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Thread: Brooklyn Museum

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    April 12, 2004

    Brooklyn Museum, Newly Refurbished, Seeks an Audience

    By RANDY KENNEDY and CAROL VOGEL


    The new entrance to the Brooklyn Museum, which is currently under construction.

    When the Brooklyn Museum was planning its Beaux-Arts palace alongside Prospect Park in 1894, an optimistic newspaper reporter wrote that the institution was "destined to reach a lusty maturity and, without doubt, an evergreen old age."

    For many years it lived up to that promise, becoming a renowned museum with one of the world's finest collections of Egyptian art.

    Planned for an independent city that was absorbed into New York shortly after the museum opened in 1897, the Brooklyn Museum watched its fortunes suffer with those of its borough. Budgets dwindled along with attendance. By the 1990's, attendance had dropped to 200,000 a year.

    Now the museum, led by its director, Arnold L. Lehman, is changing course. It has all but abandoned efforts to lure visitors from Manhattan and is now, with the help of an image consultant, concentrating almost exclusively on its own backyard — the 2.5 million residents of Brooklyn.

    On Saturday and Sunday the museum will reach a watershed moment in its reinvention, unveiling a $63 million face-lift and modernization. There will be a futuristic glass entrance with fountains designed by the same company that created the ones at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and a new subway stop. In front of the entrance, there will be a public plaza, an attempt to remake the museum into the popular borough meeting place and social scene it once was. Inside, its biggest exhibition, "Open House: Working in Brooklyn," will be devoted to 300 works by 200 Brooklyn artists.

    But Mr. Lehman's efforts to concentrate on Brooklyn have raised concerns among many in the museum world, including some who work for him, that by trying to appeal to the broadest spectrum of visitors — and to more than triple the museum's attendance over the next decade — the museum will become a palace of popular culture rather than a place to see art.

    There are fears that its curatorial staff and its world-class collection are being underused in favor of more shows like "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage" in 2000, or "Star Wars," a 2002 show of costumes and drawings from the movies, both of which packed in viewers but were derided by critics as little more than memorabilia.

    The changes are not limited to the facade. The museum is redesigning many galleries, and many of the rooms have plump armchairs, computer touch screens, background music and flat-panel televisions showing short documentaries.

    The museum has again redesigned its logo, announcing a return to its longtime name, the Brooklyn Museum, instead of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, adopted in 1997.

    Relying on marketing experts, who conducted thousands of hours worth of interviews with city residents over the last year, the museum says its effort is aimed at capitalizing on what it has found to be its chief strength: that it is considered one of the city's most welcoming museums.

    The image consultants have gone so far as to hold what they call "greeter training" for everyone from security guards to curators.

    Critics worry that the museum's officials are taking the theme of accessibility so far that they are undermining the museum's strengths as a place respected for its scholarship, its research library and its school outreach programs. For example, curators have recently been instructed to write explanatory labels in short, simple paragraphs that some curators describe as being designed for no more than a third-grade reading level.

    Robert T. Buck, Mr. Lehman's predecessor, said he found the new direction disappointing but perhaps also inevitable. "That's the changing nature of the museum world," he said. "Lots of people, including me, deplore it. We believe in art for art's sake, in art first. But these days, it's all about promotion, the gate."

    Of Mr. Lehman, he said: "He's not alone. He needs to survive."

    In a recent interview, Mr. Lehman characterized such criticism as the kind of knee-jerk reaction from museum traditionalists and elitists that has kept the Brooklyn Museum in limbo for decades.

    The sleek new entrance, he argued, is far from simply cosmetic. And the extensive changes are questioned only by people who want to keep the museum as a kind of private, half-empty redoubt for themselves and their friends.

    "The purpose is to open the museum up to this community," Mr. Lehman said, "to position ourselves as a civic place in Brooklyn, civic in both senses of the word, as a meeting place and a place that represents everyone."

    He added, "If that's not significant to critics, you know — and you can quote me — I don't care."

