MoMA's New Man: Robert Storr Takes an Inside Job
New Art Examiner, March 1991, p. 25
Robert Storr was recently appointed curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Storr is a well-known critic, a former contributing editor for Art in America, and a not-so-well-known artist who received his M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1978. He fills a position that has been vacant for over a year and comes to MoMA at a time when the department of painting and sculpture is reeling from nearly uniformly negative critical response to the "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" show curated by Kirk Varnedoe, MoMA director of painting and sculpture, and New Yorker art critic Adam Gopnik.
Robert Atkins: What's your job description?
Robert Storr: There isn't exactly a "position." Technically I'm a curator of equal rank and title with Caroline Lanchner and Kynaston McShine.
Atkins: So you're not officially "curator of contemporary art"?
Storr: No. There's a sense now that the museum wants to attend to contemporary art so more of my time is involved with contemporary than historical art. But I'm not here to do what hadn't been thought of before [my predecessor] Linda Shearer came on the scene. Kynaston McShine has obviously had a longtime involvement with cutting-edge art, but the Warhol show he did is essentially historical now. Soon I'll be circumscribed.
Atkins: It appeared that Linda Shearer didn't get to do much. Did you come with a commitment about doing regular shows?
Storr: I came with a general understanding. The schedule is still very tight.
Atkins: Do you have a show yet?
Storr: Yes, for October '91. It's in the planning stages now, but I can say that it's going to be a show of seven installations in three spaces, including the garden. The title is "Dislocations" and the artists are Ilya Kabakov, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Bruce Nauman, Louise Bourgeois, and two whose participation we have not yet confirmed.
Atkins: What's the idea behind it?
Storr: Two things: to present a diversity of work and to make installations that make you wonder where you are--a shifting terrain established by the artist. There will be different media and in terms of age you'll have an 80-year-old [Bourgeois] alongside a fortyish piper. Kabakov, an elder statesman, will be new to many audiences. MoMA isn't just a place for experts, though. I want to put ideas in circulation about what contemporary art is.
Atkins: The museum hasn't shown installations before?
Storr: As far as I know, the museum hasn't done an installation show since the '70s. There've been installations in the Projects room, but not a group of them. Many of these artists haven't been shown at the museum before.
Atkins: Let's talk about your reinstallation of the contemporary section of the permanent collection; transformation might be a better word.
Storr: Well it was about several things. One was to get out work that hadn't been seen enough so that one didn't just have the textbook installations of the periods covered. Another was to hang it in clusters or sequences of objects so you didn't simply have textbook illustrations of styles. Instead you have things that in some way visually respond to one another. Sticking a Twombly from the '70s in a room with a Beuys, a Nevelson, a Lee Bontecou, and a Fontana is an anachronism in one way, but it has a lot to do with a certain period from which Twombly comesÖIn the Minimalist room you show an audience how much small differences can make.
Atkins: I was also impressed at the representation of women; it seems you've actually transcended tokenism.
Storr: There are women all the way through the installation--Baer, Nevelson, Martin, Bontecou, etc. But there were certainly periods, beginning in the '70s, when women became significant not just as examples but preeminent in certain aspects of art making. By reversing the usual 80-20 proportions it says that the presence of women is not a matter of tokenism or demographics but accomplishment.
Atkins: How much fund-raising do MoMA curators have to do now?
Storr: It remains to be seen. That's certainly not anything I've done. I presume the reason I'm at the museum is to do curatorial work. If fund-raising consists of explaining to people who are likely to contribute the reason for the choices you make that seems legitimate. To spend a lot of time partying when I should be in studios or galleries seems problematic, but I don't think anyone expects me to have to make that choice.
Atkins: I know curators who have to do a surprising amount of corporate board lunching looking for support.
Storr: I don't mind a good lunch and I don't mind explaining what I'm doing; I intend to be straightforward. I've gone out of my way to explain to people that I don't see my job as presenting soothing art, nor do I exclusively think it's about provocative art. It's about a range of activities, a range of work. But at the point that fund-raising gets in the way of the work they're going to fund, it's a problem.
