Conducted via email May 2011.
You completed your Ph.D. at Harvard in 1982, and then you were hired immediately by William & Mary to build and then direct the Muscarelle Museum. It’s a long time ago, of course, but do you remember any details about the job interview? I think you were interviewed by William & Mary’s Renaissance art historian Miles Chappell and also the much loved South Asian and Islamic art historian Joe Dye.
Actually, I was initially interviewed by Tom Graves, then president of the College at the annual CAA meeting that happened to be in New York. It was not until I went down to Williamsburg that I remember meeting Miles and Jim Kornwolf, then the chair of the art department. I do not believe Joe was ever part of the interviewing process, though we became good friends over the years. What I remember most about the interview with Tom was his commitment to the College and his conviction that the museum was going to be a success. I left the meeting feeling that this was a job that I wanted, and that I could actually do.
What are some of your most vivid memories of your time at William & Mary?
My most vivid memories of being at William & Mary are about building the fledgling staff of the museum, working with the architect on finishing the building which was already well along by the time I arrived, and exploring the countryside. Most of what I learned about being a museum director—how to deal with staff issues, how to prepare and present a budget, how to work with collectors and artists, how to raise funds—I learned at the Muscarelle.
The Muscarelle was your first building project, but you have since been involved in several other major construction projects, most notably the extensive renovations of MoMA in the early 2000s, and plans are now in the works for yet another round. What was the singular most important lesson you learned building the Muscarelle Museum? And how did those early lessons translate to your later projects, if at all? Architecturally speaking Williamsburg is very conservative of course, so there must have been some resistance to what was, at least at the time, a very avant-garde plan for the new building.
I do not remember much resistance to Carlton’s building. I think people had assumed that the college needed a progressive building to showcase the arts and more importantly Carlton did a great job in creating a building that was at once contemporary but not jarring. The most important lesson I learned is that you need to plan carefully, stay on top of what is happening 24/7 and have a constant and engaged dialogue with the architect. There are so many small and large problems that arise during a construction project that you have to almost crave solving problems or you go crazy.
Many university art museums are currently in the process of expanding, renovating, and updating their facilities - several have plans to erect interdisciplinary arts compounds, that is to say, buildings that bring together music, theater and gallery spaces under one roof, sort of like a big arts mall. This strategy has obvious pros and cons. What, in your opinion, is the ideal layout for a university art museum?
I am not sure there is an ideal layout for a university art museum but I do think the most successful ones are the ones that are understood to be at the center of a campus’ intellectual and cultural life. In part this is a function of where they are located—either central to student life or not—their design—is it accommodating and welcoming to students, is it a place they want to be—and their program—does it engage the minds and interests of students or not. Their proximity to other kinds of spaces such as theaters is secondary to the issue of how the museum positions itself in relation to the student life.
How did you go about building the collection at the Muscarelle and were there any pieces that stand out in your memory, or that you were particularly fond of?
The collection was a bit of a grab bag at first—works brought together from around the campus, mostly—but there were also collectors in the region who either believed in the College or were alumni such as Fred and Lucy Herman or Mrs Chrysler who died shortly before I arrived but left us furniture which we sold to create a small acquisitions funds and some art. The Herman’s in particular, were early and great supporters and their gifts to the museum remain foundational. Through Miles’ connections (and his own generosity) and that of Tom Graves’ and others we built a pretty good network of alumni who were willing to make significant gifts so by the end of a couple of years the collection started to grow with some consistency.
When structuring a collection intended for a university art museum, what is the best way to go about achieving a good balance between the acquistion of classic masterpieces, while at the same time supporting the best contemporary art and artists?
I think there is always a tension between acquiring that which is essential for teaching and being opportunistic and acquiring that which is available. You need to have a long term plan but often act in the short term. The Muscarelle is a classic teaching museum in that it has a handful of nationally or even internationally significant works of art but a plethora of important and interesting works of art that are of regional interest but that can often teach as much about artistic practice as masterworks can. I felt from the outset, which is why we worked so closely with the late Gene Davis, that the Muscarelle’s real contribution to the William & Mary community was its ability to engage the voice of living artists and to make their presence an active component of the museum’s program.
