When Arnold Lehman cedes the helm of the Brooklyn Museum next month, he’ll use his newfound freedom to pen a book on “Sensation,” the legendary exhibition that defined his turbulent tenure. Lehman broke the news at Frieze New York last Friday, where he gave a talk with Thelma Golden, his ebullient counterpart at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
The show, which then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani notoriously tried to shut down, occurred about two years into Lehman’s 18-year tenure and served as an unexpected bonding agent for a broken staff.
“What ‘Sensation’ did, I believe, was to make us internally one community,” said Lehman. “It brought everyone together in ways, initially, that weren’t very happy. I had 400 staff members who thought they were all going to lose their jobs.” Fear was part of it, Lehman said, but as the maelstrom of lawsuits, protests and publicity raged on, Lehman said his employees “came together…out of a sense of protecting, not just the museum, but the idea of a museum.”
The harmony was hard-won. Lehman described how he alienated his curators almost immediately after arriving in 1997, when he spent several days reviewing the signage throughout the galleries.
“I had to keep myself from taking every one of these labels off the walls,” he told the stunned curators at their very first meeting. “Many of them meant nothing to me, and if they meant nothing to me, I couldn’t imagine how they could mean much to our visitors.”
This conversation marked the start of Lehman’s campaign to make the museum more accessible. He went on to establish a suggested admission policy and First Saturdays, the museum’s monthly dance parties—steps he said were key to his tenure.
The event proceeded like this, with Golden and Lehman breezily pointing to the latter’s achievements like landmarks spotted from the top of a tour bus. While the event had been billed as a conversation on the role and future of museums, it proceeded as a largely superficial, swan-song survey of Lehman’s long career. Golden’s own experiences and insights as a trailblazing curator and director went untapped. Looking spectacular as always in strappy gladiator sandals and a flowing dress composed of bands of purple, polka dots and snow leopard spots, she simply interviewed Lehman, posing questions about his approach.
Due partly to time constraints—the whole thing clocked in under an hour including audience questions—partly to the interview-format, the pair wasn’t able to delve into topics that required proper dissection.
This was especially apparent when Lehman said broadening the museum’s appeal never necessitated “dumbing down” its programming, despite the accusations leveled at him throughout his career. Lehman didn’t specifically name “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth,” the 2000 exhibition that Michael Kimmelman called a commercially opportunistic “witless fiasco” in The New York Times, but it stood there like the Bantha in the room.
Detractors of such exhibitions, Lehman suggested, simply weren’t as progressive as the programming. “I think it’s because critics, like anyone, also find it difficult to change,” he said.
The defensiveness of that comment aside, it’s understandable why the talk didn’t devolve into a discussion of “Star Wars” or the equally maligned “Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage.” What’s unfortunate is that the speakers missed an opportunity to have a substantive conversation on the very real challenges museum directors face in terms of reconciling their institutions’ traditions with the imperative to evolve—how does one balance razzle-dazzle with curatorial integrity?
Lehman, attired in a black jacket and salmon-colored pants, spoke openly, if briefly, about other controversial aspects of his leadership.
“I made very difficult decisions in terms of how our curators themselves would work within a museum context and I was very soundly criticized by almost every newspaper,” said Lehman, alluding to his abolition of traditional curatorial departments such as Asian art and American art in favor of two teams, one for exhibitions and one for collections. “It was said that I was destroying, single-handedly, the curatorial profession.”
The museum’s curators (at least the ones that didn’t quit), he said, are happier than ever as a result.
Ultimately, what enabled these bold decisions was a sense of necessity.
“I never thought that changing what we did was a risk,” said Lehman. “I always believed that changing how the museum perceived itself…was simply what we had to do.”