Atkins: What about ethical considerations in a job like yours? For instance, at the Village Voice we have a rule that you can't write about an artist if you own two major works. Do you collect?
Storr: I don't own major works by anyone. I've bought prints. I've traded works with people, because I'm an artist. I've been given a few things by artist-friendsÖBut the moment you own works of great value there are complications. I'm not in that situation and won't put myself in it.
Atkins: As a painter are you represented by a gallery?
Storr: I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Jack Tilton, but it's mostly off. When I started to write I decided I didn't want to get caught in a position I've seen a number of artist-writers in where people read their writing against their work and vice versa. I made a rule that I wouldn't pursue showing until I'd said what I have to say as a writer. I can't show now, but I've always made work and will continue to.
Atkins: Will you limit your writing?
Storr: That's a more substantial problem for me. I spoke to senior administrative people and they said you should write what you feel you should, but if you create problems for yourself, they're your problems. In other words, if you offend an artist who you want to show later you have to risk that. The only restrictions are on gallery catalogues.
Atkins: MoMA is frequently criticized for being slow to collect new artists. By contrast, Bill Lieberman at the Met can go out and buy things on his own up to a certain point--$5,000 or $10,000, I think.
Storr: It would be great to be able to have a fund you could dip into and buy on the basis of your guts. You've alluded to the fact that the museum is run by committee; nothing is acquired on a curator's--or all the curators'--say so. In making acquisitions one is acting as an advocate for the artist in front of a committee who may not know the artist.
Atkins: So large claims have to be made.
Storr: There's a tendency to think of buying something that's "museum worthy," of a certain level of accomplishment and scope. A lot of interesting contemporary work is in a minor key, in terms of scale or aggressivity on the wall. The museum would do well to have work of that kind--major and minor, a small Beuys object as well as a major one.
Atkins: In market terms it would make sense to me not to fret over potential mistakes if you want to buy at an early point in an artist's career.
Storr: Certainly. Mistakes will be made. If you look at the collection that Alfred Barr acquired there are lots of things we'd call mistakes. But his ability to get so many good things came from his openness to what was going on around him. The ratio of high-caliber work wouldn't have been there without the mistakes, but people forget that. He said if you get two first-rate things out of eight you're doing fine.
Atkins: What else characterizes MoMA?
Storr: The debate here has always been about whether Modernism is a definable thing circumscribed by time--i.e., period and style--or whether Modernism is a process of trying to make sense of the world and a lot of pieces that don't go together. The lesson is in the collection and it's about many pieces that don't go together very well, and it's about trying to put them together in all the different ways without putting them in a sequence or arranging them formally. A modern museum should get people to try to think about their world in a dialectical fashion--that Matisse coexists with Popova. It's not that one is better than another, or leads away from another. It's apples and oranges.
Atkins: Is historical Modernism your turf, too?
Storr: I'm very interested in Constructivist art, Polish and Czech as well as Russian. One of the issues I'm interested in is the meaning of artists moving away from painting and sculpture. To deal with that period you need to see the graphics alongside the art, and I'd like to see more of the applied and fine arts brought together.
Atkins: Is this also [MoMA painting and sculpture department head] Kirk Varnedoe's point of view?
Storr: No, but it's not only his decision. It involves other departments, too. But I'm not only talking about the permanent collections, but exhibitions too. Given the frailty of objects and lack of money, a time is coming when we'll be doing more shows out of the collection and this is one thing we can do--when the mix is appropriate, as with Bauhaus or de Stijl.
Atkins: Haven't the Europeans been much better about such contextualizing?
Storr: Yes. Contextualizing is a tricky problem museologically. There are times to do it and times not to, and there are ways to do it.
Atkins: When shouldn't you do it?
Storr: For example, you can make a show about Minimalism and its relationship to life of the 1960s, its anti-establishment positions, its documents etc. It would be an interesting show, but I'm not sure it would be good for Ryman or Marden paintings; I think Dia [Art Foundation]'s [aestheticizing] approach was the right one for Ryman. You can't do two things at the same time.
