The job for Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is quite simple: turn around a slumbering institution in a New York borough long overshadowed by the tourist dollars and attractions of Manhattan.
The facts, too, are relatively clear. Brooklyn, with its more than 1.5 million objects, is, after the Metropolitan Museum, the largest museum in the US. Its holdings range from a highly rated Egyptian collection to noted American painting and sculpture, to vintage fashion and period rooms. Its building was planned to be the largest in the world, surpassing even the Louvre.
General Lafayette laid the cornerstone. Walt Whitman laboured in its library, and there is a bevvy of historical firsts. Brooklyn was the first art museum in North America to launch a photography department, the first to display African artifacts as art, the first to create nineteenth-century period rooms.
When Dr Lehman decided to leave the Baltimore Museum, with its magnificent Cone collection and rich holdings of Matisse, he said, “I’m only leaving because I have been offered one of the most challenging—if not the most challenging—leadership opportunities in the American museum field. The Brooklyn Museum of Art, with its world renowned collections and distinguished staff, was the museum of my childhood.”
The challenge is this: fifty years ago, the institution boasted 1 million visitors annually, but by last year, attendance had shrunk to 250,000.
Arnold Lehman, fifty-four, has an excellent track record in his eighteen-year tenure as director of the Baltimore. The endowment soared from $1.5 million to $48.5 million while museum membership tripled and square footage doubled. Special exhibitions included the highly rated “A grand design: the art of the Victoria and Albert Museum,” on which he worked for a decade.
Dr Lehman does not regard the museum itself, nor its location, a problem. “It’s a question of communication,” he says. “Brooklyn is becoming more robust, a magnet for people priced out of Manhattan.” He points to the enormous amount of residential construction in Brooklyn. Entire neighbourhoods, with block after block of nineteenth-century brownstones, are being done up.
His board is packed with high profile people such as Iris Cantor, art collector; Susan Soros, founder of the Bard Graduate Center; Christopher Forbes, vice-chairman of Forbes Magazine; and Brooklyn residents Constance Roosevelt and Paul Bernbach.
What was the vast McKim, Mead and White museum like when he first arrived just twelve months ago? Dr Lehman cites inadequate funding, a minuscule advertising budget, no professional on the staff to handle group tours and no one for community relations. The mere concept of marketing was alien. “We are located in the most competitive cultural marketplace in the world,” he says. His competitors among museums are world-class institutions, with the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art boasting 5.5 million visitors annually.
So now, one year later, how does Dr Lehman’s score-card read? He has already enjoyed the advantages of the predictably popular “Monet and the Mediterranean” last autumn, which drew 255,000 visitors. “We had to rethink everything from signage to valet parking to expanding the shop six-fold,” he recalls.
And his strategy?
“Bringing in exhibitions with promotion recognition to a broad audience, then creating multi-cultural exhibits, mini blockbusters,” he replies. “We’re looking for major exhibitions from outside.”
So while the Metropolitan Museum of Art touted its show of Tiffany’s dazzling decorative arts and the Whitney hosted Andrew Wyeth, the Brooklyn Museum is making itself felt on Manhattan and at home. Directly opposite the Whitney and strategically placed throughout Manhattan were posters advertising Brooklyn’s summer exhibition “Masters of colour and light: Homer, Sargent and the American watercolour movement”. Posters were stuck on more than 200 telephone boxes.
That particular marketing effort included ads on the PATH and Metro North trains as well as in Playbill, all supported by the insurance giant AETNA. In the New York Times, large ads for the Homer/Sargent as well as the Romanov show were right up front with the national news.
Further marketing efforts have appeared in unusual spots. This March, Henri Bendel, a classy women’s clothing store on Fifth Avenue, showed vintage fashion illustrators from the Brooklyn Museum, and in honour of the museum’s 175th anniversary, donated a percentage of their sales to the museum library. And, yes, Bendel took massive advertising in The Times heralding the event.
But it is in Dr Lehman’s handling of exhibitions that he displays his innovative leadership. The “Jewels of the Romanovs: treasures of the Russian Imperial court” was a classic example.
Brooklyn has a burgeoning Russian community of more than 350,000, whom Dr Lehman sees as prime candidates to become members. To reach them, he set up community meetings with Russian leaders, took out advertising in the Russian-language press, put up museum signage in Russian and posters in phone booths within the Russian community.
No detail was overlooked. The brochure was in Russian; there was a Russian Acoustiguide and even the shop was staffed in part with Russian-speaking sales persons. Of the large percentage of museum guards who happen to be Russian, each sported the button: “Ask me. I speak Russian” in Cyrillic.
Dr Lehman intends this programming to send the message, “We are accessible.” The forthcoming show “Death of Jim Crow: works by Kerry James Marshall” (11 September-29 November) will get noticed by the African-American community, he predicts.
Community is a key word for Dr Lehman. He is planning a team of community interns to work directly within the many ethnic communities, to attend community meetings, youth gatherings and women’s organisations.
He is already planning the expansion of the docent programme to include working professionals and he also takes lessons from retail: “We will train people to be greeters, and they will be scattered throughout the building.”
As for the museum’s location thirty-minutes on the subway from midtown Manhattan—a distance many Manhattanites pretend to consider farther than Europe—he rebuts, “We’re only a token away. In fact, BMA is the only fine arts institution in the entire city with its own named subway stop.”
In any case, Dr Lehman is looking beyond Brooklyn and Manhattan to Queens, Nassau and Suffolk Counties. To reach them, the Brooklyn museum now advertises in Newsday which serves those communities, with the result that Long Island visitors have increased from 2-4% to 12-15% of attendance totals. Other innovations this autumn include extension of the Saturday evening programme to 11 p.m. once a month. Music, dancing, and popular films are planned, “until it becomes the place for people to come,” says Dr Lehman.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'First target your audience'