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  What's All the Fuss
Remaining above the fray, Arnold Lehman (MA '66) focuses instead on luring new audiences to the Brooklyn Museum.

By Dale Keiger
Photos by Stephen Spartana

Four years ago, when Arnold Lehman (MA '66) was packing to move to New York, he found in his library a large folio. It appeared not to have been disturbed for decades. When Lehman opened it, he was surprised to find photographs of and notes about an object in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The object was an ancient Egyptian coffin made for an ibis, a bird sacred to the Egyptians, who often buried it in funerary caskets like the one that evidently had fascinated Lehman as a boy.

Though he doesn't recall producing the contents--"It's my handwriting, but I don't remember ever taking the photos or the notes," he says--Lehman smiles as he recalls finding the folio. Its contents remind him of the long relationship he has had with the Brooklyn Museum, which he now directs.

If you've heard of Arnold Lehman, chances are good it's not because he's doubled attendance at the museum or attracted a more diverse audience for art. It's because of two well-publicized disputes he has had with the mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani. Lehman and the museum, says Giuliani, take city funds and use them to mount art exhibits that include naked women as Jesus and portraits of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung. Such exhibits are disgusting and anti-Catholic, says the mayor, and he has tried to cut off city funding and have the museum evicted from its city-owned building. He is not amused.

Lehman's critics come at him with fangs bared. The New Criterion, which proclaims itself "a staunch defender of the values of high culture," has compared him to Bill Clinton as a prevaricator. Critic and commentator Camille Paglia, with her usual tact, has referred to him as "a whiny slug" and "an affected provincial." In the online periodical Salon she wrote: "I have nothing but contempt for Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman."

The Brooklyn Museum houses one of the world's great collections of ancient Egyptian art, as well as impressive holdings in 18th- and 19th-century American painting, pre-Columbian and Native American art, and decorative art, costumes, and textiles. On the other hand, the New York City commissioner of cultural affairs, Schuyler Chapin, says, "Arnold, in my view, must be given credit for having taken an essentially distinguished but moribund institution and bringing new life to it." The New York Civil Liberties Union has presented Lehman and the museum with its Lasker Callaway Award for contributions to civil liberties, congratulating Lehman for his "courage and fortitude." Congressman Major Owens, who represents the 11th Congressional District in Brooklyn and lives across the street from the museum, says, "He has revolutionary ideas about exhibiting art that is on the cutting edge and that may provoke questions about whether it's art or not, but that's all part of what a museum ought to be about. If you can't do it in a museum, where can you do it? I thoroughly disagree with Mayor Giuliani's approach and his vicious attack."

Lehman did not set out to be known as the mayor's bte noire. He would prefer to be known as a director who brings new audiences into major art museums. Last year he participated in a panel discussion where he heard another panelist say that one out of every three Americans had visited an art museum in the past year. He says, "I immediately thought, That's great, but what happened to the other two? We have this enormous audience that we're not touching."

In Brooklyn, Lehman has begun to touch that audience. In the process, he's touched some sensitive nerves. Or perhaps he's merely become better acquainted with contemporary American cultural politics.

Lehman's office on the sixth floor of the Brooklyn Museum has a gray ceiling and gray walls. All else is black. The bookshelves are black, his desk is black, the conference table and chairs are black. His fabric attaché cases are black. Even his desktop computer is black.

So are many of the new patrons of his museum. "I've said publicly that our goal for this museum has to be that our permanent visitor base should be at least 50 percent people of color," he says. "My grandparents were immigrants. The Brooklyn Museum was an institution embraced so completely by the late 19th- and early 20th-century immigrants, as was anything that could provide education." But those immigrants and their offspring gradually moved away from Brooklyn in what Lehman calls "the diaspora of success," finding their way to Manhattan and Long Island and Connecticut. Now a new generation of immigrants and residents has taken their place, and many of these newcomers are non-white and non-European. Says Lehman, "We have to figure out ways to make the museum as integral a part of their lives as it was to my family. That's a big responsibility. That's the challenge and opportunity of urban museums like Brooklyn, Detroit, Baltimore. They've got a whole new audience out there. The more I think about it, the more I look at museums as places where social action must play a greater role. What we're trying to do is bring people together in ways that can help create better citizens with more appreciation and respect for various cultures."

