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Work of Art: Brooklyn Museum in the Crosshairs

At stake for the winner, a solo show at the world famous Brooklyn Museum and $100,000…

The week between the airing of the first and second episode of Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist was a tough one for the Brooklyn Museum. Critical backlash against the century-old institution was to be expected – you don’t pimp out your exhibition space to reality TV without getting some shit – but the news from the New York Times kicked the museum right in the pocket. Despite recent efforts at "populism" (which is basically a way of saying "dumbing down" while smugly assuming the dummies won’t know what you’re talking about), attendance in 2009 "dropped 23 percent from the year before, to about 340,000, though other New York cultural institutions remained stable."

Like many other museums (here’s looking at you, MFAH), the Brooklyn Museum has sought a younger audience, hosting nighttime events with music, food, dancing and booze. It also opened its doors in recent years to shows inspired by Star Wars and rock ‘n’ roll. The logic here is that you get the folks in the door for the fun stuff and then, oh, hey, look at that Rembrandt over there, we should come back next month to check that out, and we might as well become members…is that a gift shop?

But what happens when you lower your standards and no one comes anyway?

According to the Times, the Brooklyn Museum’s participation in Work of Art "was the last straw for Martin Baumrind, a trustee for 10 years who resigned this month because, he said, he had long opposed the museum’s direction. ‘What it has become is a party place and a center of celebrity – evidenced by the fact that they have partnered up with Bravo," he said. "That is not what I signed up for.’ "

All of which prompted Artinfo to ask, "Is it time for Arnold Lehman to step down from his directorship of the Brooklyn Museum?"

That’s a larger question than I care to answer here. (Oh what the hell: He should not resign.) But I think the museum’s role in Work of Art is not the same as hosting a exhibition about Star Wars, or football, or whatever. My parents went to the Cooperstown exhibition at the MFAH a few years ago, and they never went back. Thousands of scenesters danced at the Starbucks Mixed Media Music Series, and thousands probably never went back. But what the Brooklyn Museum is getting from its partnership with Bravo is a different kind of exposure. The winner’s solo exhibition will not break attendance records. But the name of the Brooklyn Museum will be stamped into the hippocampuses of people who are at least marginally interested in contemporary art, and some of those people are going to visit the borough eventually.

Does that mean the Brooklyn Museum isn’t selling out? Nope. But at least the folks who do come will be there to look at art.


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