A BRIDGE TO BROOKLYN. Anne Pasternak is the Shelby White and Leon Levy Director of the Brooklyn Museum, one of the oldest and largest fine arts institutions in America. Pasternak is devoted to engaging broad audiences through the power of art, and she is a staunch advocate for the civic and democratic roles that cultural and educational institutions can play.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Anne Pasternak, what kind of institution is the Brooklyn Museum today?
We were founded nearly 200 years ago when Brooklyn was an independent city, one of the largest cities in the country. The idea was to create a great national encyclopedic art museum like the Louvre and the British Museum, so we represent 5,500 years of human creativity from around the globe. Collection strengths include one of the most important Egyptian collections in the United States, as well as African art collections, American art, European art, contemporary, design, and so forth. While our collections are historic, we take a very contemporary approach, as we bring the past into conversation with the present.
Since 2015 when you became Director of the Brooklyn Museum, how have you brought the city to the Museum?
For example, we just had the 25th anniversary of our First Saturday program. This project has been replicated by museums around the world, but nobody does it like the Brooklyn Museum. We had deejays, bands, poetry readings, and curator tours in their collection galleries. Nearly 8,000 people came to sing, dance, learn, and celebrate with us. The program is iconic for the Brooklyn Museum and it demonstrates our commitment to being the “People’s Museum”. 70 to 80% of most New York City museum audiences are tourists, but at the Brooklyn Museum our audiences are largely young, diverse, educated, and culturally sophisticated New Yorkers. They count on us to create a welcoming, exciting space for timely and inclusive content that treats all cultures with dignity and respect.
Do you have an iconic piece that people come to see?
People come from around the world to see a work of very great importance in feminist art history, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. It is our most iconic work.
“Brooklyn’s got chutzpah, moxie, it’s intellectually curious, extremely diverse, has a sense of humor. Brooklyn is progressive and daring.”
First Saturday Party at the Brooklyn Museum.
Photo by Kolin Mendez
Anne Pasternak, if you are a classical museum, why do I see you doing very successful events with many different kinds of art?
It has always puzzled me that museums like ours had a wide approach to collecting – from mummy coffins to Monet, manuscripts and musical instruments – but sometimes it seems they narrow their approach when presenting visual culture. At the Brooklyn Museum, we embrace excellence in all the arts. Through exhibitions, collections and public programs, we share an expansive appreciation for culture. People are interested in many things – fashion, literature, music, dance, film, etc., – so they will desire more diverse programming in the future.
What have you done on the fashion side?
In the past year we had a truly extraordinary exhibition with Dior. We just closed an exhibition on Virgil Abloh. In November we opened a Thierry Mugler exhibition. We’re going to open a trailblazing exhibition on African fashion later this spring.
Why did you do an exhibition called “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”?
While many museums have a sad history of excluding Black artists, we host a lot of shows on Black excellence. At the Brooklyn Museum we have been collecting African-American art and spotlighting exhibitions on African-American history for decades. It would be crazy not to.
Is your Black audience large?
Yes. In fact, nearly 50% of our audiences identify as BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color).
Do you follow what’s happening for women in Iran?
Of course. We’ve done public programmes with Iranian women reporters and influencers who were among those who raised awareness about the struggles for women in Iran.
What kind of city is Brooklyn today?
Brooklyn has nearly three million residents and it’s one of the most diverse places in the country. It is home to one of the largest creative communities on the planet, and has New York City’s largest population of artists. Brooklyn has more immigrants than Chicago, San Francisco, or Philadelphia each has residents. More African-Americans live in Brooklyn than in Atlanta, more Jews than in Jerusalem, and more Catholics than in Rome. Brooklyn has more mosques than any other borough in New York. The Chinese community in Brooklyn is one of the largest and fastest growing outside of Asia. We are inspired by the diversity and explosive creativity of our home and proud to amplify the spirit of Brooklyn in the world. We also feel a real sense of responsibility to support communal joy and advance economic opportunity, as there are great wealth disparities in Brooklyn.
Does the city of Brooklyn promote itself well?
We had a borough president in the nineties named Marty Markowitz who put Brooklyn on the map and turned it around. He tapped into the idea of Brooklyn’s spark and irreverence. Since then, as we discussed, Brooklyn is better known. But when tourists come to Brooklyn they only know to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, go to Dumbo and get the picture of the Manhattan Bridge behind them, maybe have a meal, and then go back over the Bridge. They don’t realize there is an exciting array of cultural offerings, including shopping, food, music, and theater experiences, all over Brooklyn.
“We have worked hard to be a place that feels welcoming and joyous for young people.”
Anne Pasternak, So Woody Allen made the film “Manhattan” but nobody made the film “Brooklyn”?