Atkins: My lover, freelance curator Steven Watson, is curating a show at the National Portrait Gallery [in Washington, D.C.] of portraits by four figures central to early American Modernism: Duchamp, Stieglitz, Stein, and Pound. It's a show that should be at the Whitney or Brooklyn Museum, but seems to be outside of their usual interests.
Storr: I'd like to see that show. There are two aspects to the issue; basic dichotomies that people make and how each half is treated. I'm an aesthete--I firmly believe in doing shows that are nothing but aesthetic pleasure. I also have an enormous interest in art's social, historical, and political context. If I and most people I know can appreciate both, why can't the public be trusted to? Today I want you to think about one aspect, tomorrow the other, and I want you to remember the earlier one. That's what I meant about dialectical thinking.
Atkins: Why is it that European museums are so much more attuned to contemporary art?
Storr: A problem at MoMA--and a lot of American museums--is that it responds very slowly to contemporary events. European Kunsthalles and museums have been much quicker. We've got a lot of catching up to do and it's not just MoMA. New York in general has not had the ability to bring art in and make sense of it. That's why the galleries have been the primary focus of attraction.
Atkins: What can museums do to combat their image of elitism?
Storr: It's tough. Art is an elite activity, but what defines the elite should be avidity, interest, and involvement; not class, income or education.
Atkins: So you mean specialized, as much as elite?
Storr: Yes, anyone who develops a complicated taste for art becomes involved and part of the system. Many museums are public institutions and they have to open their doors. Messages have to go to communities saying bring your groups here, we will give curatorial time, we will train docents. Some shows should be heavily placarded. And you have to avoid doing things that make it seem like you belong to an elite. The business of becoming too closely associated with a social life can backfire in costly ways. Endless black-tie parties aren't the best idea in the long run, since museums will increasingly depend on public funds.
Atkins: Don't they all throw endless black-tie parties?
Storr: I'm talking about public perception.
Atkins: I'm suggesting it's the reality not the perception.
Storr: But it's a changing reality.
Atkins: Aren't there more structural things that can be done? In San Francisco a study was done criticizing public institutions for their all-white boards. Public policy there now mandates that all-white boards will be a thing of the past.
Storr: Change is a long process; there has to be the will. Once anger is aroused the cost of change will be much higher. I came to the museum as an outsider. I gave them every opportunity to ask me questions about who I was and how we might disagree. I really think they wanted somebody who is different [from them]. Somebody who is non-abrasive, not full of reverse snobbism, and willing to work on problems from the inside.
What we're talking about is a process of reform and there are times when reform seems mystifying to people and there are other times when it is common sense. I'm hoping that things will change because people realize how high the stakes have become. We've been through a time of self-absorption and economic speculation. The social and educational gains of nonwhite communities have been reversed, the real circumstances of life have been made nastier for people. At times like this the cultural institutions can on the one hand make life more pleasant, and on the other hand can be a place to figure out why things are as they are. Artists make art that addresses the things we're talking about. Museums ought to know we're in that time and the question is not whether to do these things but whether to do them well, to do them with grace. And to also find them a source of energy, rather than a drain on energies.
Atkins: Is there a danger of naivetÈ? Here you are at a museum that's currently attempting to reduce the health care benefits of its lowest-paid workers. Do you expect more from this institution than it can possible deliver?
Storr: I wouldn't have gotten involved if I didn't think it could do these things, but I agree it's a very rocky road. I'm a lapsed radical and the appalling thing is that even liberal reform seems so difficult now. But it's the only thing worth doing now. The other side of the coin is that there's been a lot of ostensibly radical work during the '80s from the inside of institutions with the privilege of second-guessing them. Hal Foster did the "Unconscious of the Museum," for instance, but in a museum I think having a properly ironical answer has worn out whatever welcome it's ever had. Either you work actively against institutions or you can work actively in ways they can hear.
Atkins: Each way is honorable.
Storr: And certainly more appropriate than not doing anything. It's like that old Gramsci quote, "to be a pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will." It's about the only thing you can do.
