For a museum that once hanged a painting of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung, a behind-the-scenes staffing change would seem like the last thing to cause controversy.
But a major staff reorganization plan announced earlier this summer by the Brooklyn Museum has critics again questioning whether the venerable institution has turned away from scholarship and art in favor of popularity.
In other words, does the Brooklyn Museum want to be the class nerd or the cool kid?
Either way, the Museum wants to do more with less, it says. The “curatorial reorganization plan” revealed last month would do away with a system that had specialized curators working behind the scenes to weave together exhibits [see GoBrooklyn Editor Lisa Curtis’s news analysis, right].
Curators will now collaborate with educators and designers, who have traditionally worked only on the presentation, not the content, of an exhibition.
Curators, expectedly, are having an art attack. The Association of Art Museum Curators, a national group, said the Brooklyn plan “undermines the traditional vocation of the curator-as-scholar whose commitment to a particular collection renders him or her uniquely qualified to make recommendations regarding its care and interpretation.”
But the larger issue is how the changes will play out for customers. Even before the latest reorganization, the museum had begun resorting to quick-fix attendance boosters, like the current graffiti show or the 2002 “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” exhibit, to counteract declining attendance.
A 2000 show, “Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage,” drew large crowds, but museum purists questioned the artistic value of a show that could just as easily have been hosted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That’s no surprise, given that the hip-hop exhibit was co-curated by rap writer Kevin Powell, not one of the museum’s venerable art experts.
Critics say such shows make it clear that the museum is sacrificing its long history of scholarship in favor of a longer admissions line.
George Goldner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s chairman of drawings and prints, famously told the New York Times that the curator shakeup would result in more shows being about “razzmatazz” instead of art.
“The kind of work [curators] do calls for specialization, and when people intermingle these things it shows a lack of respect for the curatorial role,” he told the paper.
“Do you want to go to a hospital that merges the cardiology department with ears, nose and throat? I wouldn’t.”
The museum called such criticism baseless — but popularity is a stated goal of the institution’s director, Arnold Lehman.
Lehman first saw the plus side of controversy with the 1999 show, “Sensation,” which garnered national attention — and more than 175,000 visitors — for displaying artwork that included the severed carcasses of barnyard animals and that famous Virgin.
Since “Sensation,” the museum has pursued the art of flipping the turnstiles, but left some fine art fans feeling let down.
“The ‘Star Wars’ exhibit felt like something you’d see at Planet Hollywood, not an art museum,” Miles Turner, a college student who lives in Park Slope, said while leaving the museum recently.
In addition to its more mainstream exhibits, the museum — home to one of the world’s best collections of ancient Egyptian art — has also worked to make itself seen as a hip destination through programming like First Saturdays, a monthly event that offers free entertainment and a cash bar.
“Popular shows are fine if they’re on a good topic like graffiti,” added Paul Richards, a Brooklyn Heights resident. “It’s only when you see things that are trying to be controversial that you wonder who put together this thing.”
The next news-making exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum is sure to be its commemoration of the five-year anniversary of 9-11.
The turnstiles are sure to spin, but will it be for art?
— additional reporting by Gersh Kuntzman
©2006 Community Newspaper Group
By submitting this comment, you agree to the following terms:
You agree that you, and not BrooklynPaper.com or its affiliates, are fully responsible for the content that you post. You agree not to post any abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous, hateful, threatening or sexually-oriented material or any material that may violate applicable law; doing so may lead to the removal of your post and to your being permanently banned from posting to the site. You grant to BrooklynPaper.com the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part world-wide and to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.