The Brooklyn Museum: a dynamic alternative to the Met

When visiting New York City, it’s easy to get caught up in Museum Mile—the Met, MoMa, Guggenheim, Whitney, Frick, so on and so forth. Other gems in Manhattan might catch the eye and tickle the fancy, especially if they are easily accessible from Grand Central. But the unsung hero of the New York art scene is hiding in Crown Heights: The Brooklyn Museum of Art.

The breadth and depth of objects at the Brooklyn Museum is best compared to the Met. Boasting strong departments of both Western and non-Western holdings, it best known for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and the Egyptian collection. But all five floors are laden with artistic and cultural wonders from across temporal and geographical boundaries, including Visible Storage and numerous temporary exhibits that amaze and inspire.

The Brooklyn Museum is fairly easy to access from the subway, and let’s be real—almost all of your NYC friends live in Brooklyn anyway. In all likelihood, they haven’t been to the Brooklyn Museum either, (mine certainly haven’t), so you can enjoy the outing together. You’ll know when you are there because the neo-classical architecture is quite impressive with enormous ionic columns and a relatively new glass pavilion that ushers you into a truly lovely lobby.

Now if we are comparing this experience to the Met, the most immediate and noticeable difference is the significantly thinner crowd. Unfortunately for the museum, a general lack of advertising, its location in Brooklyn and I’m sure a myriad of other factors have led to a dwindling number of visitors.

Fortunately for you, this means lots of breathing room wherever you go. There is nothing worse than trying to contemplate a Monet while surrounded by screaming children, obnoxious tour guides, babbling tourists and apathetic teenagers. In Brooklyn, this is (mostly) avoidable, making the whole experience much more pleasant.

The first few times that I visited, I must admit that only one department caught my attention. The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is absolutely extraordinary. Objects from the permanent collection and temporary exhibits are certainly interesting and well worth your time, but the real showstopper is “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago.

If you could only see one piece of art in your entire life, arguably this should be it. In many ways, words fail to express the sheer grandeur and components and emotional response that I have to this piece—yet I will try my best.

Chicago created this piece in the 1970s with the help of hundreds of volunteers. It has three major components: an entrance lined with banners, the Dinner Party itself, and Heritage Panels at the end that give more historical information. The Dinner Party is an enormous triangular setting for a banquet for some of the greatest female minds in human history.

Thirty-nine women from pre-history goddesses to Georgia O’Keeffe are chronologically represented. Each place setting includes a ceramic vagina plate and an embroidered table runner, showcasing the artisanal talents of female potters and embroiders throughout the ages. Below the tables is the Heritage Floor, with the names of 999 women inscribed on hand-made tiles.

If this all sounds like a bit much, then you’d be right. The experience is completely overwhelming, and I haven’t even begun to describe all of the layers and symbolism that is covered by the audio guide. But it is overwhelming in all of the right ways. This artwork punches you in the gut, and challenges mind, body and soul in a way that is rare. It is controversial, emotional, transporting, degrading, uplifting and inspirational—and those are just the first few adjectives that fly off the top of my head. If nothing else, it is a well-spent 30 minutes that will remain with you for the rest of your life—and that’s a promise.

Presuming you have any energy after you leave the Sackler wing, visiting any other department would be a good bet. As I mentioned before, the Egyptian holdings are particularly strong. In fact, when referring to Egyptian collections, the Brooklyn Museum is always mentioned in the same breath as the Met, British Museum and Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy. The well-known “Bird Lady” is an exceptionally stunning piece, a rather odd statue amalgamation of a woman and bird from pre-dynastic Egypt, likely fabricated to invoke a goddess of fertility. A number of such prime pieces belong to the museum due to their extensive excavations in Egypt in the early 20th century and fortuitous donations from Egyptologists throughout the decades. If nothing else, the “Mummy Chamber” sounds awesome.

During my most recent visit, I was whisked through the American and European Painting collections, and they are high on my priority list when I return. Yet I am always sidetracked by one or more of the temporary exhibits, which are constantly in flux.

The Brooklyn Museum is all about bringing in contemporary artists (especially locals) to both enliven their permanent collection and boost the artistic community. A recent example was “Playing House”, in which four female artists were asked to create site-specific installations in period rooms, an exhibit which I found to be unconventional and innovative. Currently on-tap is “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui”, which features 12 of internationally acclaimed contemporary artist El Anatsui’s monumental metal and wood works.

Like the Met, the Brooklyn Museum’s admission is “suggested”, meaning that you are totally off the hook and can enjoy all of this for free. That being said, they could probably really use the suggested $8 fee. I recall a story someone once told me when I asked about the history of the museum. They told me that at one point, it was recommended that the collections be acquired by the Met, but the Brooklyn Museum insisted on remaining autonomous as a center of history and culture for the borough of Brooklyn.

This story is reminiscent of Yale’s 1967 attempt to acquire Vassar, and our vital decision to hold our own. I feel that Vassar and the Brooklyn Museum are sisters of a sort, and we should therefore support each other’s independence. So if the treasures I’ve described aren’t enough to encourage you to drop by, I am calling on your moral obligations to visit the Brooklyn Museum on your next cultural voyage to the Big Apple.

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