The Brooklyn Museum just announced that it is appointing as its new director Anne Pasternak, who has never actually worked in a museum.
While perhaps lesser-known outside New York City than the Metropolitan Museum or MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum is no small potato. Housed in an imposing Beaux-Arts building at the edge of Prospect Park, it’s the second-largest museum in New York, with well over a million works in its collection and more than 300 full-time staffers.
Someone new to museums might seem like a strange pick for director of one of the country’s oldest and most important ones.
Leading a museum involves not only developing a board, courting donors, and building staff — things Pasternak has years of experience with, if on a smaller scale — but also managing a massive facility, a vast collection, a large team of curators, and a budget most nonprofits can only dream of. That’s why the top candidates for these roles, which at the country’s flagship institutions come up only rarely, are usually hand-picked from among those already high-up in the museum world.
Yet Pasternak’s appointment, which will make her the first woman to lead either of the city’s largest two museums, represents a significant shift in the art world and — as one longtime arts leader argued — it’s an “inspired choice” by the Brooklyn Museum.
Full disclosure here: As someone who worked closely with Pasternak for nearly two years at Creative Time, the organisation she has led for two decades, I’m not an impartial observer. I’m basically a groupie: one of the many fans she’s picked up along the way. I can testify firsthand though that she consistently inspires the people around her, pushing artists to dream big and rallying employees and supporters to great loyalty and devotion.
That’s the key behind Pasternak’s rise to the helm of such an iconic institution: not where exactly she’s worked, but what she’s shown she is capable of imagining and — often against challenging odds — executing to great acclaim.
“You can’t have expertise in every area in an encyclopedic museum,” Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City, told The New York Times. “Mainly you have to be a good evaluator and a good attractor of talent, and Anne is both those things.”
Pasternak ran a small gallery in the late 1980s, spent a year as the curator for a space in Hartford, and co-founded a nonprofit called BRAT. In 1994, the Times notes, when Pasternak took the reigns at Creative Time, “she was its only full-time employee.” She was also only about 30 years old.
The public art nonprofit, now famous for launching ambitious projects like Tribute in Light and Kara Walker’s much-ballyhooed installation at the Domino sugar factory, was a scrappy upstart when it was founded in the early 1970s. It always punched above its weight, but under Pasternak’s leadership, it became a real powerhouse, growing from a one-woman operation on a shoestring budget to a team of 25 with an annual budget of $US5 million.
Along the way, Creative Time somehow held on to its alternative, counter-culture appeal, embracing bold and provocative ideas while drawing crowds of visitors to its events and exhibitions, which are almost always free to the public. A proven record of success with that kind of outreach — increasingly important to major institutions that are shedding the stuffy reputations of yesteryear — seems like it was one of the sticking points in the Brooklyn Museum’s decision, which is shaking up the traditional power dynamics of the art world in the best way possible.
“Deeply passionate about engaging broad audiences that transcend geographic, racial, and socioeconomic divisions, Anne Pasternak has continually championed artists and works relevant to the contemporary age,” a museum press release noted. “This fresh approach makes Pasternak uniquely qualified to lead the Brooklyn Museum.”
Pasternak may have never worked at a museum — she has, it bears noting, curated museum shows — but that rare mix of visionary leadership, art world street cred, and inclusive spirit seems to be exactly what the Brooklyn Museum was after.
For Pasternak, who has helped realise the dreams of a long list of artists during her tenure at Creative Time, it’s also a bit of a dream come true. “If there was one job I fantasized about,” she told the Times, “it was being director of the Brooklyn Museum.”
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