Dozens of opponents of Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards mega-development rallied outside the Brooklyn Museum’s gala last Thursday to protest the art institute’s decision to honor the controversial developer.
The protesters — some dressed in fanciful attire to mock the smartly clad gala attendees inside, others merely holding signs reading “Con Artist” — manned a police pen less than 50 yards from the glass-walled Museum entrance, where 1,000 people gathered for a dinner with Ratner and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.
“I heard about [the Ratner honor] a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe it,’’ said Clem Labine, 70, who was dressed in robber-baron style: a black bowler and black tie. “Ratner is a totally divisive character, and I had to protest this decision by the museum.”
Labine, who is not related to the late, great Brooklyn Dodger pitcher of the same name, held a sign reading, “Brooklyn Museum Sold Out Brooklyn’s Communities.”
Nearby, another man held a placard that read, “Dung Deal,” a cheeky reference to the Museum’s 1999 controversy over its “Sensation” exhibition, which featured a painting of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung.
Joining the protesters was Marilyn Gelber — a former city Department of Environmental Protection commissioner who worked with Ratner on the Metrotech office complex when she was chief of staff to former Borough President Howard Golden.
“As someone with a long history in government, there are things about this project that are upsetting,” said Gelber, who lives on Dean Street in Boerum Hill. “It did not undergo a proper public review. Maybe that sounds weird and wimpy, but major land-use changes and the use of public money means going through the city’s [land-use review process].”
Given Gelber’s connections and long support for the Museum, she could have been inside eating tuna martini, miso filet of beef and pineapple pillows for dessert rather than on the hustings, with the other Atlantic Yards foes.
“I’m a big supporter of the Museum and have enormous affection for [Executive Director] Arnold Lehman. I was invited to be inside, but I told Arnold that given my views of Atlantic Yards, I’d rather be outside.”
For his part, Ratner said he’d rather be inside, telling a Bloomberg News reporter that the protesters didn’t bother him.
“One of the terrific things about this city and country is that people are allowed to express their views, and I respect that,’’ he said. “Obviously, I don’t agree with them, and the Museum doesn’t agree with them.’’
Lehman added that Ratner was being honored for “his terrific patronage over a very long period of time.”
“We’re not involved in the politics that seems to be swirling around us,” Lehman added.
Opponents pounced on Lehman’s apparent surprise that politics were “swirling around” the Museum. Indeed, those politics are quite inside the institution.
One of its board members, Joanne Minieri, is the president and chief operating officer of Forest City Ratner. Another board member, Robert Rubin, is an investor in Ratner’s New Jersey Nets.
In addition, the team’s CEO, Brett Yormark; rapper Jay-Z, another Nets investor; and Barclays Capital (which paid Ratner $400 million to emblazon its name on the publicly built arena), were members of the committee that put together the April 3 gala.
And the Brooklyn Museum can hardly feign ignorance of the controversy. The Museum hosted the January, 2007 press conference to announce the $400-million deal with the slavery- and Apartheid-linked British banking behemoth — an announcement that, like the April 3 gala, drew protesters.
“Mr. Lehman, with all due respect, when you decided to honor and celebrate Bruce Ratner in the midst of an ongoing epic community fight, you’ve involved yourself in ‘the politics that seem to be swirling around’ you, [in fact] next door to you,” Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn said in a statement this week.
In addition to the symbolic fight, a number of protesters have asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether the Museum has violated its own conflict of interests policy — and, therefore comprised its non-profit status — by having board members who are so closely affiliated with the Nets.
Goldstein also continued to condemn the museum on a personal level.
“It’s just poor judgment to honor this developer who is in the midst of a huge fight in the community that surrounds the museum,” said Goldstein, whose Pacific Street home would be torn down to make way for the arena. “He’s taking away people’s homes. He’s taking away my home.”