Contemporary Brooklyn Art Has No Institution It Can Call Home

By Sarah Schmerler

When was the last time you went to the Brooklyn Museum and saw a show of work by contemporary Brooklyn artists that really blew you away, or at least taught you something new? Don’t worry, we can wait. (You’ll probably need to count on your fingers—it’s been about 15 years.) Current Undercurrent: Working in Brooklyn, 1997–98, was pretty innovative. Though it was installed only in a back portion of the Museum’s lobby, the organizers made the most of the space, introducing the public to a slew of artists who have gone on to impressive careers. You could open up Pierogi Gallery’s flat files and find labor-intensive drawings by James Siena (now repped by blue-chip dealer Pace); look on the floor, and you’d discover psilocybin mushrooms—sculptures so painstakingly rendered, they were dead ringers for the real thing—by Roxy Paine (his works were on the Metropolitan Museum’s roof in 2009); or take in a drug-laden painting by Fred Tomaselli (given airings at MoMA, and even the Brooklyn Museum itself—although in a big solo show that was originally conceived by the Aspen Museum of Art). A crew of experienced curators—Joe Amrhein of Pierogi, Renee Riccardo of ARENA, Momenta Art’s Eric Heist and Laura Parnes—masterfully helmed by the then-Curator of Contemporary Art, Charlotta Kotik, selected the work.

Lori Ellison’s “Untitled, 2012” (Gouache on wood panel, 14 x 11 inches) Photo Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York

They were professionals working in Brooklyn who used their best judgment to select work they thought noteworthy. And, even though the Museum ceded so little of its physical plant that the installation itself looked like something of an afterthought, Current Undercurrentmade a big difference in the careers of all the artists who were chosen. It gave them validation at a time when they needed it most, and the Brooklyn Museum could hold its head up high and say, “Hey, we did that.”

The Working in Brooklyn series reached its zenith in 2006, and, quite frankly, the Brooklyn Museum hasn’t taken any chances since. Go there today, and you’ll find its most consistent contemporary exhibitions are scheduled under a kind of curatorial-proxy-umbrella called the Raw/Cooked series. A small group of deserving living artists are chosen for each Raw/Cooked season, an outside committee recommends all the artists, from whom a Museum curator chooses those to be exhibited; they, in turn, are each given the opportunity to choose a non-traditional space (read, drafty lobby outside the elevator, a few narrow columns in the Beaux-Arts Court) where they can exhibit their work and an “intervention,” such that it’s integrated with work already in the Museum’s permanent collection. What results is a muddled display in which most museum-goers aren’t able to discern the contemporary art from the historical pieces. (The most recent iteration, closing February 10, features Bedford-Stuyvesant–based sculptor Duron Jackson in a dimly lit quadrant of the 5th-floor foyer. Does his work deserve better? Probably. But alas, who can tell?). The Museum, in their press releases, calls these unfortunate loci “unconventional” spaces. Truth is, once an artist gets tapped by the illustrious Brooklyn Museum, they’d probably prefer to show their work in a gallery dedicated exclusively to contemporary art. They’d like a clean white wall, some good lighting, a well-written wall label or two—maybe even a catalog. Chances are, they’ve probably had to wrangle with the vicissitudes of showing in more than a few “non-traditional” spaces at this point in their careers.

Why is the Brooklyn Museum so set on decontextualizing art that hasn’t had the opportunity to be put into context in the first place?

What’s even odder is that, inside the McKim, Mead & White edifice, not only contemporary work is suffering. Important artifacts from Egypt, Africa, and the Pacific Islands; 19th-century American landscape paintings; and Decorative Arts from the Museum’s permanent collection are, more and more, getting the blunt end of the curatorial stick.

In 2001, the Museum reinstalled its 5th floor—once home to American art gems by Frederick Church, Marsden Hartley, and George Bellows—pell mell, in ways that, we think, pay little heed to a work’s content. Now, it’s a visually disorienting hodgepodge most school kids will need two docents to parse. In years past, MoMA’s pulled gutsy curatorial stunts like that—and succeeded—giving viewers all sorts of new points of entry into its august collection. (Louis Perez-Oramas’ impressive two-part show, Transforming Chronologies: An Atlas of Drawings, in 2006, which he based on the theories of radical art historian Aby Warburg, comes to mind.) But the Brooklyn Museum’s efforts are falling flat. Just take a detour to the Great Hall, where Connecting Cultures: A World in Brooklyn is on view in yet another too-small space: tile panels from 17th-century Syria with delicate vegetal patterns; Gaston Lachaise’s Standing Woman; and a 19th-century Baleen Whale Mask… and whoops, don’t bump into anything! A furniture store on Staten Island buffeted by Hurricane Sandy would look more coherent at first glance. One of the Museum’s signature works—Louis Remy Mignot’s Niagara, from 1866, is re-sited, looking like a mascot on a banner announcing the deluge.

