A young architect, with deep roots in the Brooklyn Museum, becomes responsible for a $55 million renovation

Brigham Keehner, Capital Projects Manager, Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Danny Perez.

The Brooklyn Museum has taken major steps in transformative change to reach new century audiences. One of many is the hiring of visionary Capital Projects Director, 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 à Morisot: the real and the imaginary in European art. On view from February 11, 2022 to May 21, 2023, Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Danny Perez

“I came to the museum because of a shared passion to serve 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 knows how to imagine how places can heal, restore and reinvent the physical and social fabric of our urban spaces.”

Incumbent Mayor Bill de Blasio awarded the museum $50 million in November 2021, thanks to the “tenacity” of museum director Anne Pasternak, says Keehner. A large portion of this donation will go towards upgrading and revitalizing approximately 40,000 square feet of gallery space on the fourth and fifth floors. “It’s our American and European collections,” says Keehner. “They contain many paintings and sculptures, furniture and industrial design, as well as actual homes and living spaces of [old-time] Brooklyn.

Like many Brooklynites, Keehner’s personal experience with the museum dates back to childhood. “My father was on the museum’s board in the 1980s,” he says. “When I was in third grade, my favorite teacher was a wonderful person named Marty Rubin. She and her husband created the Rubin Gallery – the Egyptian Gallery –. Her husband was the president of the museum! I didn’t know that at the time. I have memories of meeting artists here, with my parents and my ninth grade class. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! This person is an artist.’”

Many New Yorkers have a personal connection to certain pieces in the museum, and Keehner is no exception. “When I walked in the first day, I saw a play that 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 it in our garden. Every time I see it now, I’m like, ‘Hi, old friend.’ »

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

Keehner’s enthusiasm for his new gig is contagious. “The museum had a major influence on my passion for art and architecture,” he says. “I am one of several hundred people who have been able to climb into the rotunda – the dome – and walk between its two shells. I’m a kid in a candy store!

The primary focus of the $50 million grant is to upgrade the gallery spaces on the 4th and 5th floors inside the museum. Another city investment includes funds for a major energy retrofit, with the aim of reducing the building’s carbon footprint. “Galleries need to have rigorous climate control,” Keehner points out. “Besides, it’s an old building that has suffered a lot. It deserves a healing to make the museum more energy efficient and to support the artworks in a state of the art way.

installation view, Design: 1880–present, on view October 23, 2020. Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

Before the museum’s main entrance was renovated in 2004, many Brooklynites felt it looked like a place where locals didn’t belong. “As an architect, I can tell you that buildings that have columns that look like they came from Greece and are mounted on an ivory plinth look like government buildings – which is difficult,” agrees Keehner. “Just the nature of them being up high and having steps so someone who’s in a wheelchair can’t get in…These types of buildings are not welcoming.”

Now that it has what essentially amounts to the most impressive front porch in Brooklyn – complete with a glass entrance pavilion and a terraced public plaza – the museum has become a social hub. “We have the local food trucks parked outside, we have First Saturdays, we have voting booths at election time,” Keehner notes. “When the Black Lives Matter protests were taking place outdoors, the museum [staff] was very keen on opening its doors so people could use the bathroom.”

Installation view, Monet à Morisot: the real and the imaginary in European art. On view from February 11, 2022 to May 21, 2023, Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Danny Perez

This down-to-earth humanitarianism, says Keehner, is reflected in the descriptions of the art. “We take a stand 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 whatever the year.’ They are, ‘This is an 18th century European painting of a woman and her two children. Her husband died of the plague three weeks before; she is in mourning and you see her son has typhoid. The subject becomes a human.

Installation view, American Reinstall (Phase 1), on view from 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 a way that respects a sense of fair justice. “We try to create events that many different types of people can relate to and want to come to, and maybe be influenced by,” he says. “We see the museum as a way to accommodate multiple communities, even people who might not feel like they belong in a museum. We want them to feel like it’s a place they can be.

This seems entirely appropriate, given that the museum’s inception predates the consolidation of Brooklyn into New York (a move, admittedly, that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle vehemently protested at the time). “Ultimately, the museum was made for Brooklyn,” says Keehner. “So it will always be Brooklyn-focused. We want a museum that Brooklynites can relate to by feeling their own story – and Brooklyn’s story – on many levels. A museum that educates Brooklynites about where they belong. With the city’s incredible capital donation and the museum’s impending 200th anniversary in 2024, there is no doubt that great things are to come.

Installation view, American Reinstall (Phase 1), on view from December 23, 2020. Photo: Jonathan Dorado
Installation view, Design: 1880 to Now, on view from October 23, 2020. Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado
Installation view, Monet à Morisot: the real and the imaginary in European art. On view from February 11, 2022 to May 21, 2023, Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Danny Perez

About Byron G. Fazio

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