Village Voice, February 12, 1991, p. 39
In a field dominated by socially well-connected art historians and MBAs, David Ross, the new director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, doesn't quite fit. A 41-year-old with a degree in communications, he became the Everson Museum's - and the country's - first video curator in 1971. He continued to champion video and other Conceptual Art forms at the Long Beach Museum of Art, at Berkeley's University Museum, and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where he's been director since 1982. His attraction to the new and socially engaged made him one of the first Americans to mount major exhibitions of current Soviet art, and a fierce advocate of controversial art in the face of right-wing attack. At the ICA, he not only presented the Mapplethorpe show, but, when the NEA denied that institution a grant for a Mike Kelley show, urged his board of directors to fight back.
So what's a hip baby-boomer like David Ross doing at a place like the Whitney? With its four "McWhitney" branches in Fortune 500 headquarters (including Philip Morris's), its aura of social cachet, its too-frequent solo shows devoted to gallery superstars, and its trustees' public humiliation of Ross's predecessor, Thomas Armstrong, last year - the Whitney is probably more identified with corporate excess than any other museum in the country.
Can Ross bring progressive change to a museum that seems as emblematic of the '80s as a Christian Lacroix pouf? Will he be able to tame its strong-willed board? The art world is divided. Jules Prown, Yale art historian and chairman of the board's search committee, predicts that "Ross will reinvigorate the Whitney." But New Museum of Contemporary Art director Marcia Tucker - who characterizes a progressive museum as one that reflects diversity, challenges its own practice, and advocates open-ended interpretation - is more circumspect. "It's all doable at the Whitney. If the board is willing to support David when push comes to shove."
Ross and I talked over breakfast a few days after the Whitney's board of trustees ratified his appointment on January 9. (He took over February 4.) Although his hair is graying and his beard is gone, he seems exactly the same as he did when I first met him in Berkeley in 1979 - brash, brainy, and affable. He's got a diplomat's flair for discussing highly charged matters in common sense language, jettisoning buzzwords and encouraging a progressive consensus.
Ross's priorities will come as no surprise to any Whitney watcher. "Of course the building expansion is at the top of my agenda. It's been going on for, 10 years now?" he chuckled. In addition to the museum's physical expansion, his immediate plans include the hiring of a curator of collections and an education department head.
Other changes will await his on-the-job scrutiny. He's made no decisions regarding the museum's much maligned curatorial staff, he says courteously. And he politely refuses to speculate about the Whitney's always controversial biennials, although he agrees they do seem insufficiently diverse. As far as long-term exhibition and collecting plans go, look for increasing forays into photography - which the Whitney rarely shows and does not collect - and a modest internationalization of this museum of American art. The latter's purpose: to understand "the extremely hybrid nature of postcolonial American art."
Although all this seems conventional enough, Ross and his views on the place of the museum in contemporary society are not. What separates him from other museum directors is less a matter of age or training than outlook. MoMA's forty-something painting-and-sculpture department head Kirk Varnedoe and the Guggenheim's master builder Tom Krens are of the same generation. Unlike them, Ross has been radicalized by his experience of the '60s.
The Whitney - along with most major American museums - is regarded by many observers as a bastion of white, male elitism. "That criticism is justified; it's clear that a broader range of voices need to be heard," Ross said. "Artists are dealing with changing social conditions and we have a responsibility to reflect their ideas. Museums have been unwilling to do their part," he continued. "But it's too easy to turn on them in an inherently racist society. Let's talk instead about reexamining the entire system and the museum's role in that reexamination...We are a forum."
During his tenure at the ICA, the institute showcased a broad spectrum of work, ranging from last year's Soviet conceptual art show to "Endgame," an up-to-the-minute 1986 exhibition devoted to simulation in painting and sculpture. What's most striking about his exhibits is their variety and their emphasis on pointed themes. Scanning the list of shows presented under his stewardship at ICA, I was reminded of the odd coupling of back-to-back retrospectives of performance artist Joan Jonas and photographer Richard Avedon organized by Ross in Berkeley in 1980. "Some artists deal with contemporary social conditions by direct confrontation," he says. "And others by fanciful flights away from those realities." Ross seems to be interested in all of them.