The windows of Lehman's office overlook the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and the distant Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Squint and you can see the old Coney Island parachute jump and beyond it the Atlantic Ocean. Lehman points out a high-rise apartment building on the left; where the building now stands used to be Ebbets Field. The inhabitants of this urban expanse below his windows are ever more diverse in ethnicity and age. In his four years as director in Brooklyn, Lehman has worked to get them into his museum. He characterizes the current demographic base of American art museum patrons as "white women who are in their mid-50s, have money, and are reasonably well educated. We don't want to turn that audience away, but we can't sustain ourselves with an audience that doesn't reflect this community." One of his initiatives has been the monthly First Saturdays, when the museum extends its hours and opens its doors free of charge to the neighborhood. A typical program will feature a jazz band, films, a sock hop, dance lessons, gallery talks, plus all the museum exhibits. One recent First Saturday drew 8,400 visitors. Says Lehman, "Teen-age boys are actually coming to the museum by themselves to look at the galleries. That's about as difficult an audience to reach as any."

The Brooklyn Museum is world-renowned for some of its collections: ancient Egyptian art; late 18th- and 19th-century American painting; decorative arts, costumes, and textiles. It has substantial holdings in pre-Columbian and Native American art. Over the years, teen-age boys (and girls) generally have not come to see those collections. Last September, the museum presented Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes & Rage. The program included a two-day symposium, an exhibition of more than 400 items documenting the urban hip-hop culture, films, a First Saturday hip-hop concert attended by 6,000, a fashion show, and a career seminar for aspiring hip-hop artists. Teen-age boys and girls came to the museum. Kevin Powell, a hip-hop historian who was guest curator for the exhibit, says, "I noted, during my many clandestine visits, young people venturing into other sections, which is a good thing. It is about making that space warm and welcoming, and also about expanding horizons."

Critics were unimpressed, carping that pop culture did not belong with high culture. "Why shouldn't museums look at popular culture?" Lehman replies. "What's in galleries now are artifacts of their various times. But somehow immediacy shouldn't be part of the program. [The criticism] is all about patina, about age. When objects have little or no relevance to the lives of critics, the critics' response is that the objects are inappropriate for a museum."

Lehman's first two shows when he took over the Brooklyn Museum were Monet and a black artist named Kerry James Marshall. "We're not going to do Monet, Monet, Monet, Monet, Monet, Monet," he says. "I love Monet, but there's another world that connects with an audience that we need to reach."

Recalling his childhood, Lehman remembers an interest in art more than an aptitude. He was the only child of a father who was a mechanical contractor and a mother who was a former fashion model. Born in Brooklyn but raised mostly in Long Island and Manhattan, he grew up on familiar terms with Dodgers baseball at Ebbets Field and with the art collected by the Brooklyn Museum.

He arrived at Hopkins as a freshman in 1962. "I came to Hopkins because I didn't get into Harvard, to be honest," he says. Plus an adviser in high school had steered him toward Baltimore. "He thought Hopkins, with its tradition of independence for undergraduates, would be good for me. He was right. I don't actually remember what I got my undergraduate degree in. I think they called it 'humanities,' which was a catch-all." Not long ago he ran into a former graduate assistant from one of his classes. "He said that I was impossible. I'd sit in the front row and barrage everyone with questions." Lehman finished a bachelor's degree in three years and stuck around for a master's from the Writing Seminars. He wrote poetry, started a literary magazine, edited the university yearbook, and spent a lot of time at the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Next stop was Yale and a PhD in art history. After a stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan as a Chester Dale Fellow in 20th-century art, he directed the Urban Improvements Program in New York. He worked out of the offices of the Parks Council of New York City and ended up as the council director. "Then," he says, "to the great hilarity of most of my friends in New York, I decided to pick up and move to Miami."

