BMA's chief quits after 18 years Lehman to become head of art museum in Brooklyn, N.Y.

'A very special place'

BMA building, funds, audience grew

so did artistic controversies Holly Selby and John Dorsey

March 17, 1997|By John Dorsey Pub Date: 3/17/97 | John Dorsey Pub Date: 3/17/97,SUN STAFF

After 18 years as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Arnold L. Lehman announced yesterday that he will become the director of New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art. The BMA has not named a successor to Lehman, who is scheduled to begin at Brooklyn in September.

Lehman's tenure, considered unusually long in the art world, spanned a time in which museum audiences greatly expanded, even as government financial support for the arts began to dwindle.

His decision to leave the museum comes just six months before the BMA's most ambitious and costly exhibition -- a $5 million display of 255 objects from London's Victoria and Albert Museum -- is scheduled to open. It also falls less than a year after an expensive settlement of a long-simmering dispute with the Maryland Institute, College of Art over the future of a vast collection of prints, sculptures and paintings, that forms a cornerstone of the museum's holdings.

"I love Baltimore, and I wasn't thinking about making any changes," says Lehman, 52. "Brooklyn was where I was introduced to art as a child. I have an aunt and an uncle who used to take me there. It was a very special place in my childhood."

"Arnold is just at the right age when you know there is one more job out there for you and the Brooklyn is one of the most important museums in the country," says Constance Caplan, head of the BMA board of trustees. "I think, in the end, the opportunity was too good to miss. I know he was very happy doing what he was doing in Baltimore."

It was Lehman's expertise in audience building that particularly appealed to administrators of the Brooklyn Museum. "His ability to move the Baltimore Museum into an institution of importance and bring it to the various constituencies in Baltimore were to us evidence that he would have a very good chance of having a similar success here," says Robert S. Rubin, Brooklyn Museum of Art board chairman. "The demographics of Baltimore and Brooklyn, the inner-city opportunities and problems are not too dissimilar at all."

Considered by many a skilled communicator and fund-raiser, Lehman oversaw expansion of the BMA that more than doubled its space, including a controversial new wing dedicated to contemporary art. During his tenure, the museum also acquired significant collections of contemporary art and decorative art, as well as prints, drawings and photographs.

"Arnold is very good at identifying an objective and working toward its realization in a way that doesn't create controversy," says Francis B. Burch Jr., who sat on the museum's board from 1990 to 1996. "He decides what he wants to do and really does try to bring everyone along with him."

Under Lehman's leadership, the BMA's annual operating budget grew fourfold to $9 million and its endowment grew from $1.4 million to $48.5 million; its membership increased from 3,000 to 11,000 households and its attendance figures nearly tripled.

Nonetheless, not all of the changes were welcomed.

The architecture of the new west wing, in particular its sleek metal exterior, was criticized when it opened in 1994 as clashing with the neo-classical style of the original museum, designed by John Russell Pope.

Some of the museum's exhibits, including displays about the children's book character Babar the elephant, Dr. Seuss characters and another on carousel animals, caused grumbling among art aficionadoes who questioned their artistic merits.

And a BMA decision to sell a Mark Rothko painting, "Olive over Red," in 1988 for $950,000 and the next year to buy a controversial Andy Warhol painting, "The Last Supper," for $682,000 caused considerable outcry.

No time line has been set for the search for a new director, says Caplan, who will lead the hunt. BMA administrators are in the midst of a marketing survey that will give them a better understanding of the museum's audience. Caplan says they will use the survey results in developing future programming and helping them identify potential candidates.

Considered one of the nation's largest museums, the Brooklyn institution houses more than 1.5 million objects housed in a 450,000-square-foot, five-level Beaux Arts building.

It has vast holdings in non-Western art, including works from Polynesia, Melanesia, Indonesia and Iran. But it is most renowned for its Egyptian art, which is considered to be among the best in the world, along with the collections held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "In Egyptian art it's absolutely world class, one of the finest collections in North America," said Ellen Reeder, Walters Art Gallery curator of ancient art.

However, though the Brooklyn Museum dwarfs the BMA, which houses about 100,000 objects in 194,000 square feet, the BMA draws significantly more visitors each year: 350,000 compared with 250,000.

The Brooklyn Museum has been directorless for nearly a year, since Robert S. Buck, resigned after 13 years, citing a desire to spend more time with art and less time raising funds.

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