"C reativity, questioning, courage, moxie, a sense of humour about ourselves.” Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, is reeling off Brooklyn’s characteristics. Her proposition on the borough’s nature is inherently unprovable. As a mission statement for a museum, however, it is compelling: “What if the things we think of Brooklyn as, along with the real diversity of Brooklyn, were our strengths?”
Brooklyn has today become a brand, as open to profit as to ridicule, but it is far more than its retail and property hubs. With 2.65 million residents, it would be the fourth-largest US city, and it is frenetically diverse: one in two Brooklynites speak a first language other than English. The Brooklyn Museum, located on the northeastern side of Prospect Park, is a venerable institution, founded in 1895 while Brooklyn was still independent, intended at the time to be the country’s largest museum. These days it is New York City’s second by collection size and roughly tied for second in floor space with the Museum of Modern Art, in both cases well behind The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This makes it refreshingly pleasant to visit – a major encyclopedic museum that never feels crowded. But of course, that is not enough. For all the efforts of her predecessor, Arnold L Lehman, a tireless Brooklyn booster who led the institution 17 years until he retired in 2015, Pasternak inherited an institution short of steam. Budget issues impeded programming and investment. At issue was not just keeping up, but consolidating an identity and driving cultural change.
“The opportunity is to think about how we’re additive, doing things that are different, maybe very different, from what the museums in Manhattan are known to do,” Pasternak says. “Our audiences are extremely diverse; they’re very young for a major art museum. We’re trying to connect stories and characters of the past to the present-day conversation. We’re telling more diverse and inclusive histories.”
By standard metrics, Pasternak has achieved a lot in three-and-a-half years. Admissions are about 650,000 per year, up roughly half since she arrived. Membership has doubled. Education programmes have grown aggressively. Revenue has improved, even though the museum is the last in New York with a pay-what-you-wish policy (suggested adult admission is $16). This is just a start. The progress needs consolidating, and Pasternak wants one million annual visitors within the next two or three years.
The calendar, long hampered by budget constraints that forced shows to go up on short notice, is lengthening. Very soon, Pasternak says, the museum will be able to announce two years’ worth of major programming – a luxury it has not recently enjoyed. “That will be a ‘Hallelujah’ moment,” Pasternak says.
But Pasternak’s strongest imprint is arguably the museum’s intellectually assertive exhibition programmes under her leadership. We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, in 2017, was a path-breaking survey of art, art-making, and political and community practice by black women in a crucial time when racial progress, though significant, favoured men, and feminism, while ascendant, centred white women. At once rigorous and exciting, it has since travelled to Buffalo and Los Angeles.
The museum has hosted other landmark shows, including a major exhibition on Georgia O’Keefe; the first survey of the late, profound African-American artist Beverly Buchanan; and Mecca Journeys, by Saudi photographer and conceptual artist Ahmed Mater. In 2017, it imagined and organised in record time The Legacy of Lynching, a collaboration with the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative – in prelude to the opening of the latter’s monument to the victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama – that connected data and films by the organisation to relevant modern and contemporary African-American art from the collection. Intense interest, in particular from educators, prompted the show’s extension long past its original six-week summertime run.
Blockbusters have been on the agenda too. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s David Bowie is, the immersive multimedia show on the life and times of the great singer, made its US debut at the Brooklyn Museum. Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving is currently up, offering a decidedly feminist look at the great Mexican artist, including forthright consideration of issues such as disability. It has attracted throngs of visitors.
Big crowdpleasers are important for a museum. “There are artists who have become icons,” Pasternak says. “They have a story that people can relate to, and that contributes a great deal to what becomes a blockbuster.” All of the programmes can serve toward a common purpose. “We’re putting forward excellence in a broader sense of visual culture, not just art as we accept it in the marketplace today.”
