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Brooklyn Museum Shakes Up Art World

BROOKLYN, NY – It took a naked female Jesus, a dung-decorated Virgin Mary and an incensed New York City mayor to catapult the Brooklyn Museum of Art into headlines. But the massive Beaux Arts edifice has been quietly making news for more than a century.

“THIS MUSEUM HAS always been considered world class,” says museum director Arnold Lehman. “But at the same time, it has always been rooted in this community,” a New York borough of 2.5 million people who speak about 100 languages.

Across the river from Manhattan, the Brooklyn institution sits in the shadow of the larger, wealthier Metropolitan, Guggenheim and Whitney museums. Manhattanites shouldn’t snicker — Brooklyn’s 1.5 million objects comprise the nation’s second-largest collection after the Met.

Since arriving from the Baltimore Museum, Lehman has moved the museum closer to the streets artistically.

“I’m very interested in what I see happening on the street,” said Lehman, 56, Brooklyn born with a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University.

Urban trends inspired a recent exhibit called “Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage,” featuring video clips of artists, music excerpts and graffiti of hip-hop, which has become an international craze.

Some critics looked askance at this populist art exhibit, “but it brought to the museum an entirely different audience, especially young people for whom this exhibition related to their day-to-day lives,” Lehman said.

With an annual budget of $25 million, Lehman has been trying to open his galleries’ doors to a wider audience, a trend among art institutions worldwide.

“But I think Lehman is probably more of a risk-taker in his programming,” said Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Last week, the focus was on Brooklyn’s latest show, “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers.”

Artist’s take on Last Supper draws fire media attention zoomed in on a 15-foot, five-panel photograph called “Yo Mama’s Last Supper.” The picture showed the photographer, Renee Cox, posing as the nude, black Jesus flanked by 12 men as the apostles. The image had been shown without incident in an Italian church as part of the 1999 Venice Biennale, and at a museum in Ridgefield, Conn.

But this is New York City and the world pays extra attention — especially when provocative art raises Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s moral hackles.

Giuliani, born Catholic in Brooklyn, called “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” anti-Catholic, and said he would establish a task force to set “decency standards” for city-sponsored museums.

It’s the second such controversy at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1999, the show “Sensation” featured a painting of the Virgin Mary embellished with elephant dung. In the culture of Nigerian-born artist Chris Ofili, elephant feces is used in tribal rituals.

That did not deter the mayor from freezing the museum’s annual $7.2 million public subsidy — about a third of its annual budget — then suing in state court to evict the museum. In a countersuit, the judge ruled that the city had violated the First Amendment and restored the funding.

The two incidents, while unpleasant, lifted the museum’s profile. And that’s Lehman’s goal, although, he says, he might prefer different means.

He acknowledges some works in the current photography exhibit might be “controversial and difficult for us as viewers.” But “throughout history, the artist’s responsibility has been to make us think,” he says.

The buzz around the art in Brooklyn has pushed up yearly attendance from about 250,000 visitors when Lehman took over to almost 475,000 last year.

Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, said that’s quite a switch from what was once “this great, secret place where you could go and be entirely alone. Now, it attracts attention, controversy, activity, parties. That’s good.”

Bruce Altshuler, director of museum studies at New York University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, remembered that until Lehman’s arrival, “the galleries were so beautiful, the collection was so strong. But there was nobody in the galleries! The best thing that could happen then was a shower in Prospect Park — to bring people running into the museum.”

No more. The massive, six-story building holds parties on the first Saturday night of each month. A recent Saturday found a silent film with a live piano player in a theater while a group that billed itself as a lesbian kletzmer band played just a walk away from a Viennese orchestra in white ties.

“We had thousands of people waltzing — kids dancing with kids, parents dancing with their children, couples dancing together, couples of all kinds, gay couples, black and white, young and old,” says Lehman. “And the galleries were filled with people who were looking for themselves. Everybody was here, young and old, and African-American and Caribbean-American and Arabs and Hasids and Latinos!”

While partying, they just might stroll past some of the world’s finest art. The Brooklyn Museum houses an Egyptian collection many experts consider superior to the Met’s, as well as America’s first collection of African objects displayed as art. Brooklyn also pioneered museum education for children at the end of the 19th century.

On any given day, yellow school buses are parked in front of the 560,000-square-foot structure designed by the renowned architectural firm McKim, Mead & White in 1893.

The holdings trace virtually the whole history of art, from the sculptures of Auguste Rodin, a vast American collection and Japanese woodblock prints to contemporary painting and sculpture, objects highlighting industrial design and an array of costumes and textiles. And the building springs alive with arts that mirror Brooklyn’s ethnic smorgasbord.

Opening March 2 is a new show called “A Family Album: Brooklyn Collects.” It will feature hundreds of artworks owned by more than 80 people famous and unknown with connections to Brooklyn, from paintings by John Singer Sargent to Coney Island kitsch.

“I think what’s so great about Brooklyn is that it has this draw over time on people’s intellectual and emotional energies,” said Lehman.

His artistic audacity also includes a $55 million renovation that will turn the museum’s austere, columned entrance into what Lehman calls “Brooklyn’s front stoop” — a civic plaza with a glass-and-steel lobby, reflecting pools and fountains.

The project brings the edifice full swing, to what its 19th century founding trustees said would be “the museum of the future.”

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