After the Muscarelle you were at the Arthur M. Sackler and the Freer Gallery of Art (1984-90) and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada (1990-1995). What are the important differences, if any, between the museum world in Canada and that of the U.S.?
I am not sure that there really are that many differences between a place like the Art Gallery of Ontario and major museums in the United States. The one issue that does distinguish the USA from Canada, however, is the significant role of government (primarily provincial) funding in Canada and the mandates that follow from that. But, in reality, no matter where one’s funding comes form there are always obligations and commitments that follow from that—it is just that we are used to responding to private interests while Canadians are more used to dealing with public interests.
This question is not directly related to university art museums but I have to ask: Canada does not have a Museum of Modern Art. Do you think the time has come for Canada to seriously consider this idea?
There is a museum of contemporary art in Montreal and there are many places like the Power Plant that feature contemporary art while most major museums like the AGO of the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa have very strong modern collections so I am not sure that there is a need for a separate museum of modern art.
You have been one of the most high profile Directors MoMA has ever had, and much has been made of the fact that your specialization, Islamic art, does not seem, at least at first glance, to be directly connected with modern art. Of course, the exact opposite is true. Or is it? When did you first set your sites on MoMA? And what are the connections between Islamic art and modernism anyway?
I never thought I would be the director of MoMA nor did I ever want to be. I ended in the job out of serendipity but sometimes the unexpected makes for the best results. While my primary field has been Islamic art, I have always been interested in modern and contemporary art so the transition from one to the other was not really a huge leap for me and in any event I had the best tutors in the world, the chief curators of the Museum of Modern art who were very generous in sharing their knowledge with me. In the end if you are curious and willing to learn, one’s area of specialization is less important than how you think about art and the kinds of questions you are interested in pursuing.
Our website shows that there are more university art museums than any other kind of art museum in America (631 altogether*). What is the role and significance of museums like the Muscarelle now to the nation's cultural fabric? And do you think university art museums would benefit from having their own university art museum association? Would art museums in this country in general benefit from having their own association? Their missions and collections are so different from other types of museums, perhaps they might benefit from a more specialized association?
I think university art museums are essential to the cultural fabric of our country. They often serve populations well beyond university communities and they provide a kind of laboratory setting where students and a general public can encounter art and artists in a setting that is often less formal than a metropolitan museum.
In classroom discussions, a topic that frequently came up was the issue of the autonomy of the university art museum in so far as they are often required to answer to a higher institutional authority. At first glance MoMA does not have this problem, that said, since the nineties MoMA has been increasingly involved in real estate. To what extent does MoMA’s involvement with the New York property market shape the mission of the museum? Do you think of the MoMA as a national museum or a New York museum?
I don’t think that we are shaped by the real estate market—we have bought a certain amount of real estate simply because it was available and nearby but it does not really factor into our thinking about our mission. That said we are first and foremost a New York institution that, because of its collections and programs, serves a national and international audience but we are grounded in our location in midtown and everything emanates from that. That is why we have not looked to replicate what we do elsewhere in the world as some other museums have tried to do.
In some ways MoMA is like the American Louvre. The Met and the National Gallery are world-class encyclopedic museums of course, but there is a way in which MoMA houses the art that defines America’s cultural coming of age. The satellite projects at PS1 and Queens are really terrific, and in fact, there should be more of them, all over the country. University art museums might be a great platform for the expansion of MoMA in that sense.
I do not think that we will replicate what we did at PS1 any time soon, if at all. The circumstances that created the merger were unique and we are not that interested in a policy that would expand our physical presence in any permanent way elsewhere, though we have, and will continue to have, a vigorous program of traveling exhibitions some of which may be appropriate for university museums.
Finally, by way of conclusion, I wondered if you could maybe say a little bit about the first museum you ever visited, and your memories of what you saw there?
The first museum that I remember visiting was the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown Mass and I must have been six or seven. My parents took me to the museum as we had just moved to Williamstown and it was one of the few cultural destinations there that they thought I might enjoy. What I remember most about that visit was that I somehow became separated from my parents and as I was wandering through the galleries I came upon Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr, a large and majestic painting of a rather randy satyr cavorting in the woods with lush, sylph-like nymphs and apparently when my parents finally found me I was sitting transfixed in front of the painting.
*Since the interview we discovered 50 more university art museums and galleries, bringing the total up to 680.