    The museum is not alone in recent years in putting out a populist welcome mat. The Met had its Fabergι exhibition, the Guggenheim its motorcycles, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is hoping to attract nonmuseumgoers with its forthcoming show of cars collected by Ralph Lauren. But none of these museums have sought mass appeal as thoroughly as the Brooklyn Museum.

    After Mr. Lehman's problems during the wildly popular 1999 "Sensation" show — he suffered attacks from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani among others and was found to have lied about the show's genesis — several board members have said that he has regained support from the trustees as he tries to reinvigorate the museum.

    One board member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that while some members disagreed over the wisdom of mounting artistically thin shows like "Star Wars," the board generally felt that the museum must take a bold new direction.

    The board also believes, the member added, that Mr. Lehman is supplying the necessary energy at a time when much of Brooklyn is experiencing a renaissance that can only benefit the museum. "Of course there have been some missteps," the board member said, "but that's inevitable when you're changing so quickly."

    Critics of Mr. Lehman's plans often draw parallels to those of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which was in serious decline from 1988 to 1995 and tried to reinvigorate itself. It sought a more populist approach, but despite touch screens and large graphics, the Victoria and Albert became the brunt of criticism by the general public and the art world.

    Brooklyn Museum officials say that while they are relying much more on market research — they hired LaPlaca Cohen, an advertising and branding company that has worked for other museums, including the Getty in Los Angeles — they stress that marketing is not driving curatorial decisions.

    But Kevin Stayton, the Brooklyn Museum's chief curator, said he agreed with many of the populist strategies of the Victoria and Albert in the early 1990's, though they did not succeed for various reasons.

    Mr. Stayton and Marc Mayer, the museum's deputy director for art, said in an interview that they thought marketing research was essential to help figure out who visits the museum and who does not, and, more important, to understand how the museum can better publicize its offerings, especially to the ethnically diverse population of Brooklyn, to whom the museum's strengths in African, Egyptian and South American art should appeal.

    Much of what the museum has found through focus groups and interviews has been encouraging. About 40 percent of visitors are members of minorities, a number that has increased sharply during the last several years. The number of Hispanic visitors has increased by a third since 1995. (The 2000 census found that 34.4 percent of Brooklynites are African-American and 19.8 percent are Hispanic.) The museum draws an unusually young crowd: 55 percent are between 18 and 44, a sought-after age group.

    The museum has already tried to capitalize on this trend by sponsoring a popular event known as First Saturdays: the museum stays open until 11 p.m. on the first Saturday of every month and becomes a kind of dance club, with wine, food and bands.

    On a recent First Saturday, the museum was packed with families and visitors in their early 20's, dressed as if they were going to a nightclub. Mark and Yvonne Terry, from Jamaica, Queens, brought their 7-year-old daughter, Janessa, to see African art. Ms. Terry, a subway train operator, said it was their first time back at the museum in a few years.

    Arthur Cohen, a principal of LaPlaca Cohen, said he believed that more than any other New York museum, the Brooklyn Museum's future lay in attracting more nontraditional and infrequent museumgoers. Early in strategy sessions, he added, museum officials said they wanted to concentrate on attracting more people from surrounding neighborhoods, trying to turn on its ear one of the chief criticisms of the museum, that the only problem with the Brooklyn Museum was that it was in Brooklyn.

    "They have such an incredible opportunity in their own backyard, and they saw that and focused on that, and I think that was smart," he said.

    Mr. Lehman said he thought issues of race and class were involved. He told a story of a man who complained about the splashy colors, designs and photographs used to decorate the walls of the African galleries. The man, an art collector who was white, said he preferred to look at his African art against white walls, in plexiglass boxes.

    Mr. Lehman smiled as he related the story. "He has a perfect right to have his art the way he likes it," he said, "at home."

    Sarah Faunce, a former curator of European art at the museum, sides with the visitor, however, arguing that such theatrical installations are not necessary because visitors get that kind of drama watching television or going to the movies. The danger, she warned, is showing "an insufficient respect for the audience." She added that she thought there were many ways to present art that "aren't elitist."

    "I believe a beautiful exhibition can be enjoyed at many levels, by scholars, the public, students," she said. "Everybody takes something different from it."

