BMA's former head brings new excitement to Brooklyn Director: After an 18-year-stint in Baltimore, Arnold Lehman has moved to New York, to lead the museum he loved as a child to new heights of attendance and influence.

January 25, 1998|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- On his first day as director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Arnold Lehman marched in a West-Indian American Day parade, along with hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom wore feathered costumes.

Now -- looking back at the Labor Day festival with wisdom gleaned from five months on the job -- Lehman has one regret: not having worn feathers himself.

"Marching in the parade was great," he says, clearly savoring the memory. "The only drawback was that I was stupidly dressed: I wasn't in costume. This coming year that will change."

With a flourish, Lehman has set the tone for his approach to his new job. Last September, after 18 years as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, he became head of New York's second-largest art museum. Now, whether it's wearing a costume, reinstalling galleries, presenting high-profile exhibitions or offering Saturday night karaoke in the museum cafe, the 53-year-old director is doing what it takes to pull people through the doorway.

He's also having fun. "I love Baltimore. I adore the Baltimore Museum of Art. But I am thrilled to be here. I'm learning! At my age. It's fantastic," he says.

But Lehman faces daunting hurdles. The Brooklyn Museum is a venerable institution with vast holdings in non-Western art and notably strong collections of ancient Egyptian art and American paintings and sculptures. With 1.5 million objects, it is enormous by American museum standards. Still, it sits in the shadow of the larger, much wealthier Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

The Metropolitan, owner of what item by item is perhaps the most comprehensive collection in the United States, ranks as New York City's No. 1 tourist attraction. Last year it attracted 5.54 million visitors.

Attendance at the Brooklyn Museum, about an hour away by subway, was about 265,000.

Low visitorship is matched by a lack of staff and a lack of money. Lehman has inherited an operating budget of $7 million a year and 275 staff members, in contrast to the Metropolitan's 2 million objects, $115 million annual operating budget and 1,800 staff members.

The Brooklyn numbers also compare unfavorably to those of Lehman's former institution: The BMA, owning just over 90,000 objects, has an annual operating budget of more than $9 million, employs 93 people -- and in a dramatically smaller city -- pulls in about 340,000 visitors.

These are not small problems, but they also represent Lehman's opportunity. A director who increases attendance -- and with 2.3 million people in Brooklyn alone that is surely possible -- can only make his institution look better. Lehman aims to build annual attendance to 1 million over the next several years. "A big order, I know," he says.

That willingness to tackle a challenge -- and an impressive track record -- was attractive to the Brooklyn Museum's board of directors.

Under Lehman, the Baltimore museum more than doubled in size by adding two wings and two sculpture gardens. From 1979 to 1997, its endowment increased more than 30-fold, from $1.5 million to $48.5 million. The budget grew dramatically, too, from less than $2 million to $9 million. And attendance rose from 150,000 to 340,000.

"We looked at what Arnold had done in Baltimore, and we thought that his energy and willingness and ability to expand the audience for one urban museum would be highly desirable here," says Robert S. Rubin, Brooklyn Museum of Art board chairman.

Even before Lehman arrived in Brooklyn, his influence could be felt. Last summer, the museum was gearing up for "Monet & the Mediterranean," an exhibition long in the planning that was scheduled to open in October.

Though Lehman hadn't officially taken his place as director, he urged the staff to allocate more space to the exhibition -- not for the installation, but to allow better traffic flow and a substantially larger gift shop. The Monet show, which ended last week, may be the museum's highest-drawing exhibition yet. Though final figures haven't been tallied, attendance is estimated to be at least 255,000. "It's a matter of grabbing hold of an opportunity or a problem and doing something fast and with enthusiasm and getting the support of everyone involved," Rubin says.

Learning the territory

For the past few months, Lehman has spent much of his time studying the museum's collections and getting to know staff members, trustees and community leaders.

It's no small task. Before taking the job, the director and his wife drove through Brooklyn to get a feel for the area: "It was fantastic," he says. "Within half a mile you go from communities ++ of the Dominican Republic to Korea to China to Colombia to Cuba to one Hasidic community after another after another to Caribbean communities to Puerto Rican to African-American to Irish. This has to be one of the truly great melting pots in the United States."

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