A Buzz Grows in Brooklyn

At the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Arnold Lehman is making changes, making waves and having a lot of fun.

Cover Story

August 08, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Deep within the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the chief conservator and his assistants are breeding maggots. A few floors away, museum employees are constructing enormous glass tanks to hold thousands of gallons of formaldehyde, a shark and a sawed-in-half pig. One wing over, the public relations department is gearing up to send out advertisements printed on violent yellow backgrounds:

"Health Warning," the ads will say. "The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder, or palpitations, you should consult your doctor before viewing this exhibition."

Any one of these undertakings, you'd think, would be enough to make a museum director blanch. Not so. Not at this museum. Not Arnold Lehman.

In fact, he seems delighted.

And why not? Next month marks Lehman's second anniversary as director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the second-largest museum in New York. When he arrived here after heading the Baltimore Museum of Art for 18 years, he vowed to make the Brooklyn museum a can't-miss destination for Brooklynites, Manhattan sophisticates and even tourists.

So far, he is working toward that goal at a dizzying pace: There are more attention-grabbing temporary exhibitions; community outreach is being emphasized as never before; gift shops have been expanded; and attendance is on the rise: up to 585,000 last year from 265,000 when Lehman took the reins.

Still, not everyone is pleased with the changes. A recent innovation that allows museum-goers to "adopt" artwork drew a flurry of criticism. In return for a $500 donation to the museum, art lovers get to see their names placed on the wall next to the artworks of their choice.

The "adoption" program drew protests from some who wondered whether it simply brings one more element of commercialism into the museum.

"Who knew?" Lehman says. "I just wanted to find a way for people to connect with the museum."

Controversial or not, the director is generating the kind of buzz that many museum directors can only envy. On top of that, he seems to be having a blast.

"At a Manhattan museum opening, a friend from a museum that has a very flashy, colorful, sexy board list told me that her board chair took her aside to find out who our press agent was," says Cynthia Mayeda, the Brooklyn Museum's deputy director of institutional advancement.

"We don't have a press agent. But I told Arnold, and he giggled. We giggle a lot around here."

'Sensation' ahead

The blow flies, the shark, the in-your-face marketing all are part of the museum's preparations for its coming show, "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," which is scheduled to open Oct. 2.

The exhibit, first presented in fall 1997 by the Royal Academy in London and then at the Hamburger Bahnhoff in Berlin, features the work of 42 young British artists. The works, from the collection of advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, include 32-year-old artist Damien Hirst's trademark dissected animals soaked in formaldehyde; Marc Quinn's bust of his own head cast in frozen blood; and brothers Dinos and Jake Chapman's installations of nude child-mannequins, some with four legs and genitalia in unusual places. (The maggots will appear in a work by Hirst called "A Thousand Years.")

The show drew record crowds at both stops. And in London, "Sensation" prompted extreme reactions: Supporters claimed that it captured the essence of contemporary British art. Several members of the Royal Academy resigned in protest. Several critics accused the show of shocking for shock's sake. Others claimed that Saatchi lent the works to the academy merely to boost his art collection's value. And two museum visitors were moved to attack one painting -- an 11-foot portrait of convicted child-murderer Myra Hindley.

When asked if the Brooklyn Museum is ready for such an outpouring of emotion, Lehman just grins. "In for a dime, in for a dollar," he says and his eyes sparkle with ... what? Glee at the thought of a challenge? Or is that mischief?

Big collection, little money

When Lehman accepted the directorship at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, many in the museum world wondered privately if he had lost his mind.

Then 52, Lehman was a highly respected professional who already could boast of a successful career. A graduate of Yale University, he had headed the Metropolitan Museum and Art Centers of Miami and served as president of the American Association of Museum Directors, and his track record at the Baltimore Museum of Art was undeniably impressive. Under his guidance, the BMA's annual operating budget grew fourfold to $9 million, and the 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.

"I lit a candle for him," says David Ross, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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