    But Mr. Lehman said that in today's museum world, and especially in New York, capturing a piece of people's leisure time was necessary for survival.

    He said he wanted people to decide to go to the Brooklyn Museum on a date, instead of the movies, say, or the park. He said he wanted it to be "a place to celebrate an event, a place to come to — with no art involved, per se — a place to come to celebrate something about their community."

    Eventually, he said, people will embrace the art and come for it, too.


    The Brooklyn Museum, which had sought to draw as many visitors as its competitors in Manhattan, is unveiling its renovation this weekend. It is redesigning galleries and adding armchairs and computer touch screens.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


    Brooklyn Museum of Art Entry and Plaza

    www.brooklynmuseum.org

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    April 16, 2004

    An Institution Reinvents Itself

    When the Brooklyn Museum laid the cornerstone for its grand Beaux-Arts palace on Dec. 14, 1895, its president predicted a grand future for the museum and the independent city it would grace.

    "Our rapid growth in population and wealth makes it not unreasonable to believe that here will rise what in time may become one of the greatest museums of the world, a temple of art and science," A. Augustus Healy told the crowd on that cold, windy day.

    Things did not go exactly as he hoped. By 1898, Brooklyn had been absorbed into New York City and the museum began to fall under the shadow of its younger, more glamorous sister, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite early successes — it often outbid the Met at art auctions in its first decades — the Brooklyn Museum watched its fortunes suffer with those of its borough, as the Dodgers left, crime rose and neighborhoods deteriorated.

    By the late 1960's, budget problems forced it to close many galleries, including European painting. By the 1990's, attendance had sunk to a low of about 200,000 visitors a year, while the Met was regularly attracting more than 20 times that number.

    Now, the Brooklyn Museum is in an aggressive campaign to reinvent itself and narrow the gap with its Manhattan rivals. Over the next decade, it hopes to triple its attendance. To do this, it has decided essentially to forget about Manhattan and concentrate on attracting more visitors from its own, huge, backyard: a borough of 2.5 million residents.


    ART REVIEW

    A Hemisphere Shows Its Many-Cultured Glory

    By GRACE GLUECK

    For the last few decades, the Brooklyn Museum of Art's Hall of the Americas, the display arena for objects from the museum's hallowed collections of North, Central and South American art, was a place that most visitors rushed through on their way to see other things. Painted an institutional gray-green and with its stellar exhibits half hidden in cumbersome installations, the hall had not been refurbished since the 1960's.

    But now a complete makeover and reinstallation has brought to it a brightness not known since the days of the great Stewart Culin, the museum's early-20th-century curator of ethnology, who painted the hall in a rainbow of colors to reflect the different peoples and geographic regions it represented.

    Today its 16 giant columns, reaching to a skylighted ceiling 20 feet high, are painted in two shades of yellow and two of purple. And the walls carry vibrant colors and symbols that reflect the many cultures of the areas from which the displays originate. New vitrines, lower than the old ones, bring the viewer closer to the objects and make them more accessible in the round.

    To accommodate the museum's wider audience, labels and wall texts appear in Spanish as well as English, and objects with different uses are sometimes displayed together — like pots and textiles — to show a design relationship between them. The hall, which opens tomorrow, was redone by Matthew Yokobosky, chief designer for the museum.

    The opening show, "Living Legacies: The Arts of the Americas," is Phase 1 of the new installation. If the hall seems a little empty in comparison with, say, the fully packed Egyptian galleries — patience. Museum officials wanted to open the hall in celebration of the new front entrance and plaza, and so installed it with some choice pieces. Phase 2, planned for 2006, will add colonial art, pottery, pre-Columbian gold, kachina dolls and objects of dance, religion and ritual to the mix.

    This first phase presents three thematic exhibitions, organized by Nancy Rosoff, the chairwoman of the museum's Arts of the Americas department, and Susan Kennedy Zeller, its assistant curator. "Threads of Time: Woven Histories of the Andes," with 38 Andean textiles and related materials from the museum's 800-some holdings in this area, highlights one of the most important collections of its kind outside South America.

