A matter of art -- and principle

Those who knew Arnold Lehman in his Baltimore days aren't surprised that he defied New York's mayor.

October 03, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

Arnold Lehman offered the museum world a preview in 1989 of how he would behave as director of an art museum under siege.

That was the year Washington's Corcoran Museum bowed to criticism and canceled an exhibition funded by the National Endowment for the Arts that featured homoerotic art by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Then director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Lehman urged his employees and trustees to write to their congressmen and to the Corcoran administration stressing the importance of freedom of expression both for artists and for museum administrators.

Not an audacious action, to be sure -- Lehman was by no means the only museum director to protest the Corcoran's decision -- but a bit of foreshadowing.

Now director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Lehman finds himself in a maelstrom of politics, art, threats and lawsuits. The museum has defied an order from the city of New York to cancel an art exhibition that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani finds offensive. The mayor, who called the artworks "sick stuff," has threatened to withdraw all city funding from the institution -- about $7 million a year. The city administration has filed a lawsuit seeking to seize control of the museum and is accusing the institution of violating the terms of its lease and of being in cahoots with an auction house to inflate the value of the artwork on display.

Lehman is refusing to back down (he's also refusing to talk publicly about the controversy). The museum is opening "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection" as scheduled. Last Tuesday, the art institution filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that by threatening to cut its funding, Giuliani is violating the First Amendment.

Many of those who knew Lehman during his 17-year tenure at the BMA say that the museum director's actions do not surprise them. "What Arnold is doing in Brooklyn is consistent with the Arnold we knew here," says Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs, who has been at the BMA for 24 years. "The things he stands up for are consistent throughout his career."

By accepting the directorship of the Brooklyn Museum, Lehman shouldered enormous challenges -- and stepped from Baltimore into a vastly more competitive arena.

The 102-year-old Brooklyn Museum owns 1.5 million objects, including vast Egyptian collections and holdings in non-Western art, American paintings and sculptures, and decorative arts. In contrast, its $24 million endowment is tiny and its attendance, at 585,000 (boosted last year by an Impressionism show) is small. And just a subway ride away is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum of American Art and all the galleries of Manhattan.

The exhibition that has caused the ruckus includes works by 42 artists, such as Mona Hartoum, Sarah Lucas and Rachel Whiteread. In 1997, when it was presented by the Royal Academy in London, it also caused a controversy. There, museum-goers were so offended by a portrait of convicted child-murderer Myra Hindley that they threw eggs at the artwork. Animal rights activists also protested works by Damien Hirst, who creates art from dead sharks and pigs placed in tanks of formaldehyde.

The artwork that particularly enraged Giuliani is a painting by 30-year-old artist Chris Ofili. It depicts the Virgin Mary and includes a clump of elephant dung placed atop her right breast. Small close-ups of genitalia seem to hover in the air around her.

Lehman, who is a past president of the American Association of Museum Directors, is known in the museum world as a leader, a cheerleader and an adept politician. He is the kind of director who is skilled at wooing legislators; who, at museum benefits, can make each potential donor feel personally welcomed; who chides other museum directors if they miss a museum directors meeting.

"Arnold is a wonderful politician because he's a people person," says Margot Heller, a former chairwoman of the BMA's board of trustees. "He worked very hard on his relations with the politicians, and he was totally in tune with trying to work with them so they would see how important the museum was to the state and to have them support it."

But Lehman also is known as a passionate art lover who, when challenged, will fight hard. "He has a strong sense of principle, and that is the overarching issue. This is radiating from everything he is saying and doing in New York," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery. "The tactical aspect takes second rank to the principle, and that is where he is starting from."

"He is a person of great conviction and, yes, tenaciousness. Not just in a legal area -- I think that this is true of anything he believes in," says Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, who in 1996 faced Lehman in a lawsuit concerning the sale of an art collection owned by the institute.

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