From his spanking-new sixth-floor office in the museum's southeast wing, Brooklyn Museum director Robert T. Buck is admiring a spectacular view that looks out across the treetops of Prospect Park and continues on to a long slab of land that is Coney Island Park.
Visible at the dead center of the scene is a tower with cables swooping downward like the ropes to a giant, gray maypole. Buck identifies this strange object as Parachute Jump, once a popular Coney Island attraction.
In 1983, after a 10-year stint, Buck left as director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and assumed the Brooklyn post. Since then he has revitalized an institution that had been in a monumental slump for at least a decade and a half. Most commentators on the New York art scene agree that Buck has taken many courageous and necessary steps to restore momentum and viability to a sleepy, century-old art museum.
Some of his more daring decisions -- the master plan architectural competition especially -- are nothing short of spectacular leaps of faith. They are the museum equivalent of a free-fall from the top of Parachute Jump.
Buck has an unshakable belief that big ideas reap big results, that monumental projects bring out the best in a community and a staff. A $50 million to $100 million building program that will have the museum continuing construction well into the 21st century is not seen as an unparalleled funding and organizational problem -- although it will certainly be that -- but as a font of inspiration.
In Buck's ever-optimistic view the chute may not open until the last second, but it will open.
Grace Glueck of the New York Times once called Buck an "evangelistic outlander." That may have a bit of truth to it, but Buck is too relaxed and philosophical to be anything like a full-fledged fulminator. One gets the feeling that even if the chute didn't open he'd come up with his cherubic smile intact and, unruffled, move on to another solution.
Buck greets a visitor with a sparkling, slightly bemused gaze. He is tall -- just under 6 feet -- and, during conversation, carries his head at a thoughtful tilt. His boyish face seems incapable of a good, hard frown and looks as fresh and bright as a Fragonard painting, an effect only slightly diminished by a pair of cinnamon-colored horn-rims.
When asked the status of the Brooklyn Museum, he exclaims, "Super! -- with a brilliant future." He briefly bemoans the fact that the museum and its massive col
lection -- some 1 1/2 million objects -- has not been used to anywhere near its potential. Purchases and exhibitions, he says, have occurred "only willy-nilly."
When he first came, the museum was at a particularly low ebb. "A very, very talented staff was demoralized. They were not being motivated or orchestrated to being on the same wavelength."
From the start, Buck has motivated and orchestrated with boundless energy. When he wasn't absolutely sure of the timbre of things he called in consultants. A study by a panel of experts convinced him to close the museum's art school despite local grumbling (it was relocated at Pratt Institute). An ad agency argued that television was the only way to reach New Yorkers, so he promptly launched a series of spots -- brief and dignified -- that appeared on mainstream programs such as "Good Morning America" and "Masterpiece Theater." (The ads worked: Since Buck arrived, membership has increased some 40 percent and the museum has added a healthy 20 new members to its board of trustees.)
With considerable diplomacy, he convinced the city (which owns the building) to budget $3.1 million for the museum's first climate control system, a project now in progress. He brought in the museum's first contemporary curator, Charlotta Kotik, and two years ago helped establish the Contemporary Art Council, which helps in the purchase of contemporary works for the collection.
He set aside galleries for the important "Curator's Choice" shows. And for a mere $15,000 he refurbished a bleak lobby -- the main entryway to the museum -- and in one canny move created the largest exhibition wall (30 by 60 feet) for contemporary art in the city. In this unusual space he inaugurated the "Grand Lobby" series, large-scale installations by known and not-so-known artists.
"The lobby was just a big dark hole," Buck says. "You would step in and say, 'This is a depressing thing.' Now there are shows four times a year, basically seasonally and always contemporary. We invite an artist in to whip up a beautiful, terrific storm."
And then in 1986 came the most ambitious project of all, the Master Plan Competition. "The building was a mess," he says. "It was impossible to circulate in and we had no access from one part to another. It is a fragment."
This fragment, an 1893 design by the renowned firm of McKim, Mead & White, is undoubtedly the greatest unfinished public building in New York City. Had it been completed it would be 1.5 million square feet, the largest museum in the world. (For all its elegance, Buck says the unfinished facade makes him think of an outsized Hollywood set.)
