Borough Hall


“Open House: Working in Brooklyn,” the smorgasbord with which the Brooklyn Museum is celebrating its snazzy new glass entrance, lives up to its name. This is a show to which seemingly every artist of any reputation working in Brooklyn has been invited. What’s more, they all showed up. According to the curators, Charlotta Kotik and Tumelo Mosaka, no one declined the invitation. It’s a lively party.

It’s also a mess. “Open House” has no point of view and ostensibly no standards, other than working in Brooklyn. This is a shame. Had it been more selective and adventurous and included multiple works by fewer artists, “Open House” would have been much better and more memorable. The curators are more interested in leaving no stones unturned than in really looking under them. (And they missed artists like Sue Williams, Christian Holstad, Janine Antoni, Jason Middlebrook, Karen Heagle, and Cheney Thompson, among other worthies.) There are 199 artists in “Open House.” Many of them are very good. Some are outstanding. Pressed to list artists who stand out, I’d name Kristin Baker, Wangechi Mutu, Ricci Albenda, Fred Tomaselli, Ward Shelley, Luis Gispert, Elana Herzog, Kirsten Hassenfeld, Phong Bui, Dawn Clements, Diana Cooper, Patricia Cronin, Brady Dollarhide, and Kate Gilmore. But naming names is futile. “Open House” is self-negating. It is less an exhibition than a shout-out. Some might call it “Lesser New York.”

The problem is, it’s almost impossible to see anything in “Open House.” Everything is packed together. The installation has nothing to do with experiencing works of art. “Open House” won’t make artists in London or Berlin or even Queens jealous. However, a message does manage to come through. To Brooklyn artists and to art-interested Brooklynites, this institution is saying, “We want to be your museum.”

Arnold L. Lehman, the museum’s waggish, enterprising director, is emphatic about wanting to “open the museum up.” He’s trying to make it more like a town square than a temple. This sounds beneficent. But remember, nowadays everywhere you go is like a town square; a museum has the singular, sometimes transporting virtue of being a place where you can leave the group and immerse yourself in the richness and mystery of the group mind. Nevertheless, to those who might think his ideas are faulty, Lehman bluntly replies, “I don’t care.”

Under his leadership, the museum has increased attendance and reinstalled the collection in showily painted spaces. Sometimes the results are illuminating, other times infuriating. Things are being done to make the collection “more accessible.” In this quest for accessibility, however, the museum has also mounted dubious crowd-pleasers, including “Star Wars” and “Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes & Rage.” On the other hand, this is the only institution with the gumption to stage “Sensation” in the U.S., for which it took a lot of flak. Regardless, Lehman is fervent about his bond with the borough. He’s also diligent in this regard. Often, when I go to Brooklyn galleries, even the most far-flung ones, I see Lehman and his wife happily traipsing about like foot soldiers.

The obvious question behind “Open House”: Is there such a thing as a “Brooklyn artist”? The knee-jerk response: Duh, no. Nowadays, art is international; painters in Düsseldorf know what their counterparts in Los Angeles are doing almost as soon as they do it. But this misses the special flavor of the current situation. New York may still be the trading floor of the art world—practically no major career happens without happening here—but the real estate market in Manhattan has made living and working here nearly impossible. This is casting a lengthening psychological shadow over Manhattan. Unless artists can be poor in style, there can be no indigenous art world. Hence, Brooklyn.

Although Brooklyn is being gentrified at an alarming rate—Bedford Street is as bustling as Soho—it’s still a place where artists and dealers can find room to move and work (the borough even has its own excellent art and culture newspaper, The Brooklyn Rail). Brooklyn as a last bastion is very loved and defended. A case in point: Two months ago, in Williamsburg, I drove past two artists I know and like, Amy Sillman and Rachel Harrison, both of whom impress in “Open House.” When I said hello, they looked at me and suspiciously asked, “What are you doing here?” I got the distinct impression they were in turf-protecting mode. I should probably mention that they were also pushing an enormous plastic Buddha that they had just found in the trash. I drove off feeling somewhat stung, but wondered how long it had been since I had seen such a choice piece of garbage being commandeered in plain view in Manhattan—and by well-known artists, no less. “Brooklyn is still different,” I thought.

Twenty years ago “Brooklyn artist” was a cruel euphemism for bad artist. Plainly, it is no longer that. Now Brooklyn artist means someone who is simply trying to live a life in art. These are the folks the Brooklyn Museum is trying to reach, which is altogether righteous.