How do you commemorate a truly impactful person? The Brooklyn Museum is presenting an exhibition highlighting the incredible depth and range of the vision of the man in charge.
Arnold Lehman (above), the retiring director of one of only two encyclopedic museums in New York, leaves behind both a legacy and a changed institution. The changes he’s overseen during his tenure are physical, esthetic and conceptual, far reaching and long lasting. He reshaped the museum completely, from the inside and out. From the outside, his effect can be seen from blocks away. Under his directorship, the stately, but somewhat stodgy, 19th century building was transformed with a sleek contemporary new exterior that better reflects the attitude of the museum.
It’s an attitude that was also rebuilt under Lehman’s tutelage. He’s paid homage to the treasured antiquities that make the museum’s holdings the envy of other institutions, and at the same time joined them to one of the most cutting-edge, contemporary collections in the country, if not the world. Old meets new at the Brooklyn Museum, but always with respect and a keen sense of the place of art in our lives.
“I’m really interested in how art, how public museums can affect people’s lives, bring people together, make people better understand the differences in the cultures, point out those differences, but also point out the relevance from one to another,” Lehman said.
Under his direction, masterpieces of Egyptian art, Monet’s London, Star Wars, and Hip Hop culture were all considered worthy of exhibitions. Decisions like those drew the ire of some critics as being too populist, but brought a whole new audience into the museum and redefined what museums can and should show.
“What if a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it?” Lehman asked. “It’s wonderful to have museums that have preserved and protected works of great art for centuries, but if no one is there, you start questioning your purpose…Are we serving our purpose without trying to bring as many people as possible to see the great things that are here?”
To that end, the museum, under Lehman, instituted the wildly popular First Friday dance parties that ran for a decade and brought in up to 20,000 revelers, embraced young emerging artists, and become a meeting ground for all of Brooklyn. The result has been a vastly increased attendance by a wide-ranging audience.
“The average age of our visitor,” he pointed out, “is 35 years old. Brooklyn is getting younger, more attractive to everyone. 40 – 45% of our visitors are people of color. Those are statistics that don’t exist in any other museum. I think every museum aspires to them. Our aspirations came true due to our incredibly hard work.”
Lehman’s vision and his tenure has been all about diversity. From the first thing he did when he took the job (walking in the annual West Indian parade) to overseeing the formation of the first and only center for feminist art in the country, The Elizabeth Sackler Center, which permanently displays Judy Chicago’s iconic masterwork, “The Dinner Party,” Lehman has consistently put forward an agenda that is an expression of his spirit—upbeat, welcoming and inclusive.
So it makes sense that the exhibition meant to honor his contributions is entitled “Diverse Works, Director’s Choice 1997-2015.” The show contains superb works of art from across time and around the world. A bold portrait by African-American artist Faith Ringgold hangs just below a bold portrait by Pablo Picasso. The pairing says much about Lehman’s vision and how he’s changed the museum. He’s brought in masterpieces and, at the same time, worked hard to champion art by women and artists of color. It may never be a level playing field, but at the Brooklyn Museum, it’s closer than it’s ever been. That the Guerrilla Girls’ The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist hangs on the walls of a major museum is testament to that fact. A delicate Florentine altar panel painted in the mid-14th century and a Seated Buddha Shakyamuni from the 11th century speak to both a global world view and an extremely discerning eye.
The objects presented in Diverse Works are meant to tell stories, Lehman writes in the introduction to the exhibition. But the story they most convey is that of the director’s own legacy, his broad vision and abiding respect for many different voices.
Concurrently, in a nearby section of the museum, an extraordinary exhibition, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is on display. It’s the first major museum exhibition that focuses on the poetic nature of Basquiat’s work—the interplay of text and image. Lehman, a published poet himself, understood the potential of the artist’s notebooks to reveal a depth to the work that hasn’t been seen before. It’s a perfect reminder of the prescience and acumen that Lehman embodies and that can lead a museum to new levels.
“What I’ve done, is to try to follow a path to particularly focus this museum on doing all it could in Brooklyn for Brooklynites…with the understanding that if we really did our job as well as we possibly could, people would come here from all over.” And they do.
The real legacy Arnold Lehman leaves as he departs the Brooklyn Museum is not on the walls of its galleries. It’s in the millions of minds and hearts touched, moved, expanded and altered by experiencing the art Lehman has defended and protected, advanced and advocated for the past 18 years.
Top credit: “Convergence,” from the series: “(not) Pollock,” by Mike Bidlo, 1983
Photos by Adel Gorgy except for the photo of Arnold Lehman
IF YOU GO:
Diverse Works: Director’s Choice, 1997-2015, Through August 2, 2015
Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, Through August 2, 2015
The Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, New York