Friday, May 15, 2015

Museum Days: Reflections on An Institution on Eastern Parkway

A year or so ago I attended, with My Better Half, an evening workshop at the Brooklyn Museum for art educators, as her guest. It was held in the Museum's Beaux Arts Court.

As a special education/art teacher working with emotionally disabled and autistic kids in Bushwick, she seems to achieve an amazing instructional collaboration with her students, who for the most part have deep communication and developmental  issues,  yet they nevertheless continue to win recognition and awards for their art when submitted to student competitions. Given the daily challenge of her work, she is constantly on the search for opportunities to develop her own artistic practice as well as share strategies and experiences with other NYC teachers. Thus her attendance at this workshop, which I attended as a guest.

At one point, a gentleman appeared in the mix of Museum staff and visiting teachers. He was definitely low key and unprepossessing, in height, in appearance, in dress, and, as I recall, in his need of a shave.  He asked what the event was about, and I explained, and we chatted a bit. When he read my name tag, and I asked his, and I realized it was Arnold Lehman, Director of the Museum, I think I went on a verbal tear, expressing my lifelong love for the Museum, having walked here to visit and wander around since as far back as I can recall in my childhood.

I didn't mention that when I first met my wife, she was working at the Museum, as an assistant in one of the curatorial departments. Before we were "involved" we also happened to take a silk screen class together back in the old Brooklyn Museum Art School in the 1980s.  I was a novice, whereas she was working on more advanced projects. While we were dating, I remember renting a car to take a trip with her to the shore. I drove into the driveway in front of the old heavily fortified brick and iron entrance to the Museum to pick her up after work. I think she was a little embarrassed as the only car I was able to rent was a large red Eldorado - sort of like Damian Hirst's shark from the infamous 1999 Brooklyn Museum Sensations Show.

I did mention to Mr. Lehman how I felt that the Museum was so ingrained in my soul and that I was so accustomed to entering the edifice through that same brick and iron fortification since childhood, that now,  I was brought to tears of joy when I first entered the renovated, contemporary entrance.  In reflecting back on it now, those tears were filled with inspiration and happiness, mirth and awe, as the space had been transformed, all glass and joy, echoing, to me, at once, the Louvre, a prism,  the Apple Store, like a glass sculpture harmonizing the delicacy and mystery of the spheres, but also reflecting the delight brought by changes that sing a song that is at once of the sacred, the profane and everything in between.

Mr. Lehman's time at the Brooklyn Museum, while it may be remembered more for battling the small-minded aesthetics of a provincial Mayor, was clearly also one of great accomplishment given the very broad range of work that entered its collection, as reflected in the current show "Diverse Works: Director's Choice 1997-2015," a terrific show very much worth seeing and the changes in the Museum with regard to its embracing contemporary, modern and classic art and design, as well as the needs of the communities in Brooklyn it serves. I  was prompted to the above rumination by an interview with Mr. Lehman in the NY Observer. A must read if you are interested in museums and curatorial culture. But also an unexpected reminder that the Brooklyn Museum, while it will continue to move forward in dramatic and exciting directions with the selection of Creative Times' Ann Pasternak as the next Director, but at the same time it will be losing a brave and invaluable work of art, a treasure, with the retirement of Mr. Lehman.

The full interview in the NY Observer appears here  
--Anthony Napoli
Deep in the Heart of Brooklyn

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