When it comes to the museum world these days, we have found it prudent to adopt the policy advocated by George Orwell with respect to saints (especially those proposing themselves for sainthood). They should, Orwell wrote, be considered guilty until proven innocent. Orwell enunciated his policy at the beginning of his essay on Mahatma Gandhi, a suitably dubious candidate for sainthood. We advocate a similar attitude when encountering any proposal to expand a museum. Extra vigilance is in order whenever you discover that 1) a new museum is being proposed or 2) the phrases “performance art,” “contemporary arts center,” or “diversity” occur in the press material for the proposed project.
We were given a vivid reminder of the soundness of extending Orwell’s policy about saints when we read about the Brooklyn Museum’s $63 million “face lift and modernization” in The New York Times last month. To adapt Senator Dirksen, a million here, a million there, and pretty soon we’re talking about a real cultural folly. The Brooklyn Museum occupies a stately Beaux-Arts edifice on Prospect Park, enjoys an excellent collection, and is generally still sparsely enough attended to make looking at art there (once you manage to get to Brooklyn) an enjoyable experience. Arnold L. Lehman is determined to change all that.
The Brooklyn Museum hired an “image consultant” as part of its makeover. It didn’t say which one, but clearly they have a nasty sense of humor.
Mr. Lehman is one of those museum directors who believes that any museum that doesn’t have to take lessons in crowd control is a failure. He is also one of those museum directors more interested in buzz than art. It was he who brought the benighted exhibition “Sensation” from London to the Brooklyn Museum, thus reminding us that what was repulsive could also be insupportably boring. Mr. Lehman has now progressed from curatorial frivolity to architectural vandalism. The most obvious aspect of Mr. Lehman’s $63 million boondoggle is the huge glass and metal visor he has had affixed to the museum’s entrance. True, the Brooklyn Museum has had a long tradition of architectural vandalism. In 1934, the magnificent grand staircase that welcomed visitors was removed for the sake of something far more pedestrian. But that ill-judged venture was nothing compared to the two-story, futuristic Beauborg-meets-shopping-mall contraption clamped on to the building’s front like an orthodontic appliance from the land of Brobdingnag. The Times reports that the Brooklyn Museum hired an “image consultant” as part of its makeover. It didn’t say which one, but clearly they have a nasty sense of humor.
Except for “Sensation,” which drew in the politically correct hordes from every borough and beyond, the Brooklyn Museum has had a notoriously hard time attracting visitors. Following the tried and untrue formula, Mr. Lehman kept making the museum’s program worse and worse, but still people stayed away. We remember a marvellous exhibition of Edouard Vuillard’s work there years ago. But that was long before Mr. Lehman’s tenure. Exhibitions devoted to “Star Wars” and “Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage” are more up his street—that and pseudo-transgressive rubbish like “Sensation.” Mr. Lehman, doubtless in accordance with some advice from his “image consultant,” decided to make a virtue of a liability, ostentatiously turning his back (or pretending to do so) on Manhattan in order to concentrate on luring more of the 2.5 million residents of Brooklyn to the museum. As part of this effort, the museum’s first exhibition is a disaster called “Open House: Working in Brooklyn.” The exhibition consists of some three hundred, um, objects by two hundred Brooklyn artists. It is the usual depressing garbage: lots of “idea” art—that is, art that recycles various trendy clichés—lots of sound effects, video screens, piles of rags, etc., etc. There is even a handrail down one staircase that has sundry vacuous observations printed on it. Out of one window behind the museum is a large area enclosed by a cyclone fence. Inside the fence was piled up detritus left over from the museum’s reconstruction: old lighting fixtures, cobblestones and the like. Was it a work of art? We weren’t sure and didn’t dare ask. In some ways, we hope so, because it was more interesting to look at than anything on the walls or floors of “Open House.”
It is wholesale, off-the-rack, dime-store, make-believe avant-garde kitsch.
Like us, you probably know several serious artists who live and work in Brooklyn. None was represented in this silly exhibition. A bit of wall text introducing “Open House” described it as “diverse” (translation: the curators got every black, Hispanic, and female artist they could lay their hands on). In fact, though, it is a mind-numbing exercise in artistic homogeneity. It is wholesale, off-the-rack, dime-store, make-believe avant-garde kitsch: the same spirit animates every last pile of rags, every last “challenging” gesture and anti-war, save- the-whales protest. You’ve been there, done that dozens of times in dozens of museums across the country.
Mr. Lehman managed to garner an enormous amount of advance publicity for his building, his curatorial plans, his new populist insularity. Did it work? We dropped in on the first day the museum was open to the public and could count the number of visitors on the fingers of two hands. People seemed bemused by “Open House.” They barely noticed the permanent collection, which is hardly surprising since it is jumbled together without rhyme or reason like items in a flea market. The Brooklyn Museum is particularly strong in its holdings of Egyptian artifacts. But apparently Mr. Lehman did not think mummies and other exotica—including some amazing panel paintings and sculptures—could speak for themselves, for he had emblazoned on the walls irrelevant little snippets about Egypt from a hodgepodge of writers from Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain to Germaine Greer.
One bit of Mr. Lehman’s publicity announces that the museum’s new goal is to make itself “the most visitor-friendly of any New York art museum.” Who knows what Mr. Lehman’s image consultant recommended? Doubtless, however, their advice did not come cheap. We have a recommendation we can offer gratis: go back to being an art museum. People do not like being pandered to. They know the difference between a park or emporium and an art museum. They do not want the latter to imitate the former. Good art is enough of a lure for those who are interested in art. Leave the others to their own amusements.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 9, on page 3
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