Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum since 1997, will retire in mid-2015. He is 70 years old.
During his tenure, the director focused on increasing the diversity of museum visitors, bringing in underserved and younger audiences. The museum reports that attendance has doubled over the last decade, and that by 2014, people of color made up more than 40 percent of visitors, with an average age of 35 (the average in 1997 was over 55). The introduction of public programs like the popular monthly First Saturdays, when the museum stays open until 11, with free admission and food, drinks and live music, has drawn a younger crowd.
Perhaps the most memorable episode of Lehman’s tenure was the furor surrounding the 1999 exhibition “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” which featured works by artists like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin from the collection of British advertising magnate and gallerist Charles Saatchi. Some critics suggested that the museum had handed excessive curatorial control over to the British collector, and Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)—a mixed-medium painting depicting a black Madonna and featuring elephant dung and pornographic photos—was denounced by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as “anti-Catholic.” Crowds of Christian protestors picketed the institution, and Giuliani threatened to rescind $7 million in city funding and revoke the museum’s lease unless the show was taken down. Lehman and the museum stood firm, winning a heated court battle. Ultimately, the exhibition attracted 170,000 visitors.
Scholarly exhibitions that focused on the museum’s collection, like “Monet and the Mediterranean” (1997), were countered by pop culture amusements such as “Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage” (2000) and “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” (2002). Perhaps to reflect this shift, the museum changed its name in 2004 from the Brooklyn Museum of Art to the Brooklyn Museum. The museum also mounted solo exhibitions of art stars like Jean-Michel Basquiat (2005), Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (2008) and Ai Weiwei (2014).
Feminist art also took high priority with the 2007 opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, which features a permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79), a collaboratively created artwork canonizing dozens of historical women.
Lehman spearheaded structural changes to the museum as well, most notably the addition of a glass canopy fronting the classical McKim, Mead & White facade. The renovation, designed by Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects LLC), also included a new lobby and public plaza. The opening of new Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian and Islamic galleries is slated to for 2016.
Prior to his time in Brooklyn, Lehman was director of the Baltimore Museum of Art from 1979 to 1997 and was adjunct professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University. Lehman received B.A. and M.A. degrees from Johns Hopkins and his Ph.D. from Yale University.
In addition to his position as director, Lehman has served as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, co-chair of the Arts and Culture Transition Committee for Mayor Bill De Blasio and as a trustee of the American Federation of Arts. He is currently chair of the Cultural Institutions Group of New York City.