The best of Brooklyn: Gleich dancers in "The Brooklyn Performance Combine,” produced by Norte Maar in the Beaux-Arts Court of the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: James Panero
“The persons now in this room have it in their power to decide whether in the future intellectual progress of this nation, Brooklyn is to lead or to follow far in the rear.”
—George Brown Goode, “The Museum of the Future” (1889)
On the afternoon of Saturday, November 1, a small U-Haul truck pulled up to the loading dock of the Brooklyn Museum. Behind the delivery was Jason Andrew, the director and curator of Norte Maar, a Bushwick-based nonprofit at the crux of Brooklyn’s artistic renaissance. The Brooklyn Museum’s education department had invited Norte Maar to produce a “performance by sound artists and dancers” for its free “Target First Saturday.” The show, “The Brooklyn Performance Combine,” was a two-hour event Andrew and the choreographer Julia K. Gleich had planned to take place in the museum’s Beaux-Arts Court that evening. Hidden among the cargo that Andrew was expected to deliver in the truck—sound equipment, costumes, and props—were unsolicited canvases and sculptures by Brooklyn artists he planned to sneak into his performance.
The museum brought in the “Combine” to promote “Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond,” its self-described “major survey” of thirty-five borough artists currently on view. Yet for many observers, this exhibition, which opened in October, continues through January, and had been touted as “reflecting the rich creative diversity of Brooklyn,” turned out to be anything but.
“An exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum billed as a ‘major survey’ of Brooklyn-based artists should be exciting and revelatory,” wrote Ken Johnson in The New York Times. “Disappointingly, it’s not.” Led by extensive wall labels, “Crossing Brooklyn” looked almost exclusively to artists working in what’s known as “relational aesthetics,” the art of context over content, some whimsically, others with heavy social agendas. One artist focused “on the need for nutritious food in economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods.” Another explored “the culture of mass consumption, overproduction, and waste” along with “the exploitation of workers and natural resources.”
“Evidently counted out from the start,” Johnson observed, “were artists who toil in studios making paintings, sculptures and other sorts of objects intended just to be looked at.” In other words: many of the accomplishments you now see in the borough’s open studios and gallery shows had been excluded from the museum. By zeroing in on a small subset of artistic production (mainly created by artists with tenuous connections to Brooklyn at best), “Crossing Brooklyn” accomplished just the opposite of displaying the borough’s “rich creative diversity.” Johnson’s conclusion reflected the feelings of many: “Brooklyn artists deserve better than this too-small, ideologically blinkered exhibition.”
For “Crossing Brooklyn,” the museum claimed the curators Eugenie Tsai and Rujeko Hockley “drew upon their extensive knowledge of the borough, as well as a wide-ranging network of unofficial advisors composed of artists, colleagues, and other creative professionals.” Yet Andrew, who has curated a decade of local exhibitions and programs through Norte Maar, says that no one from the museum came to observe what he does, despite talking to Tsai. “I don’t think those curators have enough pride in what is happening in Brooklyn. That is reflected in their curation. They can’t keep up with the pace, the spontaneity. But in order to keep the historical relevance, you have to keep up with the art.”
Brooklyn artists protest the Brooklyn Museum at “The Brooklyn Performance Combine" with painting by Loren Munk. Photo: James Panero
Andrew’s account of the Brooklyn Museum’s indifference to the studios and galleries of contemporary Brooklyn gets repeated across the borough’s artistic communities. “It’s Brooklyn’s time, now,” the painter, videographer, and art historian Loren Munk told me, but “the Brooklyn Museum is so wedded to their petrified state, they are going to miss it. The community has busted their buns for years. Slowly through the work of thousands of people, people started coming out here. Yet the curators are not familiar with the art community. A lot of their direction comes from academia, so they don’t do the hard-ass work, do the legwork, talk to a lot of people, go to a lot of places. These people don’t have the inclination.”
“There should be studio buzz,” Munk told me of the lead-up to “Crossing Brooklyn.” Instead, there was “nothing. None of that. There was zero outreach. We were frustrated. The disengagement. The elitist approach.” A Red Hook-based artist since the 1980s, Munk believes the Brooklyn Museum has been failing its own creative community for years, and in fact “the museum has gotten worse. A lot of significant people have been ignored by the Brooklyn Museum for decades. People having international influence, and the Brooklyn Museum has blown them off.” The Brooklyn Museum could be at the center of the borough’s creative renaissance, Munk concluded, “but it would take work. They need to reach out to the community.”