From a larger perspective, Ross sees the museum as a "small part of the besieged educational system." Museums educate primarily through their exhibition programming and the values they represent. The conflicting history of such ideas is contained in a museum's permanent collection - and in the way it's presented. (MoMA curator Rob Storr's provocative reinstallation of his museum's postwar collection offers a vivid reading of recent art history and the central contribution of female artists to it.) Ross anticipates future reinstallations of the Whitney's permanent collection as a way "to explore the full range of ideas embedded in artworks, not just the single story you get from the standard [succession] of masterworks."
Talking about interpretations and ideas suggests museums' participation - along with what the media and advertising - in what Hans Haacke calls the "consciousness industry," purveyors of either progress or the status quo. People like Ross (and Kathy Halbreich, who picks up the director's reins at theWalker Art Center in March) advocate change, but for every perestroika there is a recalcitrant politburo; for every ACT UP, a Jesse Helms. If there's an entrenched status quo at the Whitney, it may be the museum's own board of directors.
The terms of the power struggle that forced Tom Armstrong out remain something of a mystery. In brief, Armstrong's critics pointed to his inability to get the Michael Graves-designed addition built, to the alleged superficiality of the museum's exhibitions, and even to rumors (apparently unfounded) that Armstrong is anti-Semitic. (Ross is Jewish.) All we know for certain, though, is that a divided board dismissed a long-standing director, for reasons never publicly articulated. Although the board remains essentially the same, William S. Woodside, leader of the anti-Armstrong faction, stepped down as president last June and was replaced by Leonard A. Lauder.
Ross claims he doesn't know what happened and professes even less interest in the board-director brouhaha. He anticipates no communications gap between the board and himself, because, he says, they'll set overall policy together. "I'm not an imperial director, but there's not going to be a lot of micromanagement," he insists. "They want me to manage the museum." Bolstering this claim is the board's recent amendment of the museum corporation's bylaws to make the director its CEO, a job previously held by the board president. Ross's record as a manager is impressive. When he arrived at the ICA, it was $1 million in debt; today it boasts an endowment of $2.2 million.
The new director has also taken out another form of insurance against potential board antagonism, insisting that the expansion project be rethought, yet again. "We're dealing with important questions that get asked only once every 30 or 40 years," he noted. "All the options are open, there are no sacred cows." Not even Michael Graves.
For their part, board members are ecstatic. "All of us at the Whitney are thrilled with the appointment," Lauder said. Given the length and intensity of the search - conducted over six months by an 11-member committee, goodwill isn't surprising. But many museum professionals I spoke with - though they admired Ross's abilities - wondered how long the honeymoon would last. "Best luck to him," said one. "But I wouldn't try to teach that old board new tricks."
Prown said that aggressive change was precisely what the search committee was looking for: Its criteria focused on the museum's need for greater cultural diversity and intellectually rigorous programming. He also asserted that "the general perception of the board as a conservative group that would retrench with an even more conservative director than Tom is wrong; it's the presss' idea. Most of this board is far more adventurous in its collecting and thinking than the museum." (Prown regards the "museum" as an amalgam of director, staff, and policy.) Lauder corroborated this assessment; board chairman and Armstrong-ally Flora Biddle disputed it. Armstrong refused to comment.
It's crucial to remember that the identities of cultural institutions mutate, that museums are infinitely more capable of reimagining themselves than, say, defense contractors. During the '60s, the Whitney was regarded as a dusty, bookish place that compared unfavorably with the trend-setting Jewish Museum. Cultural institutions are also peculiarly sensitive to the influence of dynamic individuals. It was Armstrong who arrived in 1973 and transformed the Whitney into one of the largest and most visible museums in the country.
If Ross can put his mark on the Whitney, it will be by the force of his intellect. Described to me by one curator as "the last of the museum director-intellectuals," he playfully chews on ideas and can make thinking seem sensual. "Exhibitions have to probe and push and take risks in order to come to terms with the progress of ideas," he announced. "Maybe the essence of a progressive institution is simply its willingness to grapple with the world we live in."