The long-time Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman said in an interview last month that he would advise his successor to “figure out how to get by on under four hours of sleep”. Anne Pasternak, who yesterday was appointed to lead the museum, is already on the case. “I woke up at three o’clock in the morning,” the president of the public art non-profit Creative Time said in an interview. “My mind is going a mile a minute.”
Pasternak joins the Brooklyn Museum at a critical moment. Although she has never held a full-time museum job, she must carry out a capital campaign to build the endowment and complete renovations of aging gallery spaces. The projects were initiated under Lehman, but their timing and scale remain unclear. (The details are murky even for Pasternak herself, who has had to go to great lengths to keep the appointment under wraps: “I’ve had to even avoid going to visit the museum recently so I wasn’t spotted,” she says.)
Now that the news is out of the bag, the New York native—who, as of 1 September, will become the first female director of one of the city’s encyclopaedic museums—offers a few hints about her plans.
You have said that your approach at Creative Time was to look for gaps and spotlight art that wasn’t getting enough support. Will you apply that philosophy to the Brooklyn Museum?
I don’t know if it’s about gaps in this case. I want to focus on what is historically important and relevant to this particular moment. Are we giving artists opportunities to grow and experiment and push their practice? We have a lot of museums in New York City that are phenomenal at putting artist retrospectives together—Maurizio Cattelan or On Kawara at the Guggenheim, Jeff Koons at the Whitney, Ai Weiwei at the Brooklyn Museum. But I’d also like to see us expand what the museum has been committed to and continue some of the work that I’ve done at Creative Time: site-specific installations for the museum that give artists an opportunity to stretch themselves and connect to our communities. I’m also trained as an art historian, so I am very excited about the opportunity to work with the collection. When I lose faith in humankind, I go to the Brooklyn Museum or the Metropolitan Museum and I look at the Renaissance collections. That’s where I find solace.
The Brooklyn Museum’s collections have not always been presented with the coherence they deserve. How do you give collections like Egyptian art and Native American art their due while making them feel relevant to today’s audiences? Do you need to dedicate more space to the permanent collection?
One of the things that may not be obvious to people is this building is 150 years old. When Arnold Lehman took over, galleries didn’t have proper heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Some still don’t. Not all the museum spaces are open and some have yet to be renovated. Rolling out updates for these galleries without closing down large parts of the building is like a Rubik’s cube. It’s important that we are able to open up more gallery space and expand the opportunities for the permanent collection to be seen with greater air and life and vitality. There are not only significant Egyptian and Native American collections but also Oceanic, Middle Eastern and American collections. They need to be seen, rotated more frequently, and perhaps we could create some temporary spaces to rotate the permanent collection.
What spaces are you considering?
A lot of this I still need to learn—I haven’t even done a facilities tour because we’ve had to keep this so quiet. I know there is a library on the front end of the second floor. The question is, who uses it? I’m not sure how all the mezzanines are being used. There is a lot of space to examine.
As someone who has not spent her career inside a museum, are there elements of the institution or the bureaucracy that you find mystifying?
The ones we were just talking about. There are going to be lots of issues around working with unions and how much money the institution has to move capital campaigns along, repainting galleries, moving art in and out of storage. Those issues are actually the most complex and mystifying to me. But while I have not ever worked as a director or curator of a museum, I’ve collaborated with major institutions and governmental and community organisations, so working within bureaucracies is not unfamiliar.
How do you plan to balance spectacle and scholarship—or, as I call it, candy and vegetables?
I think that the job of any cultural presenter who cares that art connects deeply with people is to draw them into the project and, once you’ve got them, engage them in a deeper level of understanding. A lot of people came to Kara Walker’s exhibition at the Domino Sugar Factory to see the space or the 50-foot-tall sphinx made of sugar. There was an element of spectacle to it. But for people who wanted to dive in more deeply, we had 200 volunteers on site trained to talk about the project and we commissioned writers to write about how the history of the sugar trade informed their own personal lives. We took on the history as well as the urgency of those issues in contemporary life. So I don’t see it as candy or vegetables—I see it as both.
Do you apply that same way of thinking to the permanent collection?
Take the exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series at MoMA. That is a fantastic model. That show took years of bringing experts, institutions, artists and historians into conversation to imagine how the museum could talk about Jacob Lawrence’s body of work in relation to the Great Migration. Tate Modern has also done a good job of engaging its audiences in a larger social understanding. People should be able to walk into a gallery about, for example, the Westward expansion and find out why it is important and how it has been examined in art and culture.
Institutions across the US are finally beginning to recognise that in order to survive, they need to cultivate a more diverse audience. But when asked how, we often hear the same answer: present art that allows people to see themselves on the wall. Are there more ways to grow an audience?
You have to know the communities that you want to engage with, you have to meet them, hear about their histories and needs and dreams. Then you have to invite them to join you. An invitation goes very far—you have to create a welcoming environment. As [Studio Museum director] Thelma Golden says, welcome is a philosophy. How are we greeting people? Are there places to sit? If we are trying to attract Spanish-speaking audiences, are we occasionally using words in Spanish to say, “We recognise you are here and we’re glad you are”? Are we doing social media and press that they feel connected to? Are we following up to say, “We value your participation and here is what is coming up next”? It’s not enough just to have an artist who is from the same part of the world or the same cultural background.
At Creative Time, there’s quite an integrated staff, with few barriers between departments. The Brooklyn Museum has a similar structure, with no traditional curatorial departments but one team dedicated to temporary exhibitions and another to collection shows. Do you think that structure makes sense for a museum?
I can’t speak to that specifically because I haven’t started yet. But I will say that it is important to invest in one’s curatorial team, so that people can travel and see work around the world and meet with artists. I want to invest in the curators’ reach and exposure. I want to focus on working closely with the curatorial teams to make sure the work that the museum is supporting is relevant and connected to our audiences. Museums are a place for learning not just through art, but through conversation as well.