Just about every Spike Lee film is made in Brooklyn. So it shouldn’t surprise you that we are excited to open a show on Spike at the Museum later this year.
Is Brooklyn’s status now almost equivalent to Manhattan?
Brooklyn is probably the coolest urban brand on the planet. Go anywhere around the world and people are wearing Brooklyn t-shirts. They’re not wearing Manhattan shirts. Brooklyn is more than a place. It is a powerful state of mind. It represents possibility, originality and an openness to new people and new ideas.
Are Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and Williamsburg now the two hot areas?
Yes. The Brooklyn Museum is in central Brooklyn, just a few train stops from Dumbo. What people don’t realize is that we are one of the most accessible museums because we have both a subway at the front of the building, and a parking lot. What other museum can boast this?! Central Brooklyn is a connecting point for many neighborhoods, such as Park Slope and Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy and Brownsville. We are surrounded by other great cultural institutions: The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park, the gorgeous historic landmark of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Is there a lot of support for your museum and is finding donors a big job?
Fundraising is a huge job. Of all the philanthropy in New York City, only 5% goes to Brooklyn. It’s so frustrating. Donors and sponsors just don’t – yet – value Brooklyn’s institutions the way they value Manhattan’s. (The same can be said for Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.) The other thing that makes it particularly challenging for us is that we have a pay-what-you-wish admissions policy, so half of our audiences visit for free. We want to have a welcoming ethos so people who have never walked into a museum don’t feel intimidated to come. So I spend a lot of time fundraising. The city is one of our biggest supporters, but the vast majority of our funding comes from private sources and we are blessed to have a very generous Board of Trustees who are great champions of the Museum.
You recently received the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture (FIAC) Award at a ceremony in the Racquet Club in New York, where some of the most important directors and curators of the New York museums were present. Are you a cultural bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn?
That’s such a nice way to put it. The truth is, New York City museum directors are very close colleagues. I’m very lucky to be a part of such an august group of wonderful people, many of whom I consider friends. Part of the opportunity I had when I came to the Brooklyn Museum seven years ago was to carve out a space for us that was additive in a city filled with extraordinary museums. In the past, we marketed ourselves as second to The Met, but who wants to be number two when you can visit number one nearby? Instead, we set out to be true to our roots and be more like Brooklyn. Brooklyn’s got chutzpah, moxie, it’s intellectually curious, extremely diverse, and has a sense of humor. Brooklyn is progressive and daring. So, yes, you could say we are a cultural bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
What is a museum for you?
I have a passion for the arts, and I want to share that passion with as many people as possible. Most days I can’t believe I get to lead a space where people from all backgrounds can come to learn, share, debate and celebrate.
Are you creating a very modern museum to bring in more young people?
Absolutely! We have worked hard to be a place that feels welcoming and joyous for young people. As I mentioned earlier, over 8,000 people were here in February on the 25th anniversary of our monthly First Saturday programs; mostly young people of color who come dressed in their finest for a night out at the Museum. This kind of energy is replicated every week, with lots of amazing public programs.
We also have very large numbers of schools that come through the Museum every single day. We consider ourselves one of New York’s largest art classrooms, and certainly Brooklyn’s largest art classroom, and our goal is to reach every public school student in Brooklyn.
The crowd enjoys the playful and inviting OY/YO by Deborah Kass when it was situated in front of the Brooklyn Museum entrance. It spells YO when viewed from one side, and OY if you change where you stand. One is a salutation, the other an expression of angst.
The Christian Dior Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
Thierry Mugler: Couturissime at the Brooklyn Museum November 2022 to May 7, 2023.
Statue of Queen Ankhnes-meryre II and her son, Pepy II, in Egyptian alabaster ca. 2288-2224 or 2194 B.C.E.
Alain Elkann and Anne Pasternak at the FIAC award ceremony.
“Realizing the greatest potential of the Brooklyn Museum is my singular focus and purpose.”
Anne Pasternak, are you also bringing in some of the many Brooklyn based artists, such as Dan Colen and Urs Fischer?
I love those artists! We’re doing more and more with Brooklyn artists. My favorite effort is our UOVO Prize. Every year we give a young, up-and-coming Brooklyn artist $25,000 and a show. For each of them it has been life-transforming. Overall, it seems artists are excited about what we are doing. Alex Katz offered us major works. Julian Schnabel did the same. With our 200th anniversary coming up, artists like Gregory Crewdson, Spencer Finch, and others have been offering us major gifts of their work. I think that’s a sign that we’re doing something right.
What kind of risks do you take?
We break from traditional museum orthodoxies a lot. For example, in the Egyptian collections we look at gender transformation and discuss early Egyptian culture as African. In our period rooms we have an installation by the artist Duke Riley about plastics that’s so brilliant and more than a bit naughty. On the 50th anniversary of Roe v Wade, which gave U.S. women a right to a legal abortion, we opened an exhibition by artist Mary Elizabeth Baxter, who was shackled while giving birth while incarcerated. There are a lot of things that are topical, even uncomfortable, but important.