It sits in an elegant complex of avenues, plazas, parks and gardens designed by the two great landscape designers of their day, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
The original museum was intended to be encyclopedic, with sections devoted to electricity, chemistry, engineering, music, stamps, architecture, zoology, even housekeeping -- along with the complete history of world painting and sculpture. By the late '30s, with its natural history collection sold, it was well on its way to being only a gallery of fine arts.
With the sweeping changes of the '30s, other things disappeared as well -- the three-story grand stairway for one thing, a demolition that Buck and most other observers consider an act of vandalism. Visitors are now confronted by five blank doors that sit at street level in utilitarian defiance of the regal columns above.
The only additions to the building since 1927 were the boxlike service additions to the south in 1977, which take neither the original building nor the the spaces of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens before it into account.
Buck is about to change that. From five finalists, a seven-person jury unanimously chose the team of Arata Isozaki & Associates and James Stewart Polshek and Partners. Buck, a member of the jury, could not be more enthused about the choice:
"The profile of the museum has never been higher. The building program is immensely interesting to people. The museum went out and got one of the most distinguished architectural teams in existence today. A lot of people see Isozaki as the world's leading architect today. Although that seems like a tremendously rash statement, if you look at the number of projects he's doing on a global basis and what they are, it can be justified."
Buck says the Master Plan Competition was not only a long-range building program but an intense process of self-examination. All involved found themselves engaged in a monumental educational process which created an enthusiasm and optimism that these grand halls probably had not seen since those first euphoric years at the beginning of the century.
A 150-foot-high obelisk, the architects' startlingly substitution for the great dome that had originally been planned, is the central image of the new building. Viewed from the Botanical Gardens, it is to be a clean, if slightly exotic, form. From inside, seen from a great sidelighted hall, its sloping walls will reach dramatically upward, culminating in a skylight.
It is a bold design, respecting McKim, Mead & White's original plan but not hamstrung by it. At times it uses literal reproductions of elements from the original design, and often new design work conforms to original dimensions. Careful restorations of the Beaux Arts Court, the Piano Nobile Lobby (the original entryway) and, yes, a faithful reconstruction of the grand stairway are to be undertaken.
With a $3.5 million gift from Iris and B. Gerald Cantor, the first step in the master plan will be under way by July. Stage 2, involving new construction, is two or three years off.
Some of Buck's museum colleagues considered him a bit daft to trade a jewel of a modern museum for a cumbersome Brooklyn ghost. They may now be changing their minds; clearly Buck has survived the transition in grand fashion.
"I felt overwhelmed for about four months. It's a very different kind of circumstance here. Instead of being a single-minded place like the Albright-Knox, it is part of a larger complex of cultural resources in New York City."
Grace Glueck, writing in the New York Times, applauds the decision to set out a master plan and says that Buck has made a number of strong and farsighted moves.
Still, she has questions: Can the money be found? And if the money is somehow provided, will the audience -- especially since Buck has said he intends to avoid the hoopla of blockbuster shows -- expand enough to justify the effort and expenditure?
Glueck points out that compared with other New York City museums, the Brooklyn works with small change. It struggles on a $9.4 million operating budget and its endowment is only $20 million, paltry when compared to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's $250 million.
But downtown Brooklyn is on the upswing and many, Glueck included, say Buck may have struck at just the right time. Harvey Lichtenstein, longtime president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, rescued in marvelous fashion that fading institution at a much less auspicious time. He sees Buck's chances of success as excellent.
Hilton Kramer, editor of the New Criterion, says Buck has virtually brought the museum back from the dead. "It was suffering from a seemingly terminal illness from the late '60s until Buck arrived," he says.
"The greatest single thing he's done is the Courbet exhibition (the major show of this past season). That show put the Brooklyn Museum on the the map in New York City and on the map internationally."
Buck explains why he chose Gustave Courbet in the first place: "He had not been done for a good generation in the United States -- 28 years, it turned out. There was the impression from past exhibitions that Edouard Manet was 'the father of modernism,' and I objected to that. If anybody is, Courbet is."
Kramer feels that the Master Plan Competition is the least interesting thing that Buck has done. "New York museums have more than enough problems dealing with the space that they have. It is not worth the effort considering the cost and the maintenance involved."