Pasternak, 54, was not a conventional choice for the directorship. She comes from the alternative wing of the art world, beginning her career at organisations in Boston and in Connecticut. In 1993, she took the helm of Creative Time, a New York arts group with an orientation toward social practice, democratic life, and urbanism. She held that position until joining the Brooklyn Museum.
In that time, she led projects with influential artists deeply engaged with social issues and cultural urgency, such as Karen Finley, Félix González-Torres,Jenny Holzer and Trevor Paglen. Creative Time sponsored the Tribute in Light – the two vertical beams that appear over Manhattan on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks – and Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot projects in post-Katrina New Orleans. One of Pasternak’s final projects at Creative Time was Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, the huge Sphinx-like sculpture of raw sugar in the former Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, once the principal landing point of sugar from Caribbean plantations.
"I never imagined I was going to be a museum director,” Pasternak says. “I think that people thought, ‘How is Anne going to do this?’ They forget these miracle projects that we pulled off at Creative Time.” The need for constant invention and improvisation at the organisation gave her a certain productive nimbleness. She also arrived with a down-to-earth attitude. “I know how to do everything from cleaning the toilets on up,” she says.
As a museum director in today’s New York, Pasternak has run into controversies. That part is baked into the role. She has been a target of Decolonize this Place, a group of artists and activists who oppose gentrification and advocate decolonial institutional practices. One flashpoint, last year, was the appointment of a white curator, Kristen Windmuller-Luna, as the museum’s curator of African art. Many in the field, including African scholars, supported the appointment, however, and the museum held firm.
Currently, the museum is showing One: Egúngún, a small and serious show that inspects the provenance, cultural context, and social meanings of a formerly ritual Yorùbá object in the collection. It is part of a running series of small shows that tell the stories around one item. In this instance, Windmuller-Luna travelled to Nigeria, located the family that once owned the spiritually-charged egúngún costume, and worked with them and with Nigerian scholars and artists to build out the story.
“We are looking at our provenance all the time,” Pasternak says. “Rarely does an audience understand the kind of ethos, and the tremendous amount of effort, that goes into this.” More than justifying a disputed hire, the project, Pasternak says, can be an example for others – at the Brooklyn Museum and elsewhere – to emulate.
Recently, the museum joined the reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and, like several other institutions, returned funding from the Misk Art Institute, the arts initiative of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. It has also ruled out new Saudi funding. Pasternak has visited Saudi Arabia – once in the company of Catherine Morris, the curator of feminist art – and met the burgeoning arts community there. “I believe you don’t build bridges by boycotts,” she says. The sum the museum returned was small – around $30,000, she says. “I still don’t know if we made the right decision.”
Pasternak is very obviously a progressive and a feminist. The Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the sole such centre in the country, founded in 2007, was a major appeal in taking the job. (Elizabeth Sackler, the centre’s sponsor, is from a different branch than the owners of Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin; she has called the company’s role in the opioid crisis “morally abhorrent”.) As such, Pasternak’s own values espouse protest, critique, and social mobilisation. If her position comes with day-to-day contradictions, she says, she cannot simply recoil.
“These are very trying times,” she says. “People are fed up with historic inequity in all of our system, from education to the corporate world to museums. So we’re all under a lot of scrutiny. The greatest challenge is leaning into those conversations, not shying away from them, and also not getting caught up in the destructive noises. How do we learn from them and continue to improve, and be true to ourselves and our publics? These conversations are important. They deserve care, and care takes time.”
As things stand, Pasternak says, she often hears from museum and cultural leaders, particularly in Europe, who ask for her perspective on navigating issues of inclusion and representation. Not that she has it all sorted out: “I’m continuing to do a lot of hard work, in listening, learning, making mistakes and correcting them along the way,” she says.
But she is proud of the work thus far, and of the spirit she sees across the museum’s board and personnel. “A lot of leadership and boards are not there,” she says. “They’re uncomfortable talking about white supremacy.” Not so here. Call it the Brooklyn spirit. “One of the ways the Brooklyn Museum can be trailblazing is through courage.”