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Young Architect, With Deep Roots At Brooklyn Museum, Becomes Lead on $50MM Renovation

August 8, 2022 Elizabeth Kuster
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The Brooklyn Museum has taken some major steps in transformative changes to reach audiences in the new century. Just one among many is the hiring of a visionary capital projects executive, Brooklyn native Brigham Keehner, to redesign and reinvigorate some of the museum’s public spaces in tandem with the 200th anniversary of its founding.

Installation view, Monet to Morisot: The Real and Imagined in European Art. On view February 11, 2022 – May 21, 2023, Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Danny Perez

“I came to the museum because of a shared passion for serving the city, its people and its environment with a broader impact on social justice,” says Keehner, who grew up on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. “It’s an organization that is adept at envisioning how places can heal, restore and reimagine the physical and social fabric of our urban spaces.”

Outgoing mayor Bill de Blasio granted the museum $50 million in November 2021, thanks to the “tenacity” of museum director Anne Pasternak, Keehner says. A large part of that gift will go toward upgrading and revitalizing roughly 40 thousand square feet of gallery space on the fourth and fifth floors. “That’s our American and European collections,” explains Keehner. “They contain lots of paintings and sculptures, furniture and industrial design, and actual homes and living spaces from [old-time] Brooklyn.”

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Like many Brooklynites, Keehner’s personal experience with the museum goes all the way back to childhood. “My father was a board member at the museum in the ’80s,” he says. “When I was in third grade, my favorite teacher was a wonderful person named Marty Rubin. She and her husband were the ones who put the Rubin Gallery — the Egyptian Gallery — together. Her husband was the president of the museum! But I didn’t know that at the time. I have memories of meeting artists here, with my parents and third-grade class. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! This person is an artist.’”

Many New Yorkers have a personal connection with certain pieces in the museum, and Keehner is no exception. “When I walked in on my first day, I saw a piece I remembered from my childhood, and I was like, ‘I know that one!’ I sent a picture of it to my dad and he said, ‘Yes! We had a copy of that in our garden.’ Every time I see it now, I’m like, ‘Hi, old friend.’”

Installation view, American Reinstall (Phase 1), On view beginning December 23, 2020. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

Keehner’s enthusiasm for his new gig is infectious. “The museum was a major influence on my passion for art and architecture,” he says. “I’m one of only a couple hundred people who have ever gotten to climb into the rotunda — the dome — and walk between its two shells. I’m a kid in a candy store!”

The $50MM grant’s main focus is on modernizing the 4th and 5th floor gallery spaces inside the museum. Another investment from the city includes funds for a major energy retrofit, with the aim to reduce the building’s carbon footprint. “Galleries have to have stringent climate control,” Keehner points out. “Also, it’s an old building that’s been through a lot. It deserves healing to get the museum more energy efficient and to support the artwork in a state-of-the-art way.”

nstallation view, Design: 1880 to Now, on view beginning October 23, 2020. Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

Prior to the 2004 renovation of the museum’s front entrance, many Brooklynites felt that it looked like a place where people from the neighborhood didn’t belong. “As an architect, I can tell you that buildings that have columns and look like they’re from Greece and are way up on some ivory plinth look like government buildings — which is tough,” Keehner agrees. “Just the nature of them being high up and having steps, so someone who is wheelchair-bound can’t get in… These kinds of buildings aren’t welcoming.”

Now that it has what basically amounts to Brooklyn’s most awesome front stoop — complete with glass entrance pavilion and a terraced public plaza — the museum has become a social center. “We have the local food trucks parked outside, we have First Saturdays, we have voting booths when it’s time for elections,” Keehner notes. “When Black Lives Matter protests were going on outside, the museum [staff] felt very strongly about opening its doors so people could use the bathroom.”

Installation view, Monet to Morisot: The Real and Imagined in European Art. On view February 11, 2022 – May 21, 2023, Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Danny Perez

This down-to-earth humanitarianism, Keehner says, is reflected in the descriptions of the art. “We take stands on things, and consciously evoke the stories behind the art in a way that’s relatable,” he says. “The descriptions are not, ‘So and so did this painting in whatever the year was.’ They’re, ‘This is an 18th-century European painting of a woman and her two children. Her husband died from the plague three weeks before; she is in mourning and you can see that her son has typhoid.’ The subject becomes a human being.”

Installation view, American Reinstall (Phase 1), On view beginning December 23, 2020. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

As Keehner continues to assess the museum’s existing space and plan its transformation, he says he is “blown away every day” by the staff’s dedication to educating, being inclusive and inspiring visitors in ways that follow a sense of equitable justice. “We try to create events that many different kinds of people can relate to and want to come to, and maybe be influenced by,” he says. “We look at the museum as a way of welcoming multiple communities — even people who might not feel as though they belong in a museum. We want them to feel that this is a place that they can be.”

That seems only fitting, considering that the museum’s inception pre-dates Brooklyn’s consolidation into New York City (a decision, it must be admitted, that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle protested vociferously at the time). “At the end of the day, the museum was made for Brooklyn,” says Keehner. “So it will always be Brooklyn-focused. We want a museum that people from Brooklyn can relate to by feeling their own history — and the history of Brooklyn — on many levels. A museum that teaches Brooklynites about their place. With the incredible capital gift from the city, and the museum’s impending 200th-year anniversary in 2024, there is no question that great things are to come.”

Installation view, American Reinstall (Phase 1), On view beginning December 23, 2020. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

 

Installation view, Design: 1880 to Now, on view beginning October 23, 2020. Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

 

Installation view, Monet to Morisot: The Real and Imagined in European Art. On view February 11, 2022 – May 21, 2023, Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Danny Perez

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