Brooklyn Museum’s Populism Hasn’t Lured Crowds
Brooklyn Museum’s Populism Hasn’t Lured CrowdsBy ROBIN POGREBIN - New York Times, 6/14/2010When it opened a new glass entrance in 2004 meant to beckon the masses, the Brooklyn Museum said it hoped to triple attendance in 10 years by concentrating on a local audience. It had stopped worrying about competing with Manhattan museums or about its image — despite its world-class collections — as a poor man’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Instead, the museum invited the neighborhood to view its McKim, Mead & White Beaux-Arts building as a community resource and openly celebrated popular culture with shows like its recent photographic history of rock ’n’ roll.
But six years in, the effort to build an audience is not working. Attendance in 2009 dropped 23 percent from the year before, to about 340,000, though other New York cultural institutions remained stable.
Almost a quarter of the attendees were people who came for First Saturdays, free nights at the museum that include music, dancing, food, cash bar, gallery talks and films.
“Although I think First Saturdays are a very effective community outreach, I question whether people come to them to see art, or to enjoy music and drinks,” said Michael de Havenon, who stepped down in 2006 after 22 years as a museum trustee.
The Brooklyn Museum has long faced criticism that its populist tack and exhibitions on topics like the “Star Wars” movies and hip-hop music have diminished its stature. And now the attendance figures raise questions about the effectiveness of those efforts to build an audience by becoming more accessible.
Attendance last year was just a smidgen above the 326,000 visitors who came to the museum in 2004.
“The core constituency of collectors who matter, and people who are members of an art museum, want to be taught and stretched and learn,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, a former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art who now runs the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “You may get people in the door for a motorcycle show or a ‘Star Wars’ show, but they don’t return, and there is no residual value from their visits.” (The motorcycle show was at the Guggenheim, in 1998.)
The director of the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman, 65, says his institution had not lowered the standard of its shows to attract crowds.
“We don’t start with the fact that it could draw a lot of people,” Mr. Lehman said. “We start with the idea that it’s a great exhibition.” But he acknowledges that building an audience since he took the helm in 1997 has been difficult. Attendance at one point decades ago topped one million; it had grown as high as 585,000 in 1998 before slumping again.
“It’s the one thing that frustrates me more than almost anything else,” Mr. Lehman said. “I’ve always felt, ‘Where are all the people who should be here?’ ”
Experts say many factors lure visitors to museums, including location and marketing, not just the quality of an institution’s collections or the nature of its exhibitions. And Brooklyn is far from the only museum that has suffered a sudden attendance drop or mounted a crowd-pleasing exhibition. The Museum of Modern Art’s show this year on the art of the director Tim Burton drew 811,000 visitors, its third-largest audience ever for an exhibition.
The Brooklyn Museum’s chairman, Norman M. Feinberg, expressed support for Mr. Lehman and said attendance typically fluctuated based on the popularity of exhibitions, jumping 55 percent, for example, in fiscal year 2000, the year of the controversial “Sensation” show. The attendance drop of 23 percent in 2009 came as attendance at 32 other cultural institutions monitored by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs lost an average of 1 percent, according to city statistics. Attendance grew at other major art museums like the Met, MoMA and the Guggenheim last year, though the Whitney Museum also showed a deep decline that it attributed partly to not mounting a biennial show that year.
Mr. Lehman says he takes pride in the fact that even though the Brooklyn Museum’s audience hasn’t grown, it has become younger and more diverse. A 2008 museum survey showed that roughly half of the attendees were first-time visitors. The average age was 35, a large portion of the visitors (40 percent) came from Brooklyn, and more than 40 percent identified themselves as people of color.
“Arnold doesn’t get enough credit for being a real pioneer in audience development,” said the city’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Kate D. Levin. She noted that at the museum’s annual gala, the Brooklyn Ball, in April, guests ran “the gamut from senior statesmen types to the freshly tattooed.”
Critical to those efforts, Mr. Lehman said, are inclusive, accessible programs. “I like people to think of it as their favorite park,” he said, “someplace they like to be.”
“Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present,” which closed Jan. 31, drew large crowds. And in 2009, the museum invited the public to help select works for a photography show by voting online.
This year, in another effort to stay relevant, it has entered into a partnership with Bravo on a new reality television show called “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” which had its premiere on Wednesday. The winning artist gets an exhibition at the museum and a cash prize.
The show was the last straw for Martin Baumrind, a trustee for 10 years who resigned this month because, he said, he had long opposed the museum’s direction. “What it has become is a party place and a center of celebrity — evidenced by the fact that they have partnered up with Bravo,” he said. “That is not what I signed up for.”
Certainly the museum’s beginnings were more traditional. Founded in 1823, it has widely acclaimed holdings in American painting, sculpture and decorative arts. Its African collection, Egyptian artifacts and pre-Columbian material, particularly its Andean textiles, are regarded as first-rate.
Critics, though, have suggested that some exhibitions, like the 2002 show of costumes and drawings from the “Star Wars” movies, hurt the museum by de-emphasizing the core strength of the collections.
“The quality of their exhibitions has lessened,” said Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale University School of Art and a Brooklynite. “ ‘Star Wars’ shows the worst kind of populism. I don’t think they really understand where they are. The middle of the art world is now in Brooklyn; it’s an increasingly sophisticated audience and always was one.”
Mr. Lehman said much of the criticism was unfair. He said the museum had arranged exhibitions on a number of less popular topics — including a 2004 show featuring 200 artists from Brooklyn — and that few critics of the “Star Wars” show had appreciated its context.
“To get to ‘Star Wars,’ you had to go through gallery space in which we used objects from the collection to talk about myth-making and the ideas behind so much of what ‘Star Wars’ was about,” he said.
To be sure, several recent shows have been positively received. “I saw the hip-hop show twice,” the art critic Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times last year, referring to the “Hip-Hop Nation” show in 2000. “It was packed. Being a greenhorn, I asked my fellow viewers questions — who’s this, what’s that — and learned a lot. It was a great museum experience.”
Currently, the museum has shows featuring the work of the contemporary artist Kiki Smith, fragments from its Egyptian collection, highlights from its well-respected costume collection now housed at the Metropolitan and a historical exhibition about women’s contribution to public health in Brooklyn.
Financially, the Brooklyn Museum — like many museums — has seen rough stretches of late. It reported a deficit of $3 million for the fiscal year ending in 2008 and saw its endowment drop to $65 million in 2009 from $93 million in 2008. (The museum said that the deficit was in large part because of losses in the stock market and that its endowment is back up to $85 million.)
Last year, the museum cut its staff by 20 through layoffs and buyouts and increased its suggested admission to $10 from $8. Those efforts, and $25 million in operating and capital support from the city, helped it report a $9 million surplus on its most recent tax return.
The museum loses money on First Saturdays and does not track whether the people who attend ever come back during regular hours. But there is no question First Saturdays have helped attendance, which the museum expects to increase by more than 15 percent this year.
“If that environment could be replicated,” Mr. Lehman said, “on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, then I could easily retire and say we’ve succeeded and people think of the museum as a place to be of significance in their lives, not necessarily to see an exhibition.”
In a sense, Mr. Lehman said, he is more concerned with the quality of the museum experience for the diverse audience he is now reaching, on transforming the museum from, as it said in its 2009 tax return, “a slumbering outer-borough giant into a dynamic innovator.”
“That has to become more important to me than the numbers,” Mr. Lehman said, “though I admit to you, I’d like to see 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 more people.”