What is your ambition for the Brooklyn Museum?
My legacy will not be one of adding a new wing or making some grand architectural gesture. Instead, I am serious about building proper foundations so the Museum can reach the greatest potential of its mission for a long time to come. So my trustees, team and I are working to build our endowment and strengthen our business model. We’re working on capital campaigns because our collections and audiences deserve beautiful spaces. We are also renovating our education studios, because Brooklyn’s children deserve beautiful spaces for learning, creation and self-expression. I’m a believer in reducing storage in favor of more galleries, so we’re emptying out two storage rooms to open our first permanent galleries of African art. Collections should not be staying behind walls, only for conservators, scholars and curators to see. They should be shared with the world as much as possible.
Amidst all these positive things and the atmosphere you are creating, what are your problems?
Most days I feel like an octopus whose every limb is being stretched in opposing directions. We are working on making the Museum more beautiful and strengthening our collections. Our building infrastructure is in major need of modernization. We have been growing audiences, but we have much bigger ambitions to reach even more. We are focused on social impact issues, such as mass criminalization and climate change. We are making real strides in DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility) and wage equity for our staff, but the work is never done. We are creating greater economic opportunity for our neighbors. We are striving to reach every public school student in Brooklyn – that’s more than 300,000! We have to grow our digital practices, which is a huge investment. All of these things are important and we are doing them all at once, but it’s a challenge as we have been grossly under-resourced for our entire history, which means we have a small (but excellent) team and small resources to invest in growth.
Are you on TikTok?
We’re the fourth most TikTok’d museum and Instagrammed museum in the country. Some of the museums who are in the top five have digital departments with dozens of people. We have two people, which tells us that people are excited about what we are doing.
Do you need many curators for such a large collection?
Our curators are so hardworking and wonderful. We have fewer than 25 senior curators, assistant curators and curatorial fellows. It’s a very small team for the more than 160,000 objects in our collection. In addition to researching and shaping the collection, they are curating exhibitions, organizing loans, and a whole lot more. One of the directives I’ve given them is that we shouldn’t be a massive warehouse storing art but instead we should put our energies into what’s going to be transformative for the visitor’s museum experience.
Would you also like to grow the collections and buy old masters or contemporary artists’ work?
I want important, great works from all time periods! Our acquisitions funds are very modest, so we focus on gifts. We’ve been very blessed to have major gifts from collectors, from ancient Korean and Egyptian to contemporary. I’ve been very proud to see how the collections are strengthening. It’s not about growing the size of the collection. It’s about strengthening it so people have more access to masterworks.
Which museum do you take as an example of what you would like to achieve?
That’s a hard question! I love all museums! But I’d say I am impressed with the way the Tate communicates with its audiences. The Uffizi is one of my favorite museums on the planet, and I find it exciting to see how they’ve made themselves feel contemporary on TikTok. Of course, the most important thing is the strength of the art in the museums, so there are far too many to list here.
Your reputation is certainly growing. I hear more and more people talking about the Brooklyn Museum and people wanting to work with you.
I love hearing that. We are partnering with lots of great museums. In addition to sending out works from our collection to museums great and small all over the world, we are partnering on curating shows with the Getty, the National Gallery in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago, to name a few. Museum partnerships are extremely important, and you will see more of that. It’s time to get busy developing closer partnerships with our Italian museum colleagues, for example.
Is the museum close with other local Brooklyn institutions?
We are very intentional about being a good community partner, and that means working with major cultural institutions and educational institutions and even small community partners. In the early days of COVID our neighborhood of central Brooklyn was hit hard. The first thing we did was give all of our gloves and masks to the local hospitals. We supported hospital staff with educational programs. We opened a food pantry. While the Black Lives Matter protests were going on and many Manhattan museums had boarded up, we opened up – at the height of the pandemic – so that the protesters had a place to go to the bathroom, and we handed out water. When all the toy drives got canceled because there was no place to gather, we turned the museum into a giant site for a toy drive. When there were needs for asylum seekers this fall, we did a huge amount of work to collect supplies.
Anne Pasternak, what do you specifically wish for yourself in all this?
I’m a very mission-oriented person, so when I join an organization, I’m all in. Realizing the greatest potential of the Brooklyn Museum is my singular focus and purpose. We are working hard to make the Brooklyn Museum one of the most trailblazing and relevant museums on the planet.
Thank you very much for this conversation and for your time. I know you don’t usually do interviews anymore and so it’s been a great privilege.
Thank you for making it so enjoyable.
Portrait of Anne Pasternak: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
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