Arnold Lehman: Populist Pride
By Dmitry Kiper
Populism, for some, is a dirty word. Not so for Arnold Lehman. For the past 15 years he has served as the director of the Brooklyn Museum, one of the oldest and largest art museums in the country, and over the course of his tenure he has been the subject of much praise and scrutiny. Controversy follows Lehman around like a shadow.
After the opening of the “Hip Hop Nation” exhibition, in 2000—which featured art, clothing, sneakers, music, and magazine covers—accusations of populism (pandering to the public taste) were thrown at Lehman from seemingly every direction. Two years later the criticism—again coming from academia, the press, and the museum world—got more intense with the exhibition “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth,” which featured costumes and drawings from the movie series. In 2004 the Brooklyn Museum put up a new glass entrance, with the goal of making the 560,000-square-foot, Beaux-Arts building more inviting to the general public. For some that was an abomination. For others a delight. More accusations of populism followed.
“There are many definitions of populism,” Lehman said. “Some people look at populism as restrictive. I look at it as being engaged with the public—helping the public in any way you can use the resources that are there for them. I see populism as the antithesis of elitism.” Yet most museums in America, he added, operate in the latter mode.
Lehman doesn’t look like a man looking for a fight. He is portly and well mannered; he has light, sympathetic eyes; and his deep, raspy voice is free of any traces of his native Brooklyn. Sitting across from me in his spacious, book-filled office, overlooking Brooklyn through floor-to-ceiling windows, Lehman told me that being a director of a museum is sort of like being both a film director and a film producer. A museum director hires and fires senior-level employees, serves as chief fundraiser, and takes an active role in the curatorial vision of the museum. Lehman said he takes a very active role. And his most important task, he told me, is to set a vision. Populism, he said, is not about “giving the public what it wants. It’s about trying to understand who your public is and using all of the talent of an institution and its collection to engage in different ways through art.”
Arnold Lehman was born in Brooklyn in 1944. He and his parents spent their winters in Miami Beach and their summers on Long Island. As a boy he painted and drew, encouraged by his parents, who often took him to museums, particularly the Museum of Modern Art, the Met, and the Brooklyn Museum. Lehman’s pediatrician was based in Brooklyn, and whenever his mother brought him to the doctor, she would also take him to the Brooklyn Museum. He always looked forward to those trips.
Visiting the Brooklyn Museum at about the age of seven, he fell in love with the Ibis Coffin, an Egyptian sculpture of an ibis—a bird—made of silver, gold, and rock crystal. (In Egyptian mythology, the ibis was a symbol of the intellect and creativity.) As a boy, he came to believe that he owned that work of art—and that he was just lending it to the museum. “When I’d come to the museum, it was the first thing I demanded to see,” he said. “And if it got moved, I became hysterical.” Just as some children latch on to blankets or stuffed animals, Lehman clung to the Ibis Coffin. It was his. And years later, as an adult, he would continue to “check up on it. ”
While attending boarding school in Massachusetts, Lehman continued to paint. And he sold most of his works. But after college he decided that all his paintings were derivative and “didn’t matter.” In fact, he managed to destroy most the works he hadn’t sold. At a dinner party a few years ago, a friend of Lehman’s produced a painting by the young Lehman and asked the older Lehman if he would repair the water damage. “You give it to me,” Lehman said, laughing, “and it’s gone.”
Lehman attended Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. He wanted to be a psychiatrist, and he took the appropriate courses. He then switched his major to poetry, and continued to take a heavy load of other courses. “I had a problem,” Lehman recalls, “of being interested in too many things.” After receiving a master’s degree in poetry from Johns Hopkins, he applied to Ph.D. programs in art history, anthropology, American history, and literature. He could not make a decision as to what he wanted to do with his life, so he figured he would go where he got accepted. But he got into all the universities he applied to. “Maybe in those days grad schools were less picky,” Lehman said matter-of-factly. He ultimately decided on art history, in large part because two art history professors at Hopkins inspired him to consider a career in academia—as a writer and professor.
