.
AL: You know, when I got to Brooklyn, the hip-hop moment was ascending. And no one was addressing it from the point of view of any part of the visual culture, of which there was a lot. Now, is it the visual culture that you would see necessarily at the Louvre? No. But were there a lot of gold and necklaces? Was the clothing interesting? Were there visuals on record jackets, on posters? My memory of that show — which I take total responsibility for, on the plus side and the negative side — was, at some evening event a young man came up to me and introduced himself, maybe mid-20s. He was a jazz pianist at Juilliard, and he said, ‘I just want to thank you. You have to know that my standing in front of a score in a case by Tupac Shakur would be like meeting Beethoven.’ I could care less what the press said about it! I mean, that one comment! The other thing about that exhibition was that it was one of the few times where kids were dragging their parents to an exhibition rather than vice versa.
What’s our function? What’s our role, you know? That’s our role.
JS: Switching tracks completely, the decision to split the curatorial department in two, exhibitions and collections — I’ve been wondering about that ever since I worked here. What was the thinking behind that?
AL: All these things are really simple — there’s no deviousness, no hidden agenda. It’s to make things work better.
JS: How does this make things work better?
AL: We had one curatorial force, sort of siloed, everyone in their own curatorial arena — a lot of curators interested in the collection, research, acquisitions, deaccessions, but not so much in exhibitions; some curators really interested in exhibitions, not so much in collection management and research. And it was quite clear. What did we need to be more productive, more efficient, and get the curators all working together in a more collaborative and more engaged way? And despite the lumps and bruises — I mean I think the New York Times criticized me not once, not twice, but three times for making this change — we have more, and I would venture to say more meaty, exhibitions. We have a vastly increased number of traveling exhibitions. And we have a curatorial force who collaborates in so many different ways. I believe we made a bit of history in doing that change.
JS: Last sort of ‘issue’ question: It was interesting for me to transition from working here to working at Hyperallergic because, you know, there’s an art scene in Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint, and I think they felt very cut off from the museum; there was a disconnect. I’m curious how you saw or see that relationship. Is that part of what made you want to do Crossing Brooklyn?
AL: I think it depends who you talk to on whether or not we’ve been connected there. You have to look at the acquisitions we’ve made. It’s harder to look at the solo exhibitions we’ve done, but almost all Brooklyn artists, from a variety of a places. And then you have to look at Raw Cooked and see where those artists came from. And then you have to go back and look at our program GO, which was indelibly involved in Bushwick and North Williamsburg. This is a big borough, and we are blessed with thousands and thousands of terrific artists. We’re one little institution chugging away, doing our best, trying to look at the whole picture.
Crossing Brooklyn sort of grew out of Working in Brooklyn in 2004, when we decided to assess the entire scene. Rather than 200 artists, this has 35, but when you look at where these artists are from and what values they are looking at, it’s a very different scene. And so, after this exhibition, please go back to your pals in Bushwick, have lunch at Roberta’s, and see if there’s a change.
AL: There is one that really has sort of — not sort of, has changed the course of the museum, and that is [Judy Chicago’s] “The Dinner Party.” It’s far from being just an acquisition. In terms of its meaning both inside and outside the building, it’s become iconic. It’s become a major, major focal point for people who are visiting the museum, for people who know about the museum from a distance, and even more important than that is that the integration of the issues surrounding “The Dinner Party” — everything from gender equity to just an awareness about difference in the world and in our audience and community. It has informed our thinking about everything we do, and I think that is really, in essence, the meaning of feminism: that it provides anyone who is involved with a more open mind.
JS: Any regrets or any things that you would have done differently, reflecting back on the last 17 years?
AL: I would have slowed my aging process.
AL: There were probably opportunities which we couldn’t take because were were committed otherwise. I would have loved to have explored for oil in our parking lot.
JS: Is that what they’re doing now?
AL: No, they’re just digging up the cracks. If they hit oil, that would be great!
No, I have felt very rewarded in these 17 years, and I can tell you that, when I came here, I got hundreds and hundreds of letters from Brooklynites, ex-Brooklynites, people who’d grown up at the museum which were unbelievably touching and supportive. And I got a couple of score emails from colleagues who said I’d lost my mind. I never thought so then and I certainly I don’t think so now. So, Brooklyn is … I don’t think you could do much better.