Flash Points

What Goes Down Must Come Up: Talking with Arnold Lehman of the Brooklyn Museum

"Having Fun at the Museum," Uploaded to Flickr by katie killary on April 6, 2009.

"Having Fun at the Museum," Uploaded to Flickr by katie killary on April 6, 2009. Background installation by Sun K. Kwak.

As the recession continues, reports of shrunken endowments, budget cuts, salary reductions, and layoffs pierce the headlines of museum news. The Brooklyn Museum is one of the most recent institutions to announce cutbacks in response to the weakened economy. Its plan includes a mandatory one-week furlough, a voluntary separation package, and the indefinite closure of an exhibition gallery. Reductions in staff and programming, of course, impact the lives of cultural workers. But they also effect the audiences and communities that museums serve. In the following interview with Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum since 1997, we discuss how an institution like Brooklyn upholds its mission in these economically trying times, as well as the difficulties that cultural institutions across the country now face.

Nicole J. Caruth: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you for this Flash Points topic is because the Brooklyn Museum’s mission is, in my mind, fundamentally concerned with economy in terms of the role it plays in a lack of access to art. I know that you are sincerely interested in reaching a diverse audience. So how do you maintain the museum’s mission when the institution is itself in a pinch?

Arnold Lehman: Well, it’s not a question of maintaining mission. It’s that you start with mission and everything has to flow from there. It can’t be one of several issues that you have to be concerned about. It is the issue. To develop strategies, they all have to come down to how they impact the mission and what the core values are. I think, actually, the Brooklyn Museum has been pretty good about that. One of the reasons why is because it’s not been all that long ago that we redid the mission. It’s not something that was developed 50, 100, or 150 years ago, where you have to sort of wiggle and squirm to make what you do pertain to mission. All of the strategic planning activities taking place at the museum over the past decade have gone to reinforce those issues. Our entire brand, as separate from mission, has been based on accessibility, diversity, inclusion, and seeking out new ways to explore art so that everyone feels welcome and smart about what they’re doing. Certainly, every time we have had these very serious conversations with the trustees and the staff, I always start, as does everyone else, saying, “Well, how does this relate to the mission?” Decisions have to be made on that basis. Clearly, [these decisions] are informed and impacted hugely by dollars and cents. You could look at those challenges either straightforwardly against your mission, or you could just apply those challenges and worry about mission later. That, I think, is disastrous.

NJC: What’s the process for making decisions about where to make cuts when you’re faced with such a deficit? Where does the conversation start?

AL: It starts always internally with senior management and the deputy directors. Then it broadens to all of the department heads and management who have to deal with the individual budgets and the operations of the institution; they’re sort of the cornerstone of this. It also begins very early on with the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees. The board is one of our major contributors and, in a real sense, the much more perpetual stewards of the mission because the Trustees are always here, as opposed to staff that come and go regardless of their longevity. Trusteeship is something that is long-term. All of those people working together—which is still a relatively small group, maybe a couple dozen altogether—have initial discussions, come to some suggested outcomes, and then play back and forth until it sounds good enough to explore with larger audiences. Then it goes to the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees. It goes to a somewhat larger group of museum folk and then we take in the full board and the staff and put forward what we think the right plan is going to be.

Now, the right plan is not always necessarily the right plan in every instance. Every detail needs to flexible so that it can be enlarged or reduced so people understand what their role in that plan is going to be. When we do a plan that somehow reduces the scope of what we do, but focuses still on the mission, you can’t do as much in terms of programming. You may not have as many people to do what you need to do and all of that has to be factored in. You could say, “We’ll do exactly what we did. We’ll make exactly the same commitment,” but if you don’t have the key people to make that happen, then you have to figure out either to reduce the program, change the mission, bring in more people, lay people off or, for instance, the voluntary separation or buyout situation we are in right now. We have to sit back once we get that input, assess what’s going to keep the museum vital, and then [continue to] make decisions based on that.

NJC: For people of my generation watching what’s happening in the arts as a result of the economy, I think it might be the worst we have every seen it. Is this the worst you’ve seen in terms of museum hardships?

AL: Well, it is interesting. There’s a much, much higher level of expectation from the public on the part of museums. When the general public was not into museums 20 years ago, except for big blockbuster exhibitions from time-to-time, it never was as affected by museums. [Parents] didn’t know if their kids were [still] in an afterschool program. There were no afterschool programs [at museums]. Senior centers didn’t send their people here to enrich the programming they could offer. Whether or not museums were active in communities, in terms of being engaged in the economic development of their communities, was a moot point because very few were. People didn’t do First Saturdays and have the spillover literally make or break the week for restaurants, bars, and shops on nearby commercial corners and strips. There’s come to be an expectation that the museum hosts these programs and the spillover of those programs is going to fill tables, chairs, and barstools. There just wasn’t that before. There’s a much more direct correlation that people can see and understand today, because of the much higher valued affect of cultural institutions in their communities.

Members of the Cultural Institutions Group, of which I am Chair, report that their attendance is way, way up during this very challenging period. In an economic downturn, people are looking for less expensive ways to enjoy themselves and to enrich their families. Our own First Saturday program, for which we were very happy to have 6,000 or 7,000 people coming through the museum, has in the last couple of months been up to 9,000, 10,000 and 11,000 visitors. There’s an alignment today that makes what cultural institutions do—not all of them, but the many who have a sense that they’re in a community and part of that community—have a much more significant role. Therefore their absence is much more deeply felt.

