"Celebrating Modernism at the Brooklyn Museum," Antiques and the Arts Weekly, November 4, 2005 If asked to name the most important public collection of Modern art in New York, most museum-goers would say the Museum of Modern Art, with the Whitney and Guggenheim tying for second place. Very few, however, would think of the Brooklyn Museum, an institution with a long tradition of supporting and collecting Modern art. The Brooklyn Museum is older than the other three museums. With its vast collections housed in a Beaux- Arts building, it seems much more like a sister-institution to the Met.  Indeed, the construction of the Brooklyn Museum began in 1895, seven years before Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, was born. Nonetheless, the Brooklyn Museum has, from the beginning, taken an interest in whatever was currently going on in the art world. At first this meant painting and sculpture, but by the early 20th century, the museum was also exhibiting contemporary design. The museum’s holdings trace the history of Modern design through the 20th century—and then some. There are some foreign pieces, but the collection’s strength lies in its coverage of the American scene. It hits all the highlights, from the skyscraper bookcases of Paul Frankl to the kettles and toasters of Michael Graves. In the early years, however, the museum was noted more for its support of contemporary design than for its acquisitions. There were many efforts to promote design, but only sporadic efforts to add pieces to the permanent collection.  The earliest outreach dates back to the period after World War I, when the museum established a study center for designers and students to consult the collections.  Because of its usefulness for the textile industry, this resource was supported, in part, by the local department stores.  And beginning in the 1930s, the museum organized exhibitions of contemporary design that were the modest descendants of the great Victorian tradeshows. The American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen held its first exhibition there, in 1931.  On that occasion, the galleries were filled with abstract screens, streamlined bookends, and chrome lamp tables. The show was compared favorably with a similar event held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Still, the 1920s and ’30s were not a prosperous time.  The design center was shut down during the worst years of the economic crisis.  Further proof of neglect: The quarterly acquisitions lists, which suggest that the museum was not being patronized by the city’s most important collectors.  Small gifts trickled in, antique curling irons and coverlets, Dutch shoes and Spanish fans.  The museum was even given a walking stick that once belonged to John Ruskin—this at a time when the Victorian critic’s reputation was hardly at its zenith.  Moreover, the maintenance of the building was neglected, and there were problems with erratic record keeping and haphazard exhibition displays.  Such problems were everywhere, and some sort of overhaul was in order. It came during the brief, controversial directorship of Philip Newell Youtz. Youtz was more of an activist than a scholar. He began his career as the curator of a college museum, but after this conventional start, he moved to China to teach. Then it was back to the States, where he was affiliated with the People’s Institute, an adult education center in New York City.   In 1933, he was hired as the assistant director of the Brooklyn Museum, and the following year he was made director, a post he held until 1938.  The museum was transformed during his tenure. Some of the changes he oversaw were the sort that any ambitious and energetic director might carry out: Better equipment for the conservation laboratory and new lectures for the education department. Other changes, however, proved enduringly controversial. The renovation of the museum building is the most dubious part of the Youtz legacy. As conceived by McKim, Mead and White, the main entrance to the building was an Ionic portico that was reached by a grand staircase. Tradition and hierarchy were at odds with the new ideas, so Youtz had the staircase broken up and removed. Entry at street level was more in keeping with his conception of a museum.  A good part of the interior architecture was, likewise, eliminated. The ornamental plasterwork, the coffered ceilings, the columns—such features were either torn out or covered up with white paint.  Even the display cases were shorn of all ornament when metal replacements were unavailable. These were not the accidental blunders of a mismanaged renovation.  Rather they were part of a plan that was regularly reported on in the museum bulletin, in a series of articles with titles ranging from the understated (“Alterations”) to the ominous (“Curing the Blind”).  The changes were, moreover, explained in the clearest language.  “As far as possible, the interior architecture of the galleries was suppressed” is a typical example of the museum administration’s plain speaking. Critically, the renovation was a success.  No one (or, more precisely, no journalist) had anything but praise for the project.  The removal of the grand staircase, which is cited today as one of those blights from the pre-Landmarks era, was back then an undisputed improvement. The newly configured entrance hall was likewise praised in the New York Times as a “clean, invitingly bare, and modern” space.  These changes reflected the latest theories on architecture and museum management.  It also seems likely that Youtz had swallowed a good dose of the Depression-era Marxism that was floating around places like the People’s Institute.  Accounts of the renovation give a real feel for the period—right down to the W.P.A. workmen. To us, though, that era seems as remote as the Victorian fustiness that the museum was trying to clear away. By the early 1940s, the museum had renewed its ties with industry, and was hosting exhibitions related to wartime production. There were big shows of the latest design, in the 1950s and ’60s. The museum worked with industry in other ways, too. At the Design Laboratory, designers in search of inspiration could examine objects in the museum’s collections.  Sometimes the influence was literal. In an account of the study center, historic pieces from the museum’s collection were paired with the contemporary pieces they had inspired. Thus a Victorian milk-glass compote was paired with a fabric design depicting, among other things, a Victorian milk-glass compote.  The influence, in most cases, though was probably more diffused, with designers picking up here and there ideas for motifs and colors. Despite giving so much support to industry, the museum was less aggressive in its acquisitions. There was money in the budget to buy fine art, but design was overlooked. Take the pictorial essay that was published in Life magazine in the early 1950s. In “What Do U.S. Museums Buy,” the subject was the acquisitions of six American museums during one year. The institution that the Brooklyn Museum matched most closely was the Museum of Modern Art.  The Brooklyn Museum picked up an Egyptian sarcophagus and a few works by traditional artists like Benjamin West.  But it went all out for Modern painting, buying Paul Klees, Mark Tobeys and Bonnards.  The Museum of Modern Art, not surprisingly, had similar collecting interests, though it also acquired some kitchen utensils and an Art Nouveau desk.  The article left it to the big-spending Midwestern institutions to stock up on the Old Masters.  But in the past three decades, thanks to a directed acquisitions policy and a base of generous donors, the museum has filled in the gaps.  The career of Ray and Charles Eames is an example of how the museum has conscientiously built up its holdings. The early experiments with molded plywood and fiberglass are represented by a half dozen chairs. Other pieces by the Eames, from coat racks to stools, are also on view; there is even a leg splint from the early 1940s. Most of these pieces were acquired by the museum in the past 25 years. Then there is the work of George Nelson, who was for many years the design director for the Herman Miller Company.  Visitors can see the triangular-shaped “Coconut Chair,” 1958, and a black and white pedestal armchair. The Brooklyn Museum had close ties with Nelson during the 1950s. In fact, he was one of a handful of designers invited to curate a special exhibition mixing contemporary and historic design. Not that the relationship lead to any meaningful acquisitions.  It is due to two recent donors that the museum can show these refined examples of molded fiberglass seating furniture. The generosity is on view in other media.  A cache of mid-century silver is one of the many gifts that have made the Brooklyn Museum an imperative destination for the connoisseur of 20th-century design. Best of all, it’s easy to get there: you can catch the train from Times Square, which is only a short walk from 53rd Street.
Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Museums Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971