Two days before the general public could take a gander at what all the shocking young Brits had wrought, the New York city administration stunned Lehman by cutting off city funds to the museum and threatening eviction. This was in 1974, and he became director of the Miami Art Center, where he spent five years building a new museum. On the day it opened in 1979, his wife cut the ribbon because he was in Baltimore, being introduced as the new director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The first of Lehman's BMAs--both the Baltimore and Brooklyn museums are known locally as the BMA--had a small profile and a small endowment. "But it had a great collection," he says. "The feeling was that it was just at the moment when [it] could become a much more effective agent and player in Baltimore, and beyond."

Lehman spent 18 years as the museum's director. He says the high point was the opening of the new wing for modern art. The low point was an acrimonious legal wrangle with the Maryland Institute, College of Art over control of the George A. Lucas Collection. MICA owned the 19th-century French artworks, most of which were on loan to the BMA and the nearby Walters. When MICA announced plans to sell the collection to boost its endowment, the BMA and others sued to stop the sale. In the eventual settlement, the BMA bought a large portion of the art. Lehman also made local headlines (and some new critics) by authorizing the removal of ornate, antique frames from paintings by Matisse, to be replaced by simple strip frames of the kind Matisse had favored. (The old frames were recently reinstalled.)

The director also brought big shows to Baltimore, most notably a major Monet exhibition and A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum. When he left to take over in Brooklyn, the BMA in Baltimore had increased its endowment from $2 million to nearly $50 million, and added two sculpture gardens and two new wings. Gary Vikan, director of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, says, "He's a good fund-raiser, a very good social person, committed to the field, a very good 'museum guy.' One who brought good shows in and really, I think, put that museum a good step forward."

Bringing in good shows was all Lehman had in mind when he booked Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. The exhibition contained paintings, sculptures, photographs, and installations by 40 contemporary British artists. The works all came from the private collection of British advertising magnate Charles Saatchi. Some of it was just the sort of contemporary work that makes the jaw muscles of more conservative and traditional observers tighten and twitch: a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde (by Damien Hirst); a large portrait of convicted child-murderer Myra Hindley, composed of hundreds of children's handprints (by Marcus Harvey); and a work titled Self in which the artist (Marc Quinn) formed a bust of himself from his own frozen blood.

When first shown in 1997 at the Royal Academy in London, Sensation attracted 300,000 visitors. Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhoff had to extend the show an extra month to accommodate public demand. Lehman had been following artists in the exhibit for years. He says, "Sensation was an exhibition that could talk to young people and people of color in their own language." The show's opening night was set for October 2, 1999.

But two days before the general public could take a gander at what all the shocking young Brits had wrought, the New York city administration stunned Lehman by cutting off city funds to the museum and threatening to evict it from its city-owned building. Mayor Giuliani, at that point contemplating his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, expressed outrage at the works on display, especially a Chris Ofili painting of the Virgin Mary that included, as one of its media, elephant dung. The picture by the Nigerian-born artist defiled the Blessed Virgin, Giuliani said, and was offensive to all Catholics. The public, or at least the city of New York, he said, was not going to subsidize blasphemous, disgusting art.

"We're not going to do Monet, Monet, Monet, Monet, Monet, Monet," says Lehman. His goal: a permanent visitor base of at least 50 percent people of color.

"It was totally crazy, and totally unpredictable," Lehman says. "No one saw this coming." Barbara Debs, past executive director of the New-York Historical Society and a member of the BMA's board of trustees, concurs: "I don't think anybody really thought this was going to happen. We didn't set out to provoke the mayor on purpose. Frankly, I think the outcry was manufactured."

U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon eventually ruled against the city on First Amendment grounds, and the museum won restored public funding (New York City provides about one-third of the BMA's $25 million budget). Curious New Yorkers flocked to the show. In the first six weeks, 95,000 people attended Sensation, and the show attracted about 175,000 viewers overall. Only 316,500 people had passed through Brooklyn's turnstiles in all the previous year (ending June 1999).