As for the lobby shows -- in Kramer's view, so far, so horrible. Installations by such artists as Pat Steir, Sol Lewitt, Alexis Smith, Jenny Holzer, Robert Longo and Martin Puryear have not impressed Kramer. "They don't represent much in artistic value but they do give the entryway a lively, more hospitable feeling."
Buck says that a successful acquisition program today is more problematic than ever. "You can say we'll do this or that, but it doesn't do a bit of good if the work is not available," he explains. "I don't want to say that we're subject to the wheel of chance; we should act as though we can really organize ourselves and try to have a structured program of acquisitions."
The trouble is that the modern market prices the museums out very rapidly. "Since we have limited resources we are always asking donors to step up, but the tax laws are very prejudicial. The number of objects is drying up to the point where it is 10 percent of what it used to be two to three years ago. That's a loss of 90 percent of the works! All that is because capital gains is no longer being made available to declaration without being subject to the alternate minimum tax.
"Yes, you would say, but there must be major donors whose motivations are not subject to tax laws. That altruistic thought has more or less disappeared. Even the loyal and constant donors hedge and wait for tax changes. Everyone feels the system can't endure as it is because it has cost too much to hospitals, universities and to museums."
Buck is intent on staking out his own territory. He says that they are not interested in what the Whitney does, or what the Modern or Guggenheim does either, in exhibitions or acquisitions. Nor does he intend to be in competition with the successful performance pieces being done by his near-neighbor, the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
"Robert Longo is a visual artist and what has happened over the last 10 years or so is that Lichtenstein and his assistants have awakened to the fact that there is a very rich vein to mine by involving visual artists with the performing arts, and that has become a real specialty of theirs. But as far as I'm concerned that's his invading my territory."
The museum is especially interested in the great number of artists who have moved their studios and residences to Brooklyn. "There is a growing sense of an artists' community," says Buck. "It includes some very great names, artists who have been here for some time -- William Tucker, for instance, was one of the first. Richard Artschwager was one of the most recent; Jules Olitski lives down the street. Then there's a whole group of people who arrived in the '70s -- Judy Pfaff, Alan Saret. Charlie Clough is way off somewhere in Brooklyn."
Clough, who a decade ago was a major stimulus to the Buffalo art scene, sees Buck as a kind of inspired "cultural instigator." "He's incredibly ambitious and I really admire what he's done," he says.
Clough now works in a studio situated at the outer edges of Brooklyn in Williamsburg where, from his loft windows, "Manhattan is a distant Oz." He has seen firsthand the good results of the museum's enthusiastic support of Brooklyn artists. In 1985 Buck and Kotik offered him the Grand Lobby to fill, an opportunity that turned out to be "one of the great cake-ish gigs of my life."
"Cake-ish" because Clough could do paintings of a size that would have been impossible for him in his studio (he even invented a special painting tool -- the Big Finger -- for the occasion) and have them displayed in a magnificent space.
And to add to that happy situation, it turned out Armand Castellani, the Niagara Falls collector, wound up buying the paintings and donating them to the Brooklyn Museum's collection.
Perhaps more than those institutions devoted exclusively to modern art, the Brooklyn Museum feels the crunch of the weakening dollar. "The ability of museums in money terms has not changed radically in the past three years, so what has happened is suddenly the already limited purchase funds are having to be spread over seven collections."
As it stands now, Buck says the strongest collections are in American 18th and 19th century painting and the Egyptian collection. "Those are the ones that come to mind. But that is not to exclude very eccentric and wonderful holdings in various other areas."
What is in store for future exhibitions? Buck mentions "The Opulent Era," a costume show from turn-of-the-century France; and an exhibition of the great Hudson River School painter Albert Bierstadt is in the works.
Obviously, Buck has a lot of say about what shows make it and what don't. "I'm apt to offer an opinion," he says with a close-lipped smile. "Everything being equal, my voice is about two-thirds. It's just self-protection. Whatever gets on the schedule I have to fund-raise for. So how can I fund-raise for a show if I don't especially care that it's being done?"
To say it differently, enthusiasm of Buck's full-blown, non-stop sort simply can't be faked.