As the “Brooklyn Performance Combine” took shape in the weeks leading up to its November evening, many of its local artists saw the performance as an opportunity to demonstrate the burgeoning energy of Brooklyn that the museum had long ignored. Although the “Combine,” which was let in through the side door by the education department rather than by the curators of “Crossing Brooklyn,” was billed as a live performance, with art works and art making officially excluded, Andrew stretched the invitation into a “mashup of Brooklyn-based poets, painters, and performers.” Mixed in with his performance equipment, that afternoon he brought the canvases and sculptures of artists that he saw as indicative of Brooklyn’s artistic energy but which had been ignored by the museum: Amy Feldman, Ryan Michael Ford, Rico Gatson, Tamara Gonzales, Susanna Heller, Brooke Moyse, Jessica Weiss, Rachel Beach, Ben Godward, and Jim Osman.
For two hours that evening, in an electrifying synergy that was part celebration, part exorcism, all of these canvases and sculptures became the props for the musicians, dancers, and poets of the “Combine.” Carried out and positioned in the middle of the Beaux-Arts Court, the angular sculpture of Rachel Beach resonated with the vectored choreography of the Gleich dancers and the Brooklyn Ballet Youth Ensemble. The artist Jeff Feld and the cellist Mariel Roberts reflected the performance traditions of Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. Ben Godward built up a towering abstract sculpture of plastic cups and poured materials, which he then sawed up and distributed to the audience. Sarah Schmerler, with deadpan delivery, read the descriptions and sponsor names of the museum’s own stilted exhibition program, contrasting it with the energy of the room and formative personalities such as Deborah Brown and Richard Timperio who were left out of “Crossing Brooklyn.” Before the event, Loren Munk had put out a call to Brooklyn artists who felt “somehow excluded from ‘Crossing Brooklyn.’ ” During the performance, he watched as his work incorporating nearly one hundred names on a painted map of the borough, covered with an X, was unveiled. Titled Re-Crossing Brooklyn, “this is a small reminder to the Brooklyn Museum that they are in the center of one of the greatest art enclaves in the world,” he promised his respondents. “They should open their eyes and engage with this unique community.” During the unveiling, the artist William Powhida joined the stage and delivered a monologue on the painting: “I happen to be on Loren’s list of artists not included in the exhibition. I never had a studio visit. And a lot of the artists on that list never had studio visits. . . . This list is long. Take a look at it and study it.” To which an audience member shouted: Thank you! Even if the Brooklyn Museum chose not to feature significant elements of the arts in “Crossing Brooklyn,” Andrew and his performers would not let them go unnoticed. “It is a borough of immense creativity,” Andrew explained to me, “and the Brooklyn Museum has missed the boat.”
Brooklyn Museum's stately original building with its Grand Staircase.
For an institution that has long prided itself as a community center and public accommodation rather than an elitist repository of art, such accusations would seem to cut against the promises of the museum’s progressive leadership. Yet the criticism in fact speaks to the Brooklyn Museum’s deep-seated misapprehension around its own history and what a great museum of art should be.
It wasn’t always so. The Brooklyn Museum was born in 1823, in an era of rising civic confidence in what would become America’s third largest city. The acquisitions of American paintings by the Brooklyn Institute, the museum’s forerunner, reflected this outlook. Francis Guy’s Winter Scene in Brooklyn (ca. 1819–20) entered the institution’s collection in 1846 as an immensely popular view of Brooklyn’s bustling and diverse mercantile port, a reflection of the city’s transformation from old Dutch farmland into a modern metropolis—and one that could now fuel its own civic institutions. Today such an acquisition demonstrates how the Brooklyn Museum was once open to local contemporary art, in an age when other nascent museums were fixated on the Old Masters.
Following the Civil War, as great museums took shape across the East River in Manhattan, the call went up for the city of Brooklyn to build “an Institute of Arts and Sciences worthy of her wealth, her position, her culture and her people.” Situated at the intersection of the grand new parks and parkways designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, and soon to be linked by subways, the museum’s new classical edifice designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1897 reflected the ideals of nineteenth-century Brooklyn. It also spoke to the ambitions of the director Franklin Hooper, who planned an institution some four times larger than the museum we see today. The current Eastern Parkway wing is but one side of what was designed to be a square building and the largest museum in the world.
Drawing of the fully realized original plan of the museum.