More painful for Lehman than the court fight were the shots his reputation and integrity took in the press. The New York Times got hold of court filings, including memoranda and e-mail messages, and published a long article that said the museum had ceded to Charles Saatchi "a central role" in exchange for his monetary support of the exhibit. Saatchi, said the Times, dictated the inclusion and placement of certain works, the height at which works were displayed, and the sort of labels used in the exhibition. The story also implied that the museum had crossed an ethical boundary between curatorship and commerce by enlisting the financial support of Saatchi, who stood to gain from a possible later sale of items in his collection, and Christie's, the auction house, which had its eye on a possible future auction of some of Saatchi's vast collection. Finally, the story said that the museum had deliberately concealed Saatchi's support, and implied that Lehman had lied about seeing Sensation during its run in London.

The New York Post published an editorial stating: "So, using the First Amendment as a shield, Arnold Lehman has perpetuated nothing less than an outright fraud on the taxpayers of New York and on his own artistic community. The Brooklyn Museum's trustees should demand Lehman's immediate removal. Like the dung Madonna, Arnold Lehman's continued presence at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is obscene." Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, contributed a deft bit of character assassination on the Web site "Brooklyn's director Arnold Lehman is career-tainted by the weasely stuff that came out in discovery--his attempted cover-up of Saatchi's mammoth secret funding and curatorial role and his attempts to pick up soft money from some of the dealers of the artists in the exhibition."

Lehman sighs. "If [the stories] hadn't been repeated so often that they took on the appearance of truth, I could have laughed." There was no cover-up of Saatchi's "secret" funding, Lehman says. Saatchi had requested anonymity, and the museum had honored his request. (Critics have asked why, if that was the case, the museum didn't reply "no comment" instead of "no" when asked if Saatchi had put up money for the show.) The "mammoth" funding was a pledge of a maximum of $160,000 to cover transport of the show; take that amount, plus $50,000 from Christie's, plus underwriting of the opening-night gala by some prominent private dealers (including dealers who handle artists in Sensation), plus all the other "soft money" in Hoving's barb, and you've accounted for only 15 percent of the show's $2 million budget, says Lehman. No, he insists, Saatchi did not have control over how works were displayed. Yes, Lehman admits, he'd told a reporter that he'd seen Sensation in London when in fact he hadn't. Over a 10-year period of frequent visits to the city, Lehman explains, he had seen almost all of the Sensation artists and their work, plus he'd seen the show's catalogue. Rather than explain all of that to a reporter, he says, he'd simply said that he'd seen Sensation in London: "Saying I had seen the show was shorthand for 10 years of close observation. It was my mistake. Am I upset that that was the focus? Absolutely. I'm upset with myself, but only for not taking the time to answer thoroughly."

"Among museum professionals, we've hashed this over up, down, and sideways," says Vikan. "There's no smoking gun here." The magazine Art in America in January 2000 published a long article that discussed the controversy over sponsorship of Sensation. Writer Lee Rosenbaum concluded that the Times was making a big deal out of standard museum practice. Rosenbaum said, "Press accounts, most notably in the New York Times, have harshly 'exposed' certain Brooklyn Museum exhibition and fund-raising practices, implying that they are peculiar to that institution, when, in fact, they have long been standard procedure at museums around the country. Museums frequently present private collections that could eventually be sold by their owners at prices enhanced by the institutional imprimatur. Dealers routinely buy tickets to galas that benefit museums." Vikan, from the Walters, adds, "Among museum professionals we've hashed this over up, down, and sideways, and there's no smoking gun here."

Criticism of funding also attended Hip-Hop Nation. A big, traditional show of Monet or Cézanne typically will have major corporate underwriters such as Ford Motor Company and Chase Manhattan Bank, plus foundation support, contributions from individuals, and money from the museum's endowment fund. Funds for Hip-Hop Nation came from Nike and Def Jam Recording, a major hip-hop record label. Those companies stood to gain directly from promotion of hip-hop culture, and museums, said the critics, should not provide marketing opportunities for commercial ventures. Says Kevin Powell, "Those critics fail to note that hip-hop was built on material goods from the very beginning, be it a certain brand of spray paint, a type of turntable, or fashion items ranging from a Kangol hat to Adidas sneakers. I felt that many mainstream critics were clueless about young America, and especially clueless about inner-city young America."

