It won’t be long before his last First Saturday.
The Brooklyn Museum’s longtime director, who courted controversy and changed the face of the institution by making sweeping changes including starting the hugely well-attended free First Saturday parties, announced this week that he will be stepping down in the middle of next year. Arnold Lehman, who just turned 70, took over stewardship of the borough’s biggest art collection in 1997. Looking back at his legacy, Lehman said it has been quite a ride.
“My 17 years to date at the helm of this remarkable institution have been challenging, exhilarating, and immensely rewarding,” he said in a statement.
Lehman started up the free First Saturday program in 1999. It is still running, but the legendary First Saturday dance parties that at times drew crowds as big as 20,000 got the kibosh in 2012.
Among the many projects Lehman oversaw were the $63 million redesign of the main entrance and plaza and a big shift in programming that helped increase visitor numbers and the museum’s endowment. Lehman lowered the average visitor age from more than 55 to 35, according to the museum. Chairwoman Elizabeth Sackler says the institution’s whole renaissance is thanks to him.
“As director, Arnold truly must be lauded for transforming the Brooklyn Museum — one of the oldest and largest museums in the country — into one of the most dynamic cultural institutions anywhere,” Sackler said in a statement.
Some of the programming under Lehman’s leadership stirred controversy, most notably the 1999 “Sensation” exhibition that included Chris Ofili’s work “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a mixed media painting that incorporates elephant dung to depict the biblical figure. At the time, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to evict the museum, prompting Lehman to take him to court on First Amendment grounds. The museum ultimately won.
“Arnold shall be forever acknowledged as a tenacious advocate for freedom of expression,” said the museum’s chairwoman Elizabeth Sackler.
Lehman-directed exhibitions that bucked museum convention and expanded the Brooklyn Museum’s audiences included “Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage” in 2000, and “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” in 2002.
Lehman also re–imagined the way the museum was managed, restructuring the curatorial department in 2006 to allow for more collaboration among scholars who formerly worked only within a specialized niche — a move observers questioned at the time.
And he has not slowed down. This year the museum hosted a major exhibition from dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
All his accomplishments aside, Lehman thinks the museum will get along just fine without him.
“I believe that the Brooklyn Museum is well-positioned to continue its successful trajectory, serving its diverse community and visitors as a visionary leader in the museum world,” he said.