BMA's chief quits after 18 years Lehman to become head of art museum in Brooklyn, N.Y.; 'A very special place'; BMA building, funds, audience grew; so did artistic controversies Holly Selby and John Dorsey


After 18 years as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Arnold L. Lehman announced yesterday that he will become the director of New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art. The BMA has not named a successor to Lehman, who is scheduled to begin at Brooklyn in September.

Lehman's tenure, considered unusually long in the art world, spanned a time in which museum audiences greatly expanded, even as government financial support for the arts began to dwindle.

His decision to leave the museum comes just six months before the BMA's most ambitious and costly exhibition -- a $5 million display of 255 objects from London's Victoria and Albert Museum -- is scheduled to open. It also falls less than a year after an expensive settlement of a long-simmering dispute with the Maryland Institute, College of Art over the future of a vast collection of prints, sculptures and paintings, that forms a cornerstone of the museum's holdings.

"I love Baltimore, and I wasn't thinking about making any changes," says Lehman, 52. "Brooklyn was where I was introduced to art as a child. I have an aunt and an uncle who used to take me there. It was a very special place in my childhood."

"Arnold is just at the right age when you know there is one more job out there for you and the Brooklyn is one of the most important museums in the country," says Constance Caplan, head of the BMA board of trustees. "I think, in the end, the opportunity was too good to miss. I know he was very happy doing what he was doing in Baltimore."

It was Lehman's expertise in audience building that particularly appealed to administrators of the Brooklyn Museum. "His ability to move the Baltimore Museum into an institution of importance and bring it to the various constituencies in Baltimore were to us evidence that he would have a very good chance of having a similar success here," says Robert S. Rubin, Brooklyn Museum of Art board chairman. "The demographics of Baltimore and Brooklyn, the inner-city opportunities and problems are not too dissimilar at all."

Considered by many a skilled communicator and fund-raiser, Lehman oversaw expansion of the BMA that more than doubled its space, including a controversial new wing dedicated to contemporary art. During his tenure, the museum also acquired significant collections of contemporary art and decorative art, as well as prints, drawings and photographs.

"Arnold is very good at identifying an objective and working toward its realization in a way that doesn't create controversy," says Francis B. Burch Jr., who sat on the museum's board from 1990 to 1996. "He decides what he wants to do and really does try to bring everyone along with him."

Under Lehman's leadership, the BMA's annual operating budget grew fourfold to $9 million and its endowment grew from $1.4 million to $48.5 million; its membership increased from 3,000 to 11,000 households and its attendance figures nearly tripled.

Nonetheless, not all of the changes were welcomed.

The architecture of the new west wing, in particular its sleek metal exterior, was criticized when it opened in 1994 as clashing with the neo-classical style of the original museum, designed by John Russell Pope.

Some of the museum's exhibits, including displays about the children's book character Babar the elephant, Dr. Seuss characters and another on carousel animals, caused grumbling among art aficionadoes who questioned their artistic merits.

And a BMA decision to sell a Mark Rothko painting, "Olive over Red," in 1988 for $950,000 and the next year to buy a controversial Andy Warhol painting, "The Last Supper," for $682,000 caused considerable outcry.

No time line has been set for the search for a new director, says Caplan, who will lead the hunt. BMA administrators are in the midst of a marketing survey that will give them a better understanding of the museum's audience. Caplan says they will use the survey results in developing future programming and helping them identify potential candidates.

Considered one of the nation's largest museums, the Brooklyn institution houses more than 1.5 million objects housed in a 450,000-square-foot, five-level Beaux Arts building.

It has vast holdings in non-Western art, including works from Polynesia, Melanesia, Indonesia and Iran. But it is most renowned for its Egyptian art, which is considered to be among the best in the world, along with the collections held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "In Egyptian art it's absolutely world class, one of the finest collections in North America," said Ellen Reeder, Walters Art Gallery curator of ancient art.

However, though the Brooklyn Museum dwarfs the BMA, which houses about 100,000 objects in 194,000 square feet, the BMA draws significantly more visitors each year: 350,000 compared with 250,000.

The Brooklyn Museum has been directorless for nearly a year, since Robert S. Buck, resigned after 13 years, citing a desire to spend more time with art and less time raising funds.

"The Brooklyn is challenged more than most museums in the United States in terms of finding a niche or an identity in the metropolitan community," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery. "When you go there, you find its attendance and its presence is hard to define in relationship to the Metropolitan and MOMA [the Museum of Modern Art] -- and by virtue of the fact that it is out there in Brooklyn and not in Manhattan."

Indeed, Lehman's top priorities will be to increase the museum's visibility, to develop programs that will appeal to Brooklyn's demographically diverse community and to raise money.

Last summer, the Brooklyn administrators approached Lehman about the vacant directorship. At first, the Baltimore director declined to discuss the position.

"They persisted, so I agreed to talk," he says. Eventually, "it started to sound like they wanted to rekindle an audience for the museum. Like they wanted to use the museum's collections more aggressively and to attract audiences and making the museum a vibrant place -- all of those words are kind of triggers for me."

BMA growth under Lehman

During Director Arnold L. Lehman's tenure, 1979-1997, the Baltimore Museum of Art has grown in many ways:

Finances: Annual budget increased from $2 million to $9 million. Endowment up from $1.4 million to $48.5 million.

Public: Membership up from 3,000 to 11,000 households. Annual attendance rose from 150,000 to 350,000.

Collections: Levi sculpture garden and the first of numerous pieces of the Levi contemporary sculpture collection (1988); Dalsheimer photography collection (1988); Scott collection of American period furniture (1992); Lucas 19th-century collection of 20,000 works (1996).

Size of museum: Increased from 115,900 square feet to 283,100 square feet, including 194,000 square feet of building space and 89,000 square feet of sculpture gardens. Added Wurtzburger sculpture garden (1980); East Wing (1982); northwest addition (1986); Levi sculpture garden (1988); west wing for contemporary art (1994). Also, 142,000 square feet renovated.

Increased exhibitions: Among nearly 300 exhibits presented since 1980, the most important included "Oskar Schlemmer" (1986); "Claude Monet: Impressionist Masterpieces" (1991); "The Face of America: Modernist Art 1910-1950" (1996); "Art of the Baga" (now running). "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," termed the largest exhibition project ever organized by the BMA, is planned for October 1997.

Education and community outreach: Major initiatives included HTC $1.6 million project to increase museum participation of Baltimore City school students; $1.2 million grant to increase community-based accessibility to museum; creation of Joshua Johnson Council, an African-American support group.

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