    "Enduring Heritage: Art of the Northwest Coast" includes 35 objects from seven cultures, among them an enormous totem pole originally from 42 to 44 feet high and weighing 3,000 pounds. It is shown in two parts because it had to be cut in half in 1911 when it was shipped to the museum from a village in British Columbia.

    The 17 works in the third show, "Stories Revealed: Writing Without Words," reflect how various cultures throughout the Americas have proclaimed their history and religious beliefs, mostly in the form of pictures and glyphs.

    One of the most important items in the Andean show is the renowned Paracas Textile, named for the culture whose people wove it of cotton and alpaca fibers at some point between 300 B.C. and A.D. 200. In the form of a mantle or cloak, though too small for anything but ceremonial use, this illustrious artifact is threadbare. But it still retains its richly worked multicolor border, decorated with 90 images of people, animals, gods and native flora and fauna. These tiny players may not be familiar to us, but their movement and energy, conveyed by the weavers, are wondrous to behold.

    Nearby is a larger mantle, also from the Paracas culture of the same era, but in a much better state of preservation. (Many woven goods survived in fine shape because they were buried in coastal desert graves between Peru and Chile, one of the driest regions in the world.) Rectangular, as mantles were, it has a main body of black embroidered with colorful stylized fish that perhaps represented local gods.

    Representations of llamas, essential to Peruvian life, crop up several times here. They populate a small, beguiling textile fragment by a Tiwanaku or Wari artist from the southern highlands or coast of Peru, dated A.D. 600-1000. Its brown ground, of cotton and alpaca fibers, bears more lightly colored images of llamas giving birth. Such occasions were to be celebrated in a society dependent on these animals for transportation, clothing, shelter and meat.

    Not everything in "Threads of Time" is of ancient origin. A complete woman's outfit from the highlands of Ecuador dates from the 1940's (except for a necklace of gilded glass beads, made in 1986). It includes a rebozo, or shawl, worn folded over an unmarried woman's left shoulder; a married woman would wear it open or pinned shut. A knitted hat of alpaca fleece and sheep wool, with an ancient abstract design, the kind worn by men for centuries in Peru and Bolivia, was made in 2002 by an anonymous male artist of Quechuan origin in Cuzco province, Peru.

    The fiercest and most startling of the three shows is "Enduring Heritage." Bold in scale and strong in spiritual expression, the artifacts of the Northwest Coast Indians include, besides the gargantuan totem pole, overbearing masks, capacious vessels, no-nonsense weapons and slightly tamer baskets, ceramics and utensils.

    The animal masks, worn by male dancers, are especially intimidating. One of the most dramatic, by a Kwakwaka'wakw artist from Knight Inlet, British Columbia, depicts a full baleen whale, painted gray with color accents, including a voracious open red mouth. Interior cords that controlled the fins, mouth and tail could be pulled to mimic the whale's movements. (The whale dance is still performed today.)

    Another 19th-century relic is a thunderbird transformation mask, from Alert Bay, British Columbia, with a cord rigging that allowed the dancer to open and close it. Closed, it's a supernatural thunderbird, in on the creation of the world; open, it is transformed into a human-snake face, surrounded by two heads of a lightning snake.

    An intriguing and unusual item is a 19th-century "trick chest" of cedar from the Haida culture. It was used in performances that were like today's magic shows. (A child inside the chest would appear to be killed by knives thrust through it, but his escape through a small trap door would enable his miraculous reappearance.) The design on the chest, carved in classic Northwest tradition, represents a large figure of Konankada, C.E.O. of the undersea world.

    "Stories Revealed," the smallest and possibly the weakest of the three shows, tries to convey how Indian cultures used graphic art rather than words to record their histories. Its most important piece is probably a small, cylinder-shaped codex-style vase, circa A.D. 550-850, by an unknown Mayan artist from Guatemala. Perhaps created as a funerary object, it features painted imagery — a primary art form in high Mayan civilization — that shows three supernatural beings in a dance: a toad, a bearded dragon and a water lily jaguar, a symbol of power thought to be a supernatural partner of Mayan rulers.

