New York museums like The Met and MoMA have long enjoyed recognition the world over as just about as good as it gets. Judged according to the quality of their collections and the exhibitions they put on, they are global brands established through decades of excellence. Then there is the Brooklyn Museum. Esteemed by art aficionados for its fine collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities and American Art between the early 1700s and 1945, it nevertheless has always played second or third fiddle to its tonier cousins across the river in Manhattan.
But that was then. Nowadays the Brooklyn Museum, by virtue of its very name, has a card up its sleeve that played right can vault it into global status. Unlike The Met or MoMA, located in now-passé Manhattan, Brooklyn itself is one of the world’s hottest brands. It’s why, for instance, even in blasé Paris clothing can sell because, say shopowners there, its tag reads, made in Brooklyn. Or at least those threads look like what’s worn by Brooklyn hipsters. Indeed, the meaning of Brooklyn is something that has long since eclipsed location and ascended into ethos.
Clearly the museum gets this. Just consider the shows now on there.
In the vestibule artist Tom Sachs’ tricked-out boomboxes, some jumbo-sized, celebrate a mix of pop and ghetto cultures topped off by a understated rap soundtrack. Elsewhere in the lobby he’s constructed a barebones faux stationary store whose overhead sign includes the words “bureau des passeports.” By standing in front of it not only do you conjure up buying soda and candy on the street in summer but becoming a citizen of the world to boot.
Upstairs that spirit doesn’t quit. In fact, if anything it revs up a gear or two. Artist Stephen Powers is literally on the scene painting wacky signs that mirror the graffiti art and funhouse decor found in Coney Island, one of the world’s best-known tourist attractions. Then there’s the Agitprop!, a freewheeling showcase of works supporting political action and social change that have been created by a rotating cast of artists.
And if that’s not topical enough, elsewhere there’s a riveting exhibition of more than 600 photographs by a dozen of the world’s top photographers which examines life in the West Bank and Israel.
Finally, and my favorite, is show titled Disguise: Masks and Global African Art. It covers everything from sexism and racism to ancestor worship, mythology, technology and downright wackiness.
Walk the galleries and you cannot escape that these exhibits are attracting an Afrocentric, hipster, millennial, multicultural, whatever you want to call it, 21st century community that is as distant from Manhattan and an old-fashioned museum audience as can be.
The message I took away is that Brooklyn is a community which itself is a proxy for a new global culture and that the Brooklyn Museum is making a strong bid to be the epicenter of that community. It is an ambitious concept.