In 1999, Lehman found himself engaged in a heated battle with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was leading the charge to shut down the museum’s “Sensation” exhibition of Young British Artists. That show, which included Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad and Chris Ofili’s infamous The Holy Virgin Mary (you remember: the elephant dung), solidified Lehman’s reputation as a risk-taker.
In that same year, another seismic shift took place: The institution’s trustees signed a mission statement that altered the strategic direction of the museum, placing a greater focus on the visitor and visitor’s experience.
That led to a multimillion-dollar redesign of the museum’s exterior and entryways, as well as a new emphasis on exhibitions—such as the “Hip-Hop Nation” show in 2000 and “Star Wars” in 2002—that supporters saw as community-friendly and which detractors derided as populist shows unfit for a serious museum. (What is undisputed is that these exhibitions drew sizable and diverse crowds.)
The latest change at the Brooklyn Museum has been equally charged. This summer, the museum substantially reorganized its curatorial staff, eliminating traditional departments (European painting, Asian art, etc.) in favor of two teams: one dedicated to researching and displaying the museum’s storied permanent collection, the other to exhibitions.
Lehman has said the changes—made without the issue being voted on by the museum’s board—will lead to improved communication and more (and better) exhibitions. But since the change, two trustees and two curators have left the museum, and some observers in the museum field have been openly critical of the plan.
Lehman sat down with ArtInfo to discuss this most recent controversy—and his overarching vision for the future of one of the world’s top museums.
Your critics in the museum world have reacted strongly to your curatorial reorganization plan? Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. The curators are more central to our purpose now, and they’re being better treated. They’re in better offices. They’re getting more support. But we have changed—I guess, psychologically—a certain aspect of their role.
But we made it very clear that as this evolves, we’re going to study how this works. Everybody here knows that this is not something that’s set in concrete; we are not determined to keep it this way for another 75 to 100 years.
One of the very interesting issues is while the American Curators Association is not happy with this—because for some truly unknown reason, they suggest the curators are being diminished, when it’s certainly the reverse—I’ve gotten calls from director colleagues all over the country, saying, “You know, maybe this is our answer to our issues.”
So what are the benefits of the new curatorial structure?
We did away with the departments, but all the curators maintain their specialization, they’re all still curator of European painting or curator of decorative arts—they didn’t lose their association with the collection. And they’ve been grouped into three collection [sub-] groups.
We’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money bringing our curators together rather than having them in these silos all over the building—both literally and figuratively—so they would have an opportunity to be with one another, talk with one another, share concerns, share issues. And they now have support staff who can really help them; we couldn’t afford to provide support to each one individually.
And besides the collections division, there is a second one dedicated to exhibitions. What is their role, and how will this new approach affect shows at the museum?
The exhibitions division, controlled by curators who have expressed a greater interest in working actively on exhibitions than on collections, will be the managing force in dealing with exhibitions across the board. To those curators who are in that division, we have added an interpretive-materials specialist, an exhibitions manager and the head designer of the museum.
But what’s most important is that the curators in the collections division, which will be the majority—15 are in the collections division, three are on the exhibitions side—have the same opportunity if they wish to do exhibitions as they had before. The only thing different is that they’re going to have a lot more help in doing it.
At the same time these staff changes have taken effect, you’re also starting a $50 to $60 million project to climate control your galleries. How will these renovations affect a visitor’s experience of the Brooklyn Museum?
As a sort of means to an end, the climate control is going to lead to almost a revolution in the way we’re able to show our collections. Ultimately, we’re going to reinstall all these galleries. And we’re not just going to take [objects] away and put them back the way they were; we’re going to put them back in a way that’s more intellectually challenging, that relates better to our visitors.
A very good example of this is our big exhibition of American art and decorative art [“American Identities,” a long-term installation with 350 objects from the Colonial period to the present, divided into eight themes], which tells a fuller, more complete story [to a degree] almost unique in American art museums. We want to do the same thing with all the other collections that we have.
During construction, what are your plans for the permanent collections?
For decades, museums all over this country have been asking for us to circulate as traveling exhibitions our permanent collection material, which we almost never circulate, except in bits and pieces. This is giving us the opportunity to take a new look at our permanent collections and create exhibitions that’ll travel all through the United States. The first one we’re doing is a major traveling exhibition of Egyptian art. And a half-dozen museums immediately jumped on taking that. And we’re going to do the same, we hope, in African and in Asian art.
Since you joined the museum, you’ve stressed the importance of connecting with the community. Why is that so important for the Brooklyn Museum?
You know, it’s really tiring, but there are so many people who think I came here a decade ago and I turned the museum into a populist institution. That is so completely wrong. This museum was founded as a populist institution. It was founded to provide access and learning and opportunities to the Brooklyn community.
What happened is that after the Depression, Brooklyn went into an economic tailspin. During that period, the education department continued to have direct contact with the community—and that’s one of the reasons we’ve always had such a large proportion of our visitors being people of color.
But the exhibitions/collections side, strangely enough, became more elitist; they started looking more at the Manhattan-based museums as their role model, and that didn’t work. We didn’t have that constituency. And we weren’t really paying attention to the Brooklyn community.
And that’s one thing, I believe, the trustees were really looking at when they asked me to become director, because I spent a very large part of my life working within communities and trying to connect with communities.
You’ve taken some very public heat over the years for your efforts, most notably your legal battle in 1999 over the “Sensations” exhibition. What did you learn from that experience?
I learned that museums need to be bold in their endeavors. There are protections, there’s the First Amendment, which allows museums the freedom to present public art displays without interference. The issue in that situation was seeing what the limits of government control are, and that’s why everyone was keeping such a close watch on the outcome. But would I want to do that again, going in and out of the courtrooms? Not at all.
So was P.T. Barnum right when he said there’s no such thing as bad publicity?
No, he absolutely was not. Not at all.