Brooklyn Museum


Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 185 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned

I felt I should pick something from the permanent collection. Having seen several 1800s-era houses so far, I have been wishing there was a historic house museum from the 1920s.  I don’t think one exists, but this period room, the 1928-1930 Weil-Worgelt Study, done in glorious art deco, makes that feeling all the stronger.

Brooklyn Museum With Cherry TreesIf you aren’t a local, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Brooklyn Museum is all about Brooklyn.  There is a museum about Brooklyn, but this isn’t it.  The Brooklyn Museum is Brooklyn’s answer to the Metropolitan: huge beaux arts building covering the full sweep of art across times and places.  It traces its history back to 1824, making it one of the oldest cultural institutions in the city, and the current building was started a couple of years before the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs into Greater New York City, when New York and Brooklyn were cultural and to some extent economic rivals separated by a small river.

Of course the rivalry is still true of Manhattan and Brooklyn today, but when they were separate cities, having a comprehensive art museum in Brooklyn was a point of civic pride.

Here’s the thing.  The Brooklyn Museum can’t compete with the Met.  It doesn’t have the resources, it doesn’t have the brand, it doesn’t have the collection.  It’s strong in some things– fantastic Egyptian, great Asian, superb American art.  But the Met outclasses it mightily.  It used to try to compete, though.  And did pretty well of it, at least sometimes.  But starting a little over a decade ago, Brooklyn decided to change the game, move the goalposts.  It would be populist, accessible, earnest, and reach out to its community in a way that the Met, as a global museum that happens to be in New York, maybe can’t do as well.

This has been at best a mixed success. There’s a Columbia Marching Band fight song that mocks Brown students for lax academic standards–the lyrics say that they “take seminars in spider-man/and raisin bran/if it’s pass-fail they’ll take it.”  I think of that song when I think of the Brooklyn Museum — it’ll put on exhibits on anything.  If it thinks it’ll get a body through the door, it’ll do it.  The exhibit on “Star Wars” as art in 2002 –as “Attack of the Clones” was in theaters–permanently reduced its stature in my eyes. 

But rather than an exhaustive historical essay on the success or failure of specific populist shows, let’s look at what’s on now.  That won’t be directly relevant to your future decision of whether to visit or not, but it will help you understand what to expect.  From worst to best:

Iggy Pop: Life Drawings.  Some dude named Jeremy Deller had Iggy Pop pose nude for 4 hours in front of a bunch of amateurs.  Drawings from that…experiment…are on display along with some pieces Deller selected from Brooklyn’s collection that feature the nude male form.  The result is as horrible and sensationalist as I can imagine.  You get to see some bad (and, admittedly, a few quite good) drawings of naked Iggy Pop, and a seemingly random assortment of other naked guys.  It’s neither edifying nor entertaining, unless you like looking at sketchy renderings of a famous old guy’s junk.

Infinite Blue.  The exhibition space on the main floor is devoted to the color blue.  Things drawn from the Brooklyn’s collection that happen to be that color.  There’s nothing wrong with this idea, but the execution fails.  This is an opportunity to juxtapose objects to highlight how different cultures see the color and what it means to them.  Instead, pieces are segregated by origin, so that there’s a Hindu corner, an Egyptian vitrine, a Chinese porcelain cabinet, a European sector.  Put a 16th C. painting of Mary, with her ubiquitous blue mantle, right next to a blue-skinned Krishna:  blue representing purity versus blue symbolizing Krishna’s infinite power via the color of the sky and sea. That’d be thought-provoking.  Both those pieces are here, but a visitor has to walk a ways to see them.  Quite a few cultures and languages have blurred blue and green together.  Why is that?  This show won’t tell you.

Unknown artist, “Death Cart,” 1890-1910, Taos, New Mexico

But then there’s Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas, a small show drawn from the museum’s collection of Native American art, that’s  instructive, interesting, and a little macabre.  An exhibit after my own heart.

Marilyn Minter's "Food Porn" at Brooklyn Museum
Marilyn Minter, “100 Food Porn,” 1989-1990, enamel on metal

And a great Marilyn Minter retrospective.  I sort of knew her but not well.  Some of her work is over the top for my tastes, but I hadn’t ever seen her “food porn” series from 1990 (as opposed to her just-plain-porn series) and I found it delicious.

Georgia O'Keeffe Show at Brooklyn MuseumThe biggest show on currently is Georgia O’Keeffe: A Living Modern, portraying her more as icon than as artist.  It blends some of her paintings with clothes from throughout her life, and photographs of her taken by everyone from Alfred Steiglitz to Cecil Beaton to Karsh to Richard Avedon.  It’s fascinating to see how so many different photographers viewed one individual, and how easy it is to tell those with whom O’Keeffe clicked, and those with whom she didn’t.  It’s also fascinating to see how carefully she controlled her own image from the start of her career.  By her later years, you don’t even need to see her head.  Gnarled hands holding an animal’s skull against a black, belted dress lit by harsh desert light communicate exactly whom you are looking at.  This is the Brooklyn Museum doing something different, fresh, unexpected, and doing it well.

And then there’s the permanent collection.  If you’re an Egypt fan, you have to go just for those galleries alone.  Asia was being reinstalled when I visited. 

Brooklyn’s Egyptian Collection, all to myself on a Friday afternoon

The Brooklyn has its share of masterpieces, but opted to use the collection differently, as a lens on history and sociology.  Who created art and who wanted art and what it expressed about society at the time.  The Brooklyn is quite good in that respect, and it gives them a chance to leverage objects that don’t necessarily qualify as top hits.  But sometimes you just want to see a great piece of art, and those aren’t always readily on display.

Chauncy Bradley Ives, “Pandora,” 1871

In most other American cities, the Brooklyn Museum would be the must-visit art museum. The Brooklyn has tried earnestly to attract new audiences, which I respect.  And it has tried to differentiate in a city that, as my statistics show, is overcrowded with art museums. I respect that too.  But in my opinion, it errs in its willingness to entertain at the expense of edifying. 

And its efforts have alienated at least some of its core audience –i.e., me.  Prior to this visit, I hadn’t gone since a Takashi Murakami show in 2008.  It hasn’t done anything to make me want to go.  Should you go? Yes.  But go knowing that some of the Brooklyn Museum’s efforts at being edgy, innovative, or populist are terrible, and therefore it isn’t as good as it could or should be.

Brooklyn Museum, Interior Court

For Reference:

Address 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn
Cost General Admission:  $16 suggested donation.  Special exhibitions $20 mandatory (includes museum admission)
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