Yet rather than following through on this grand vision, the Brooklyn Museum has for a century remained one of the world’s great unfinished institutions—with a large parking lot on what was meant to be its footprint. Some of this can be attributed to the changing fortunes of Brooklyn. With Brooklyn’s consolidation into greater New York City in 1898, the once independent city lost much of the energy behind its own civic mandates as it fell into the shadows of twentieth-century Manhattan. But the museum’s leadership is also to blame, especially for a radical shift instituted by its progressive director Philip Newell Youtz in the 1930s.
Believing that the “museum of today must meet contemporary needs,” Youtz attacked the founding mandates of his own institution as a citadel of artistic achievement. He vowed to “turn a useless Renaissance palace into a serviceable modern museum.” Praising the educational practices of museums under the Soviet regime, Youtz undertook the transformation of his museum from a temple of contemplation into a school of instruction, where the arts were put in the service of progressive ends, and funding would derive from the state rather than private philanthropy. Youtz sought to transform his institution into a “socially oriented museum” with, as he stated, “a collection of people surrounded by objects, not a collection of objects surrounded by people.” He hired department store window-dressers to arrange exhibitions and transformed the collection of his composite museum into a parade of teachable moments.
He then turned his programmatic assault into a physical one. Historians question the ultimate motivation behind his demolition of the Brooklyn Museum’s exterior Grand Staircase, which resembled the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was meant to elevate the museum-goer from Eastern Parkway into the refined precincts of the museum. What is not in doubt is Youtz’s belief that his iconoclasm, pushing the museum lobby down to street level, “improved” upon the McKim, Mead & White design. Recalling this destruction of the museum’s patrimony, Linda S. Ferber recounts how Youtz intended it “as a socially responsible gesture, eliminating the grand ceremonial entry, which literally elevated the visitor to the level of the arts, in order to facilitate public access directly from the street.” Continuing in this way, Youtz went about mutilating much of the museum’s ornamental interior.
Blueprint detailing what has been built of the original museum plan.
As the director of the Brooklyn Museum since 1997, Arnold Lehman has closely followed Youtz’s lead. He has championed exhibitions with either heavy social components or populist appeal—or both, as in the case of 1999’s “Sensation” show. He has taken the lead in demanding public funds while importing demotic displays on the costumes of Star Wars, photographs of rock stars, and (currently) “killer heels.” He pumped attendance statistics with free late-night weekends filled with fashion shows, jewelry sales, music, and drinks. He gave ticket-buyers free rein to run through his halls, for example by hosting a regular scavenger hunt—billed as “part scavenger hunt, part obstacle course and ALL Brooklyn Museum”—with contestants “competing for classes at StripXpertease and Babeland.” He destroyed the independence of the museum’s traditional curatorial departments—tasked with maintaining what remained of the collections that the museum hadn’t traded away—in order to centralize exhibitions under his administration. He even made his own mark on the museum’s entrance, pushing Youtz’s populist assault out towards Eastern Parkway with a radiating glass canopy. “I like people to think of [the museum] as their favorite park,” he says.
Yet as with Youtz, Lehman’s approach undermined rather than strengthened the foundations of the museum by mistaking the greatness of art for mere programmatic utility. At the same time, an intelligent public that Lehman had underestimated, far from rallying around their own edification, largely stayed away both as ticket buyers and museum supporters. “Brooklyn Museum’s Populism Hasn’t Lured Crowds,” read a New York Times headline in 2010. Trustees resigned. Lehman even disbanded a community committee of supporters that had dated back to 1948.
This posture helps explain why the Brooklyn Museum has been slow to appreciate Brooklyn art, especially those artists who work without clear didactic agendas. For the museum, their art serves little use beyond fodder for contests, such as the reality television program “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” or social experiments, such as “Go: A Community-curated Open Studio Project.” To expect the museum to appreciate local art as a connoisseur, studying, guiding, and elevating the best to public attention, would be an affront to this progressive vision.
The once-grand staircase of the Brooklyn Museum has been replaced by a glass atrium.
Yet just as Brooklyn art has flourished, so too has Brooklyn been reborn. The borough has shaken its defensive posture to become once again a leading metropolis, perhaps exceeding its nineteenth-century reach and confidence. This past September, Arnold Lehman announced he will step down in a year, and the search is on for the next leader. Lehman has been a likeable showman, perhaps the only sort of director who could survive in an overshadowed institution of diminishing returns. But the changing fortunes of the borough now call for a director who can draw on Brooklyn’s civic strengths to build the museum into what its founders intended. The time has come for a Brooklyn Museum that is truly “worthy of her wealth, her position, her culture and her people”—and her artists.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 4, on page 36
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