    More seductive is a painting on stretched-out white elk hide attributed to a 19th-century Shoshone artist, Cadzi Cody, of the Wind River Reservation in Montana. Its lively animal and human images depict a buffalo hunt and a wolf dance in colorful configurations designed to appeal to tourists.

    Speaking of tourists, there is satire here as well, in the form of a contemporary vessel by Judy Folwell, a well-known potter of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. Its glazed brown surface bears the words "Market Stampede" over a herd of Indian horses racing to the tourist-and-dealer-oriented Santa Fe Indian markets.

    Though the galleries look a bit sparse, they offer plenty to see. A fuller account of the museum's collections awaits Phase 2. Stay tuned.


    ART REVIEW | 'OPEN HOUSE'

    Brooklyn-ness, a State of Mind and Artistic Identity in the Un-Chelsea

    By HOLLAND COTTER

    Fitfully over the years, the Brooklyn Museum of Art has given the nod to its geographic roots with showcases of borough artists. And people have been waiting for it to push more forcefully in that direction since the florescence of a local gallery scene in the 1990's. It is doing so now with "Open House: Working in Brooklyn," a big, mixed-up jamboree of 200 artists that goes on view tomorrow.

    It's the kind of show almost guaranteed to produce a fabulous opening party. Many of the guests will already know one another well. Brooklyn artists, dealers and collectors are often also neighbors, friends, collaborators, business partners, lovers and spouses. Bonded by a mystique of shared turf and by a certain reverse-glamour pride in the borough's un-Chelsea-like scrappiness, they can hang out in a museum that is now, officially, home.

    The air of camaraderie extends to the art on view, which also seems to be hanging out. With some 300 pieces installed in the fourth- and fifth-floor galleries, and spilling over into the permanent collection, this is a very crowded event, all over the place in terms of media, styles and themes, not to mention quality. The good, the bad and the iffy mingle so intimately and indiscriminately that it can be hard to tell one from another. If there is an organizing principle at work, it is opaque.

    So that's the situation: it's not dire, just sort of unmanageable and probably requiring adjustments in expectation. As its title implies, "Open House" is not a closely edited gold-medal selection or a historical survey. Pulling in work from across the borough, it's a study in art world sociology, and at least partly about an institution.

    After a protracted identity crisis, the Brooklyn Museum has decided that local, not global, is the direction it should take. Rather than struggling in vain to put itself on the map for a Manhattan audience, it is joining the campaign to make a gentrified Brooklyn the place to be. The museum points to its new front entrance on Eastern Parkway as evidence of this grassroots connection. So, too, is "Open House," which, in its casual way, posits Brooklyn-ness as a cultural ethnicity.

    Given this focus, it seems slightly odd that the one piece of art specifically commissioned to make its debut this week is neither by a Brooklyn artist nor detectably celebratory. Just the opposite. A mural-size painting titled "Manifest Destiny" by the Manhattan-based Alexis Rockman, it is a panoramic view of the borough as imagined 3,000 years in the future, after global warming has left it submerged under the waters of New York harbor.

    Inevitably, some viewers will have problems with this post-9/11 image of a devastated city, which will be unveiled tomorrow. But Mr. Rockman's concerns are, and have long been, ecological. And his approach is basically that of 19th-century American artists like Thomas Cole, moralizing history painters who presented reality not as it was, but as it might be.

    Cole's "Course of Empire," a depiction of a civilization destroyed through a failure of self-vigilance, was a political warning aimed at the America of his day. The same could be said of Mr. Rockman's painting. You may not like his stagy, hyperrealist style, which has a lot in common with Cole's, but he stands on firm art historical precedent.

    "Open House" includes a fair amount of political art, too, easily enough to make a separate theme show. There are, in fact, several such shows embedded within this compendious exhibition, organized by Charlotta Kotik, chairman of the department of contemporary art, and Tumelo Mosaka, the assistant curator.

