Anne Pasternak: The Brooklyn Museum’s Clear Choice

Pasternak FeatureBy Ellen Gilbert 

The first things you see when you visit the Brooklyn Museum’s current website are a stylized image of the late Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s face and, immediately below it, a larger, looking-you-in-the eye headshot of arts advocate Anne Pasternak, who is about to assume the museum’s directorship.

Basquiat, who died in 1988 at the age of 28, is currently the subject of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, what the Museum is calling “the first major exhibition” of some of “the numerous notebooks with poetry fragments, wordplay, sketches, and personal observations ranging from street life and popular culture to themes of race, class, and world history.” Although it is specific to Basquiat, this is probably an apt description for the nature of the work ahead for Pasternak, who is 50.

Now housed in a five-story McKim, Mead & White building dating back to 1893, the roots of this venerable institution can be traced even further back to 1823, when the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library to educate young tradesmen was founded.  (Walt Whitman would later become a librarian there.) Today it includes a collection of more than a million works and a full-time staff of 308, including 20 curators and departments from ancient Egyptian to contemporary and feminist art.

Although she is the first woman to head one of the city’s two “encyclopedic art museums” (the other is the Metropolitan Museum of Art), Pasternak already has female counterparts in high places, including Caroline Baumann at the Cooper Hewitt, Holly Block at the Bronx Museum, Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Claudia Gould at the Jewish Museum, Jessica Morgan at Dia Art Foundation, Lisa Phillips at the New Museum, Laura Raicovich (also formerly of Creative Time) at the Queens Museum, and Miwako Tezuka at the Japan Society Gallery.

Pasternak clearly impressed the right people.  A recent letter announcing her appointment (her formal title is “Shelby White and Leon Levy Director”) said that  “Anne is the clear choice to lead the Brooklyn Museum at a pivotal moment for the institution, and in art history. . . . she believes in the limitless power of art to move, motivate, and inspire, and few cultural leaders have succeeded in reaching such huge audiences.”

Crowd Pleaser

Many share the trustees’ belief that Pasternak proved her mettle during her 21-year stint at Creative Time, a New York-based non-profit organization that commissions and presents public art projects. Under her watch, the Creative Time staff grew from one full-time employee (Pasternak) to a team of 25.  Projects highlighting her tenure included Tribute in Light,” which has appeared annually next to the site of the World Trade Center since 2002, and the presentation last year of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (described as “jaw-dropping”) at the former Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.

“To say that the sky’s the limit for Anne Pasternak. . .  is more than a platitude,” observed The New Yorker’s Andrea K. Scott. “In early 2001, she arranged for a skywriter to fly over Manhattan and draw vapor-trail ‘clouds,’ four times a day for a week, on behalf of the Brazilian crowd-pleaser Vik Muniz.”

“Pasternak brings a world of active experience working closely with artists and helping them make their most ambitious ideas happen,” enthused Vogue Magazine after her appointment.  Pasternak returns the compliment.  “I’ve never been interested in another job, but I’ve long loved the Brooklyn Museum and thought if there was ever a museum that would potentially be a great fit—because of its commitment to artistic freedom and civic-ness and inclusion and equity—this would be the right place,” she said.

As cocksure as that may sound, Pasternak clearly understands the complexity of her assignment.  “They didn’t have to persuade me to come in, but I did have trepidation,” she told another interviewer. “It would be disingenuous to say that the shift in scale isn’t enormous. And the museum’s space, in terms of capital improvements and design improvements, is like a Rubik’s cube that’s very complicated to solve.”

Exterior of the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum photograph by JongHeon Martin Kim

There are other balancing acts ahead.  Brooklyn is not Manhattan, but then Manhattan is no longer the last word in the art scene. The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has just announced a $25 million building project to link three of its existing spaces, in addition to creating permanent visual art galleries and providing new patron amenities. A new St. Ann’s Warehouse (theatre) is being built in the “Dumbo” neighborhood, and the presence of Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters is probably a boon. A re-envisioning of the Brooklyn Heights waterfront—replete with high-end condos–may also bring more museumgoers.

“Brooklyn is the place to be now,” enthused one art lover. In a New York Times article, journalist/New York City fixture Michael Musto observed as how Manhattanites are becoming the new “bridge and tunnel crowd” – a fairly condescending label that used to be applied to the presumably uncultured masses traveling from the boroughs into “the City.”

“The world around Brooklyn is changing so rapidly, you’ve got to react to it,” recently observed BAM Chairman Alan H. Fishman

Rodin and Reebok

Another juggling act for Pasternak will have to do with finding the right balance between showcasing museum’s distinguished older collections with exhibits that have more popular appeal.  Right now visitors are greeted by twelve bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin that have been moved into the Rubin Entrance Pavilion because of other installations in their usual home, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery.  This particular presentation from the Brooklyn Museum’s large holdings by Rodin includes The Age of Bronze, a signature conception from the early years of the sculptor’s career, as well as other works from his most significant commissions, including The Burghers of Calais, The Gates of Hell, and the Monument to Balzac. In stark contrast to all this grandeur and solemnity is The Rise of Sneaker Culture, a recently installed exhibit in the Museum’s fifth-floor Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing.  A review of the show, which curators describe as tracing “the evolution of the sneaker from its beginnings to its current role as status symbol and urban icon,” complained that “with footwear displayed in sleek vitrines, the installation looks as if it were sponsored by a major sneaker company.”

Still, observers are making sure to acknowledge the achievements of Pasternak’s predecessor at the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman.  The announcement of her appointment notes his “trailblazing 18-year tenure,” and Pasternak herself has noted, “there are extraordinary opportunities to build on the work that Arnold [Lehman] and the museum have done in terms of creating a truly civic institution.”

Generally speaking, Pasternak observes, “the museum has done an excellent job reaching into the borough’s vast wealth of different cultures, and the audience is probably among the most diverse, if not the most diverse, in the city.”

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Making the Selection

The search for Lehman’s replacement was watched with considerable interest by art world observers.  WNYC, the local NPR station, went so far as to conduct a multi-day series inviting listeners to weigh in on “The Hunt for the Next Hot Museum Boss.”  A segment on “Museum as White Spaces” took Michelle Obama’s comments at the recent Whitney Museum opening as a taking-off point.

“You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood,” the First Lady said. Reporting that, according to the American Association of Museums just 9 percent of core museum visitors are minorities, the program asked why many museums seem off-limits to people of color.”  Queens City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, who chairs the Cultural Affairs Committee, seemed to be addressing at least some of these concerns in a later edition when he noted that “there is something very powerful and very special about black children coming to this museum and seeing images on the wall of people who look like them, knowing that they are worthy and important of such great works of art, and that is something we haven’t always done well, but this museum gets it.”

When the series concluded on May 19 with the ultimate announcement of Pasternak’s appointment, WNYC’s art critic Deborah Solomon declared that even though Pasternak doesn’t have museum experience, she was the best choice . “She has always stood up for artists,” Solomon said.

There is no word yet on Pasternak’s reaction to comedian and filmmaker Negin Farsad’s  earlier suggestion that the new director should be “the love child of Bjork and Seinfeld.”

The Brooklyn Museum is located at 200 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn (telephone 718-638-5000).  Food is available in the museum restaurant, Saul, and at The Counter café. Nearby attractions include the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Public Library, Prospect Park, the Prospect Park Zoo, and the Brooklyn’s Children’s Museum.

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