John Passmore is the Archives Manager at WNYC.
Views on Art host Ruth Bowman discusses the Brooklyn Museum with its newly hired director, Duncan Cameron. Cameron served as director from 1971 to 1974.
At the time of this interview (June 29, 1972), the Brooklyn Museum was facing financial difficulties. Cameron mentions how limited funding caused delays in structural repairs, and how one particularly big storm left him scrambling to find buckets and plastic sheeting to repair a leaky roof. The budget shortages predate his tenure: when he took office in 1971 there was no money to stay open in the evenings, and several galleries were closed for extended periods during the day.
And yet, despite these fiduciary woes, the staff remained. In Cameron’s words, there was “a warmth about the place.” Museum curators were generous with their time and as host Ruth Bowman notes, openings were not stuffy “like other museum openings I could mention.”
At the opening of the Norman Rockwell exhibition, for example, there was a mix of hippies and black tie types. The atmosphere was like a “giant block party.”
Much of Bowman’s interview with Cameron focuses on the role of the Brooklyn Museum as a supporter of community culture and arts. At the time, the museum’s community gallery was unique, ultimately becoming a model for other New York City museums.
Cameron invited organizations like Women in the Arts (WITA) (which was formed in part to address the inequalities existing in a male dominated art world) to curate exhibitions in the museum’s space with complete autonomy. Cameron believed museums “must respond to social change” and allow for public spaces to exist within the walls of their institutions. These spaces were necessary because at that time, Cameron says, there was “no arts equivalent of the Town Hall meeting” or “no Hyde Park corner for the arts.”
Although Cameron wasn’t sure whether the anti-institutional sentiment in the arts world would endure or perhaps be replaced by a “pendulum swing the other way”, he was nevertheless committed to creating a “people’s museum” for the borough of Brooklyn. Along with the existing strengths in the museums’ classical and Islamic collections, from then on the institution would serve as a place for innovative community curation and cultural education.