    Whatever their final selection process, the curators obviously put in heroic amounts of legwork, not only on the well-traveled Williamsburg-Dumbo circuit, but also at galleries and studios in a borough that has many art worlds, in Red Hook, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant and elsewhere.

    As a result, the show has artists who operate outside the mainstream contemporary loop, like the quiltmaker Dr. Tracey Rico and the sculptor Karl McIntosh. It is also racially mixed in a way that the Williamsburg art scene emphatically is not.

    Still, Williamsburg is the show's main source, which makes sense. It has the largest concentration of galleries. Its longtime artist-residents, among them Joe Amrhein and Michael Ballou, helped invent the idea of Brooklyn as a commercially viable art community. And a critical mass of more recent arrivals has brought the community international attention.

    Of late, though, its energy seems to have died down. In part this is a function of maturing: old names have become familiar; not so many interesting new ones have come along. And then, the New York art world as a whole feels becalmed. There's endless activity but scant excitement; art in Chelsea may be selling like crazy, but the place is Dullsville these days. "Open House," which consists entirely of work from the last four years, reflects this.

    The preponderance of painting doesn't help. The more the medium is hyped as hot news, the older it looks in reheated versions of Pop, Surrealism, Expressionism or whatever. And this show has its share of good, competent, been-there stuff. It also has distinguished work by Stephen Charles, Jane Fine, Alessandra Exposito, Yun-Fei Ji and Mr. Amrhein. And a few surprises: Christopher Knowles's oil marker images of cadavers and cardinals; Arlington Weithers's glittering abstractions; Jill Shoffiett's Mississippi landscapes; and Phong Bui's meditation drawings, seen in a section devoted to artists' books.

    Sculpture, shading into installation, does fairly well in an environment potentially unfriendly to its spacial needs. A small wall sculpture by Ricci Albenda, an ambitious and interesting artist, gets lost in the shuffle. And David Baskin's ensemble of rubber casts of his grandfather's wardrobe almost does, though its bubble-gum-pink color jumps out.

    A majestic installation by Leonardo Drew of cast paper junk-shop forms in stacked-up vitrines benefits mightily from being in an isolated location, as do sculptures placed in the museum's permanent collection galleries. Rob Fischer's sarcophagus-size glass container of ashes has an almost shocking impact, surrounded by Egyptian funerary objects.

    And Patricia Cronin's "Memorial to a Marriage," a bronze sculpture of two nude women embracing on a bed, gains personal and historical resonance when seen in the context of Rodin's muscled bronze males and a marble carving of a prone Danaλ. Rodin's figures are mythical; Ms. Cronin's are portraits of the artist and her partner, the painter Deborah Kass. (They appear in identical form, but life-size, on a tombstone installed on their jointly owned plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.)

    If the sculptural contributions of Ms. Cronin, Mr. Fischer, Mr. Drew and Mr. Baskin add up to a mini-exhibition on the theme of relics and memory, much of the political content of "Open House" resides in photo-based work. It includes George Kimmerling's pictures of border watchtowers and Dread Scott's images of prison inmates; Rico Gatson's rapid-fire topical video; Luis Gispert's identity-probing pictures of family and feet; a text-and-photo installation by Martha Rosler; and a digital collage by Kambui Olujimi, as graphically suave as a corporate logo, of a tiny basketball player with a huge noose for a hoop.

    All but absent from the mix are interactive and Internet-based work, and this is a significant omission. It suggests that certain kinds of art are developing primarily outside the confines of the gallery-based art world and the traditional museum.

    Maybe the Brooklyn Museum, if it forges its grassroots path with intelligence and flair, will become an untraditional museum, one that gives new audiences new ways of understanding, through art, who they once were, who they are now and who they can be. I hope so.

    I also hope that the museum understands that the path must be a multilane highway, on which different kinds of exhibitions run parallel: traveling shows, shows drawn from the permanent collection and shows of local art, preferably more coherent than "Open House." To offer less than that would be selling Brooklyn short; offering that much, and more, could bring the world to the museum's door.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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    Wired New York Meetup Group will visit Brooklyn Museum on Saturday, May 1st, as part of Target First Saturdays.

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