Mr. Lehman made many attempts to reinvigorate the museum. But he will most likely be remembered for being at the center of one of the most bitter public fights in recent museum history when, in 1999, he presented “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection,” a show of art from the holdings of Charles Saatchi, the British advertising magnate. Although the show was widely popular and attracted some 170,000 visitors, Mr. Lehman was attacked by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Roman Catholic leaders for including an artwork by Chris Ofili depicting the Virgin Mary, decorated with elephant dung.Leaving aside the controversy, I thought most of the art in the Sensation exhibition was jejune (Marcus Harvey's powerful and disturbing Myra was a prominent exception). Also, I hate the new front of the museum, because the classical front was gorgeous and--get off my lawn, that's why!
The mayor threatened to cut the city’s funding to the museum and accused it of colluding with Mr. Saatchi to inflate the value of his art. The museum faced scrutiny for financing the exhibition largely with donations from those who stood to profit from it. Adding to the protests was the revelation that Mr. Lehman had lied about having seen the show himself in London. Still, it was the first time many Americans had seen the work of a generation of British artists, of whom many, like Damien Hirst, Mr. Ofili and Tracey Emin, have gone on to be superstars.
“It was through that show that all those artists were introduced to an American museumgoing public,” Mr. Lehman recalled.
The “Sensation” brouhaha was just one of his struggles. Shortly after he arrived in Brooklyn from the Baltimore Museum of Art, where he had been director for 18 years, Mr. Lehman started making what at the time were considered audacious managerial decisions, ones that made him a kind of lightning rod. In 2006 he shook up the curatorial staff by replacing traditional departments like Egyptian art and European paintings and created two teams, one for collections and one for exhibitions — prompting the resignations of three longtime curators and two board members.
Still, over the years, Mr. Lehman increased the museum’s annual attendance to 558,788 visitors from 247,000. He also more than doubled the institution’s endowment, which is now $123 million, but was $55 million when he arrived in 1997. Since 1998, with the introduction of programs like First Saturdays, when the museum is open free until 11 p.m. on the first Saturday of almost every month, he has transformed the place into a kind of nightclub, with food, wine and live music. This popular event has helped turn the place into a hangout for Brooklyn residents and attract a significantly younger crowd.
“The average age of visitors in 1997 was around 58,” Mr. Lehman said. “A couple of years ago, it was about 35. Now, when I look around, I feel like everybody’s great-grandfather.”
He also made significant architectural changes to the museum’s classical McKim, Mead & White home, the most instantly visible being the redesign of its entrance, with a modern glass canopy. The design, by Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects LLC) included a newly conceived lobby and public plaza as well. He has also started systematically renovating the galleries to make them more coherent and climate-controlled.
That said, Lehman did a lot to revitalize and popularize a great museum, and his departure truly marks a new era at a great Brooklyn landmark.