The criticism exasperates Lehman. "Where was I going to go [for sponsorship], Deutsche Grammophon? I have a job to do. We have to pursue every possible source of funding that we can. Def Jam Recording supporting Hip-Hop Nation is exactly the same as Tiffany's supporting the Tiffany show at the Met, or Herman Miller Furniture supporting the Eames furniture show at the Cooper Hewitt. The key, in an ethical sense, is committing to a project and then seeking out funding for it. The reverse is where trouble brews-- being offered funding to do a certain show, then doing it just because the funding was available."

Says the Walters's Vikan, "I think there's another underlying dynamic to this whole thing, and that's the democratization of the museum-attending public. He's bringing in young people of color. He's bringing in gay people. He's bringing people to a museum that 100 years ago was bigger than the Met but which 15 years ago had attendance rates that had fallen under 250,000, down from a million in the 1930s, in a dynamic borough that is more nearly the face of the 21st-century American than probably anywhere in the country. Is he in front of the curve? I think so."

The mayor and the New York Post notwithstanding, Lehman kept his job as Sensation moved on to Japan. Lehman says, "Our reward was this: If you saw the young people standing in front of work by Richard Billingham of his family's home in subsidized housing in London, if you saw these young people frozen before these images for 10 or 15 minutes...there was absolute electricity. They connected. You cannot buy that. Our problem with Sensation wasn't getting young people to come. It was to get them out of the gallery when it closed."

Lehman wants the new BMA facade, under construction and illustrated here in a display inside the museum, to be "Brooklyn's front stoop."

Earlier this year, Lehman and the Brooklyn Museum once more provoked Giuliani's ire, this time over Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers. The show brought together the work of 94 artists. In Yo Mama's Last Supper, a large, five-panel work, photographer (and Roman Catholic) Renee Cox appears as Jesus, naked and flanked by 12 men as the Apostles. Giuliani again fired salvos in the New York press and declared his intent to reestablish a city cultural affairs advisory commission to set decency standards for city-funded museums.

Lehman notes that Yo Mama's Last Supper had been exhibited in Venice and Milan without issue. He also points out that one work in Sensation, a painting by Sam Taylor Wood of the Last Supper, portrayed a nude white woman in the place of Jesus. "No one said a word about that painting," Lehman says. "The mayor said nothing about it. The Catholic League said nothing about it. Why would one think [Cox's photo] would cause an issue? Because this is a black artist making herself in the image of a black Jesus, that would call down the mayor's wrath?"

At any point have museum board members asked Lehman for a year or two of safe, low-profile exhibits? Something non-controversial from the museum's extensive Egypt collection, or Monet, Monet, Monet? "Never," says Lehman. "During Sensation, the board was amazing in its solidarity and its commitment." Barbara Debs concurs that the board never wavered: "Not a bit. Not a bit. We were very united on the Sensation issue. That was a matter of principle--censorship is simply not an acceptable thing--and that principle has not gone away."

These days, Arnold Lehman's workplace is a construction site. He has launched an ambitious $55 million project to renovate the museum's entrance. A large plaza and entrance pavilion of glass and steel will be added to the massive, columned 19th-century Beaux Arts facade. The result, Lehman says, will be "Brooklyn's front stoop," the front stoop for what is increasingly becoming an artist's borough of choice. Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and Red Hook have become centers of new art as painters and sculptors discover the cheaper real estate, numerous galleries, and burgeoning street scene. "If you take a stroll down Bedford Avenue, the main street of Williamsburg," Lehman says, "it's very much the kind of setting of SoHo 25 years ago--very young, very vibrant, with a big club scene, and a grittiness. It's terrific."

Membership in the museum has leveled off at around 24,000, Lehman says. That's down from fiscal 1998, the year of the Monet show, when membership peaked at around 28,500. But, notes Lehman, that's more than double what it was prior to his directorship. Attendance, he adds, is running about 400,000 per year, up from 200,000 before 1997. "Five years down the road," he says, "I would hope we get up to the million-visitor level."

As much as he wants to raise the profile of the museum, Lehman says, he'd like to lower his own: "I am not happy being in the spotlight, but I do speak to the press and I do not hide when leadership for the museum or the cultural community is required. But one of the great things about New York City is the ability to be anonymous. I would be very happy to be anonymous again."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer for the magazine.

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