First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Amy Dreher (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dreher21)

First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Amy Dreher (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dreher21)

NJC: Do you have plans to cut educational programming in other areas since First Saturday is something you want to maintain?

AL: Well, a couple things: First Saturday is endowed. We may not have as much endowment income, but it’s there for keeps. We hope. Things are going to have to get much worse for us to end First Saturday or to postpone it.

It’s very hard to spare one element of what the museum does, because you have to say, “well that’s more important than this.” It’s kind of like a Rubik’s Cube; it’s all integrated and you can’t do exhibitions if you don’t have enough guards or art handlers. The nature of an institution like this is such that there are so many collaborative things happening that you couldn’t just say, “oh well, education is fine.” It might be fine, but the galleries might all be closed. You can’t do an exhibition program if you have galleries closed, because you don’t have enough guards. There might not be any new exhibitions for education to take adults and children to see. So, it’s very hard to say who is safe on a direct basis, as it is hard to say who is safe or not on an indirect basis. It’s a very fine balance, because even if we do fewer things, [we] want to do those things really well rather than doing a lot of things poorly.

NJC: The New York Times ArtsBeat blog has a short post about the recent cuts at the museum. In the comments area, a woman wrote in response to the institution’s decision to close the Schapiro wing: “Why not open the Schapiro space to the community? Why not move the museum in a new direction that would increase revenue by appealing to a wider audience?” I want to talk about that because I don’t think everyone realizes what goes into maintaining just a small corner of a museum, but I also want to know how you came to the decision to close this particular space.

AL: We’re only closing one floor of the Schapiro wing (the fourth floor) and the thinking was very logical. If we’re going to have reduced staff—if conceivably we’re going to have fewer guards, art handlers, fewer curators, designers, and painters—it’s very difficult to sustain a full exhibition schedule. The way to deal with that is not always to say to the staff members, “We’re glad you’re here but, it’s three times the amount of work. Not only as a guard are you going to cover the fifth floor, but you’re also going to have to guard the fourth floor. Not only as an art handler are you going to have to install everything on the fifth floor and other parts of the building, but the fourth floor is there for you to do as well.” It’s just not fair. We had to reduce the programmatic nature of what we do. I am the last proponent of doing this, but you can’t make sense out of anything if all you do is reduce staff and keep programs at the same level as you were doing it before. We need more staff to cope with the numbers of people who are coming to the museum. There’s unfortunately neither a way to open up [the space] for community-based programs nor is there a way for me to have [other programs] there that I’ve always wanted to do. I’d love to say that we’d like more engagement from the community, but I think we have to do it in a very structured and appropriate way so people feel that what they do is not haphazard and is valued.

NJC: I keep reading and hearing that this is the time for institutions to showcase their collections. But there can be huge costs involved with pulling objects out—you obviously don’t just dust them off and put them on the shelf. How are you thinking about the Brooklyn Museum’s collection now? Are there in fact plans to pull new things out?

AL: We are always doing that, but not so much as a direct response to the economic downturn, but more and more because I believe that there are wonderful things in our collection that the public would really like to see and could be excited about. I think that lots of the curators believe similarly. We just had a fabulous curatorial retreat over a two-day period, with curators and educators who came up with terrific new ideas about how to use the collection as a more stimulating and dynamic way of getting people to better understand the history of art. [This is] based on, in fact, what we did in American Identities, which completely overturned the way we were doing collections exhibitions here. I’ve always said, “Let’s use our own collections, but think about them as special exhibitions.” We would do a special exhibition, spend a ton of money, and our designers and everyone else would be going gaga over how to make it look fantastic. Then typically, we show permanent collection materials and we spend five minutes and five cents on it and wonder why the general public didn’t flock to see it. You have to change attitude.

We’ve just done this incredible exhibition of Egyptian art on the theme of “To Live Forever,” pulling a very substantial part of it from our storage collection. Someone coined the phrase “a new accession through conservation.” I mean, what Conservation did to this one sarcophagus was mind-boggling. It turned from something that we would never drag out of storage to this incredible object around which this whole exhibition is poised. We just opened the show on pagan and Coptic material. It’s all been in our collection…We haven’t done that many exhibitions on Tissot and the life of Christ. We’re doing a major show here [with objects in the collection] and then we’re going to circulate it. We do shows that are a little different, that other people generally don’t present, but this is going to make people really sit up and take a look at what the Old Testament is all about, or at least what Tissot’s representation of the Old Testament is all about. So there’s no question that it’s a good time to use the challenges of the economy to focus more on your permanent collections, but it’s always been a good time to do that. People just haven’t done it and right now maybe the circumstances will lead people to do that, which would be terrific.

NJC: I read your “Message from the Director” on the website and you ended on an up note, as if to say this is only temporary. You seem very optimistic.

AL: I don’t believe that everything that goes up must come down. I believe that everything that goes down must come up.

Nicole Caruth was the Brooklyn Museum’s Manager of Interpretive Materials from 2005-2008.