Installation view of the "GO" show, currently installed on the Brooklyn Museum's Mezzanine Level.

And finally, back on the contemporary art front, enter GO—the crowd-sourced open studio initiative that culminated in an exhibit currently on view until February 24—if you dare. Five artists out of 1,705 participating in open studios on September 8 and 9, 2012, were chosen by popular vote. In case you haven’t seen it yet, the reviews are in. On January 2, 2013, the New York Times’ Martha Schwendener cited the show as amateurish: “Crowd-sourced Exhibition Looks Kind of Familiar” read the headline.

“The winners are an unexciting bunch; in most spheres of contemporary art they would be considered student artists because their work relies so heavily on earlier precedents.” ArtFagCity‘s Corinna Kirsch posted on January 24, 2013, saying “…most of the work appears poorly considered for the gallery—actually a long, squat hallway at the Brooklyn Museum. The artists should be upset.” GO as an exhibit was a social-media contest created to boost museum attendance, whether or not the artists participating chose to focus on it as such. A Pen-and-Brush Club in Ohio could put on a juried show of its membership and it would look a lot like this. Brooklyn isn’t Ohio. In terms of raw talent, it’s the nation’s art capital.

Curators are the unspoken victims here, more so than the artists. Back in September, it was a blast for artists to make all those connections during studio visits, to chat; it was fun for visitors to crawl around nabes like Bushwick and Williamsburg. But it’s curators and grassroots dealers who made those neighborhoods the hotspots they are today. Women like the late Annie Herron, who took chances when the streets weren’t safe; auteurs like Jason Andrew, who today hang art in their own apartments and keep regular, professional hours; curmudgeons like Ridgewood’s Fred Valentine, who have just been around so long that anything they put on their walls is worth looking at.

Back in September, I polled artists and curators and asked them what I could do after GO that would get beyond sour grapes; how could I harness some of the (considerable) energy GO generated and make a different exhibition model? Local activists who’ve been devoted to organizing studio visits in their own nabes wrote to me suggesting a better studio-visit model; individual artists suggested more all-inclusive shows; but all agreed on the value of choosing work, rather than culling it, when it comes to display.

In December of last year, before the Brooklyn Museum’s GO show, I created an exhibition rubric of my own. I called it GO: Curate, and it’s got a pretty simple premise, which I shared with folks on Facebook to see if they’d like to join me. I asked:

What sort of art would you show if you had access to the Brooklyn Museum’s space, its power, its audience? Whose art would you recommend this important Brooklyn institution buy for its own collection, and why?

(Buying art, not just showing it, is key. That’s how permanent collections get started. That’s how you generate critical mass. Jason Andrew of Norte Maar of Bushwick “buys in” from every single show he does.)

For my own curatorial statement, however humble, back in December I set the tone by selecting two artists whose work I admire and who have very different approaches to painting; their names are Lori Ellison and Elsie Kagan, and I displayed them at Soapbox Gallery on Dean Street (considerable thanks go out to Soapbox’s owner, Jimmy Greenfield, for this opportunity). Taken together, they’re a kind of primer on how to construct a painting—one via quiet, almost devotional means; the other with bravura and a huge nod to Art History. Ellison’s been on the Williamsburg scene a long time, and her diminutive, labor-intensive works are finally getting the attention they deserve. To me, she’s the Sol LeWitt of Brooklyn. Kagan, a bit younger, has impressive, gestural-painting chops as both studio artist and muralist, and I know we’ll be hearing more from her in the future.

I’ll offer you a small, printed excerpt of their work here—and sign off. I think the work speaks for itself.

If I ran an institution called the Brooklyn Museum of Contemporary Art—this is what I’d show there.

Do you think the public would “go” for it?

Do you care?

Sarah Schmerler has been writing about Brooklyn art since 1996 for such publications as TimeOut New York, Art in America, and ARTnews. She is a regular contributor to the WG.