June 22, 2006
The New York Times
By Randy Kennedy
The Brooklyn Museum, which built a sleek new glass entrance two years ago and is trying to reinvent itself after years of declining attendance, is planning a shakeup of its staff that has angered several curators and drawn criticism from other museums.
Beginning next month, the museum will do away with traditional departments like Egyptian art, African art and European painting and instead create two "teams," one for collections and one for exhibitions. Arnold L. Lehman, the museum's director, said in an interview that the changes were intended to make the museum's relatively small curatorial staff more efficient and to encourage curators to exchange ideas more freely.
"We're not blessed with a huge staff," Mr. Lehman said. "We're not blessed with a huge amount of money. But we are blessed with a huge collection, and using that we should be able to tell ˜ I don't want to say a truer story ˜ but to show that there are many stories."
But some curators see the changes as a way of diminishing their traditional power to conceive, propose and organize exhibitions. As the museum tries to make itself into a more popular gathering place and entertainment site, some curators are also worried that the changes will result in more shows like "Star Wars," a 2002 exhibition of costumes and drawings from the movies, or "Hip-Hop Nation" in 2000, both of which drew sizable crowds but were derided by critics as little more than groupings of memorabilia.
Those shows were part of a long-term effort to triple the museum's attendance over the next decade by concentrating almost exclusively on the 2.5 million residents of Brooklyn.
The changes have been welcomed by many on the museum's board and have improved the museum's fortunes along with those of its borough. But some critics have complained that the museum is taking the theme of accessibility so far that it is undermining its strengths as a place respected for its scholarship.
The reorganization comes as two of the museum's most experienced curators ˜ Amy G. Poster, chairwoman of the department of Asian art, and Richard A. Fazzini, chairman of the department of Egyptian, Classical and Ancient Middle Eastern Art ˜ are retiring. Ms. Poster did not return a telephone call seeking comment, and Mr. Fazzini, reached at the museum yesterday, declined to comment about his reasons for retiring.
Mr. Lehman said that their retirements had nothing to do with the curatorial changes, but others in the museum say that some senior curators are being encouraged to retire. The departures have prompted some curators at other museums to worry that the Brooklyn Museum, which has a huge and world-renowned collection, including one of the country's best holdings in Egyptian art, is turning away from its traditional mission as an encyclopedic museum.
Larry J. Feinberg, curator of European painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, said he was concerned about the loss of experienced curators. "You lose institutional memory," he said. "And perhaps even worse, you lose those longtime connections that the curators have made with the community."
"A director might buy himself slightly better efficiency," Mr. Feinberg added of the reorganization, "but the downside is the risk of tremendous upheaval, displacement, loss of collectors and donors and quality staff in doing this."
He cited the sweeping changes made by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in the late 1980's, when eight senior curators were fired and many traditional departments were abolished as part of a plan to make the museum more accessible and popular. Many of those changes were later abandoned.
Mr. Lehman began exploring curatorial changes and discussing them with the staff last fall with the help of Charles Desmarais, who was hired as the museum's deputy director for art in 2004.
According to a final draft of the reorganization plan, the goal is partly to produce more exhibitions and to make the museum "a more effective communicator than is encouraged by the current ad hoc system" for developing shows. Under the old system, it says, exhibitions are planned on "a project-by-project basis by multitasking curators who typically produce only one exhibition every few years."
But the draft also suggests that ideas for future exhibitions might not come from curators but from staff members like museum educators or exhibition designers ˜ "rather than the other way around, as is traditionally the case."
In a series of examples of how the new system would work, the plan encourages curators to be more flexible about accepting ideas that arrive in unorthodox ways. In one hypothetical example, it describes Mr. Lehman's attending a dinner in Newark and meeting a collector who has assembled a collection of 12th-century maps by African explorers of the coastline of what is now Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.
"Determining that an exhibition of such material would make an excellent contribution to the balance of the program and work well into the schedule," the draft states, "the Exhibitions Division develops the idea into an exhibition plan, asking the museum's curator of African art to serve as the curator of the exhibition."
Mr. Lehman said that because the museum's curatorial staff is so small ˜ 18 people in all, not including secretaries and assistants ˜ the old system of departments makes little sense at the Brooklyn.
Some departments are now made up of only two people, he said. By combining the departments so that curators can focus mostly on shows or on acquisitions, he said, they will communicate better. For the plan to succeed, the exhibitions and collections teams must work together creatively ˜ a goal the plan refers to as "porosity."
Most museums with collections as large and diverse as the Brooklyn's continue to use departmental systems in which curators with specialized knowledge have great latitude to originate and develop shows and direct acquisitions while still answering to the museum's director and top officials.
George R. Goldner, chairman of the department of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said he believed that such a system was valuable for many reasons in an encyclopedic museum. He sharply criticized the Brooklyn Museum's plan, saying he feared it would result in more shows being about "razzmatazz" instead of art.
"The kind of work we do calls for specialization, and when people intermingle these things it shows a lack of respect for the curatorial role," he said.
He added, "Do you want to go to a hospital that merges the cardiology department with ears, nose and throat? I wouldn't."
Mr. Lehman defended the plan and said he was somewhat surprised at the criticism it has drawn because he believes that under the reorganization most curators will continue to do "99 percent of the jobs that they've already been doing."
"I actually see this as a very straightforward administrative redesign of the museum," he said. "I don't see this as a huge change, to be honest with you."
Mr. Lehman added that if it were his goal to reduce curatorial power and centralize more of it in the museum's top administration, he would not have gone about it the way he has. "If I was afraid of curators," he asked, "would I want them all to get together?"