A new international role for the Whitney

The Art Newspaper 14.148 (Jun 2004), p. 8.

A new international role for the Whitney

By Jason Edward Kaufman

A version of this article appeared in The Art Newspaper, June 2004, p. 8.

NEW YORK. When he took over as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art last November, Adam Weinberg vowed to revamp the administrative and curatorial structure of the museum, and with the appointment of his senior team in recent weeks he has followed through on that promise. He has abolished the position of deputy director in favor of an upper management team that reports directly to him, including associate directors for development, finance, communications and marketing, exhibitions, education, conservation, and human resources. Changes on the curatorial side are even more sweeping and consequential, establishing a wholly new artistic profile for the museum, and steering the institution towards an unprecedented course of international collaboration.

The curatorial hires, all starting July 1, are Donna DeSalvo, Joan Simon, and Elisabeth Sussman. Ms DeSalvo, the new associate director for programs and permanent collection curator, has been a senior curator at the Tate Modern in London since 2000. Ms Simon, an independent scholar, has been based in Paris since 1990 and will remain there as the Whitney’s curator-at-large. Ms Sussman, who worked at the Whitney for most of the 1990s, returns after guest curating touring retrospectives of Eva Hesse and Diane Arbus for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Mr Weinberg says Ms DeSalvo and Ms Simon will help the Whitney form relationships with museums abroad. This is part of the brief he was handed by Whitney chairman Leonard Lauder, who told The Art Newspaper last year that the incoming director would organise more shows that travel internationally. Ms Simon and Ms DeSalvo are now in place to effect that initiative, and Mr Weinberg confirms that they presage an increasingly international program for the world’s best known museum of American modern art.

“The Whitney wants to have a larger international presence,” says Mr Weinberg, “and Donna has spent five years at the Tate and is aware of international developments in art and the role that American art plays on an international basis. That expertise is important to help set up collaborations with other museums internationally,” he says, adding that Ms Simon also will be exploring partnerships in Europe and that associate curator Shamim Momin will help coordinate international projects.

“Joint projects could be in Asia and Latin America as well as Europe, and could involve acquisitions, publications or other projects as well as exhibitions,” Mr Weinberg says, adding that he intends to expand the patrons committee to include international members. “I’m not interested in setting up museums abroad,” he adds, “but sending our exhibitions abroad will give the Whitney a greater international presence. This is not at the expense of national collaborations,” he emphasizes, “but we feel it is important to increasingly have relationship with our peers abroad.” He says that “several projects with Europe are under discussion,” but will not be announced until the fall.

They will not be the first time the Whitney has reached beyond US borders, but never before has achieving an overseas presence been made policy. The 1993 Biennial went to Seoul, Korea, and a reduced version of the 1995 Biennial visited Prague and Copenhagen. More recently, three European museum directors guest-curated permanent-collection exhibitions in New York, a series overseen by Mr Weinberg himself during his previous stint as a curator at the museum. And last year’s “American effect” exhibition presented work by artists outside the US who took America as their subject. There also has been a joint acquisition of a Bill Viola video installation with the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Tate.

The new international tack is a necessary expansion of the 74-year-old museum’s founding mission to advocate for undersung American artists at a time when Europe ruled the international art roost. After the triumph of American painting following the Allied victory in the Second World War, that original mission became obsolete. It continues to describe itself as “the leading advocate of 20th- and 21st-century American art” even as globalisation of culture is rendering the notion of a museum dedicated solely to American art increasingly restrictive and irrelevant. As Ms DeSalvo puts it, “The US is a highly elastic concept.” By expanding its sense of self, the Whitney is responding to the altered cultural landscape of the 21st century.

The change may impact not only the itineraries of Whitney shows, but their content, as well. “I’m interested in exploring relationships between American and international artists, both contemporary and historical,” Mr Weinberg says. Ms Simon notes that “many American artists have had substantial careers in Europe. Yet, the relationship of early 20th century American artists and European modernism has not been the subject of major exhibitions. Mr Weinberg says he has a lot of ideas, but has held back to wait to discuss plans with the new curators.

They meet for the first time this month [June] to begin formulating plans. “We’ll begin with larger philosophical questions and move to specifics,” says Mr Weinberg, noting that he is reserving the chief curatorial role for himself. Ms DeSalvo will serve as the “point person” between him and the rest of the curatorial team — a group of what Mr Weinberg likes to call “curators who have specialties but are not specialists.” Whereas his predecessor, Maxwell Anderson, assigned curators specific areas of the collection — Barbara Haskell was curator of prewar art, Marla Prather curator of postwar art, and Larry Rinder curator of contemporary art — in his first published interview as director, Mr Weinberg told The Art Newspaper, “My intention is to take apart the portfolio system and create a much more horizontal approach.” In his single-department museum, each curator has special expertise but is free to work on art in any medium and from any period. “It’s not a matter of turf for particular decades or media. They will follow wherever their ideas lead them,” he says, noting that this outlook is appropriate to the interdisciplinary nature of modern art. It also distinguishes the Whitney from the “19th-century chronological/media-based model” standard at most museums.

Ms Prather was let go in January and Mr Rinder, who left in April to become dean of graduate studies at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, remains as adjunct curator completing a Tim Hawkinson show for the museum. In their place, Mr Weinberg, who was himself a Whitney curator for most of the 1990s, hired a former colleague in Ms Sussman, organiser of the 1993 Biennial assailed for its politically correct focus on social issues. Ms DeSalvo’s “Hand-painted Pop” exhibition came to the Whitney that same year. Ms Simon guest-curated a William Wegman exhibition for Mr Weinberg when he was director at the Addison Gallery at Andover Academy in Massachusetts.

The roster now includes 7 full curators, 3 associate curators, and 4 adjunct curators who work on a project basis. A curator of drawings will soon be hired, and when funding is available, a curator of performing arts.

With staffing resolved, Mr Weinberg will fill out the exhibition schedule. He says he has discussed projects with his new curators but made no commitments, as yet. This month the museum opens pendant shows of Ed Ruscha drawings and photographs (both June 24-Sept 26) followed by a retrospective of Ana Mendieta (July 1–Sept 19) and exhibitions of Jennifer Pastor, Romare Bearden, and Isamu Noguchi that open in October and close in January 2005. A Spring 2005 slot has been filled with the Cy Twombly drawing retrospective organised by the Hermitage, which traveled to the Serpentine and the Pompidou.

And looming in the not-too-distant future is the much-needed expansion of the 1966 building by Marcel Breuer. Last year, a scheme by Rem Koolhaas was abandoned, leading to the departure of the previous director, but Mr Weinberg says trustees are again exploring options. “We have had conversations with architects, both formal and informal, but not made a selection and have not paid anyone any money for architecture,” he says. “The expansion will happen,” Mr Weinberg promises: “It continues to be on the back burner, but it’s never been off the stove.”

Jason Edward Kaufman



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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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