Lehman studied history of art at Yale University, focusing on late 19th century and early 20th century French art, which led him to spend some time in Paris, where he wrote his master’s thesis. Back at Yale he wrote his doctoral thesis on the combination of applied art and architecture, focusing on New York City from 1916 to 1939.
Lehman turned down an offer to teach at Yale. He wanted to get out of academia. He wanted to be “in touch with the public.” Following his graduation, in 1969, he held a fellowship at the Met, taught art history at Cooper Union and Hunter College, then got into activism, serving as the director of an urban improvements program he had founded, and then as executive director of the Parks Council of New York City.
Lehman’s career as a museum director was a continuation of his community involvement. In 1974 he was hired to build and run a new museum in Miami, the Metropolitan Museum and Art Centers of Dade County. He wanted the museum to serve not only as a “repository”—one of Lehman’s favorite jabs at conventional museums—but also as a teaching and community center for the people living in the area. After five years in Miami, he left to join the Baltimore Museum of Art as its new director—a post he would hold for nearly two decades.
In 1997, the Brooklyn Museum board of trustees hired Lehman as the museum’s director. Two years later, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani shut down the museum’s new “Sensation” exhibition, which included Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, adorned with elephant dung. The case went to court and Lehman prevailed on First Amendment grounds, winning back city funding and the right to exhibit. The controversy most likely boosted attendance, but it wasn’t the kind of publicity Lehman was after. Giuliani’s actions, Lehman told me, were “an incredibly cynical use of a public institution to further political ambition.” “Museums,” he added, “are supposed to be safe places for unsafe ideas.”
That same year Lehman and his staff began working on a new mission statement for the Brooklyn Museum, one that emphasized the visitor’s experience both in and out of the building. Eventually the Museum made it so people could use their cell phones as audio guides; put up hundreds of thousands of images from their permanent collection on the museum’s website; launched First Saturdays, free-admission nights with food, music, films, and lectures; and got involved with seeking the “wisdom of crowds.”
In 2008 the museum held a crowd-curated exhibition called “Click!,” for which people were asked to submit their photos on the theme of “Changing Faces of Brooklyn.” People then voted online on what they wanted to see in the exhibition. For Lehman it was a demonstration of two important phenomena: people’s dedication to art and the use of technology to engage with the public. “It’s not just about the visitor experience in the building,” said Lehman, “but people’s experience of what art is about.”
The following year the museum hosted the popular exhibition “Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present,” which featured photos of Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Amy Winehouse, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, and many other popular music stars.
In the summer of 2010 The New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Brooklyn Museum’s Populism Hasn’t Lured Crowds.” According to the article, attendance in 2009 dropped by 23 percent from the previous year. Lehman told me he doesn’t care much about attendance—or at least that it’s not his primary concern. He cares most about who is coming and what they’re coming for. He happily boasts that since he took over as director, the museum’s attendees have gotten younger and more diverse: the average age is about 35—compared with 58 when he took over as director—and more than 40 percent of the visitors are “people of color.”
Lehman’s latest vision—the museum’s new direction—is an increased focus on its permanent collection, which includes everything from Ancient Egyptian artifacts to contemporary art. Currently less than one percent of the museum’s permanent collection is on display. Loan exhibitions are expensive, so the move makes financial sense, but it’s not just about saving money or bypassing the logistics of shipping priceless artworks across oceans and continents. By focusing on the permanent collection, Lehman wants to tell the story of art and world history in new ways—ways that will focus more on themes rather than chronology, ways that will mix different cultures on the same wall, ways that will display fine arts and decorative arts in the same room. “The world is changing,” he said. “In the museum world, at this point, to me the 20th century seems as far away as the 19th.”
Lehman is proud of the fact that some of the populist themes and methods of the Brooklyn Museum have been adopted, in one way or another, by other museums across the country. And he believes that will—or should—happen again with his new focus on the permanent collection. The transformation will take about five years, and Lehman intends to see it through.