It had been just over four weeks since Arnold Lehman, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, had undergone back surgery, but there I was in early March, chatting with him in his spacious, contemporary-art-crammed apartment in downtown Brooklyn. Mr. Lehman, 66, was able to go to his office only a couple of days a week for a few hours, but he hadn't stopped working.
On this day, he had already convened his weekly staff meeting here; two days before, he had spent a few hours viewing the annual Armory Show, a contemporary art fair that sprawls over two gigantic Manhattan piers—to which he returned the day after my visit, alternating between a walker and a wheelchair.
In his nearly 14-year tenure, he has endured repeated criticism for his initiatives—mostly for staging "populist" exhibitions focusing on "Star Wars," hip-hop, graffiti and similar topics. His response: "We have a very diverse audience and we do exhibitions that engage that diversity, not all the time, but as often as we can." Moreover, he adds, "We want to make the visitor experience a friendly experience where they can learn, whether it's their first time in a museum or their 10,000th time."
Mr. Lehman has also been blasted for displaying the museum's stellar American art collection in a way that mixes media, geography and time periods, that stresses social context over aesthetics, and that employs galleries painted orange, chartreuse, purple and other bright colors; for tacking on a glassy, modern entrance pavilion to the museum's Beaux Arts building; for getting too close to commerce, as when an exhibit for Japanese artist Takashi Murakami contained a Louis Vuitton pop-up store; and on and on.
The results have been mixed. The Brooklyn Museum is a leader in the use of technology, including social media, and its membership rolls are growing. Its visitors are younger—with an average age of 35, versus 58 when Mr. Lehman arrived—than most other museums. And he says that according to a fairly recent study, "40-plus percent of the visitors are people of color." Yet attendance has bounced around, hitting 585,000 in fiscal 1998 but dropping to a low of 300,075 in fiscal 2006. With 2.5 million residents in the borough, and an additional 5.7 million elsewhere in New York, that's not very impressive. What's worse, about 20% of those visitors arrive on just 11 nights—the free "Target First Saturdays" that are centered on drinks, music and dancing along with art.
But Mr. Lehman is proud of his record, and adds, "We are doing a street-art show, and we are talking about tattoos." And, he continues, "It's not about playing to the community to the degree some writers suggest." If it were, the museum's galleries wouldn't currently be filled with "Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains," would they? "We have a great Native American collection," he explains, "and we haven't done a major exhibition of Native American art in more than 15 years."
In any case, Mr. Lehman has moved on to his next idea, which involves something many museums should be doing: focusing more on their permanent collections. "I have spent a lot of time," he says, "looking at how this collection should be seen in the 21st century by 21st-century visitors, all of whom have a lot more access to information than even the most respected curators did 75 years ago."
In part, this is pragmatic: With money tight, museums have had to cut back on expensive loan exhibitions. But in part, this is visionary. For decades, museums trained visitors to come for their changing exhibitions, all but ignoring the treasures they actually own. Frequently, permanent-collection galleries are virtually empty, left to the dwindling pool of committed art-lovers. "We will make the permanent collection the primary attraction of the Brooklyn Museum," Mr. Lehman promises. "I don't want to see our visitation going up and down because of exhibitions."
In recent years, many museums have reinstalled their collections to make them more appealing, using themes rather than chronology as the organizing principle, for example, or deploying computer technology to convey interpretation. Mr. Lehman has greater ambitions. His colleagues, in his slightly exaggerated view, have been stuck in a rut. "Museums display art the way they did 75 and 100 years ago, keeping all the cultures separate and not intersecting decorative and fine arts," he says, citing one example.
Mr. Lehman began experimenting at least as long ago as that reinstallation of the American art collection in 2001. "Visitors liked it, but our professional colleagues did not. They were upset. We are going to upset everyone again," he says, beaming at the thought. "We don't have a model; we are trying to invent the model."
His curators have plenty of raw material to work with. The permanent collection ranges from ancient Egyptian artifacts through 21st-century works. "We are looking at every collection and changing how you will see the connections between these collections," Mr. Lehman says.
That does not mean that African art, say, will be dispersed throughout the building so that visitors can see that the "Master of Ntem" in Gabon was carving a reliquary figure about the same time as Albert Bierstadt was painting his "A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie." But, Mr. Lehman says, where there are connections between cultures or time periods or with the art of a colonizer or something else, "we'll give you a sense of what went on."
How these displays will be concocted is still in development. "But," Mr. Lehman says, "technology will be heavily involved. There may be iPads for visitors, an upgrading of cellphone guides and lots of flat-screens in the galleries. They will provide information without taking over the galleries."
Furthermore, "a greater percentage of the building, four or five years from now, will be devoted to the permanent collection than today." Room for changing exhibitions will expand, too. "We are recovering space that had been given over to offices, storage and other nonpublic activities," he says.
As a lure, Mr. Lehman will turn the two-story colonnaded Great Hall—occupied now by a site-specific installation by Brooklyn-based Situ Studio—into what he calls "an introductory gallery" that will give visitors a taste of what they'll encounter in the permanent collection. This display will change periodically.
The public will get its first glimpse of this transformation in mid-2012. But Mr. Lehman notes that it will not finish until 2017 or 2018. He is planning to still be around then: "I don't start things that I don't finish," he says.