PRINT January 1999

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Maxwell Anderson

IS CONTEMPORARY ART UNDER THE GUN at the Whitney Museum of American Art? Recent events have led many to wonder about the future of contemporary programming at the institution. At the end of October, a mere month into the job, Whitney director Maxwell Anderson announced he was rejuggling curators’ responsibilities into areas of specialization, leaving two of the museum’s three contemporary curators, Thelma Golden and Elisabeth Sussman, out of the equation. Both soon resigned, as did trustee Peter Norton, a software tycoon and collector who has been especially generous in funding exhibitions that advance a multicultural perspective. Fueling further suspicion that his tenure may not prove friendly to contemporary art, Anderson also announced that a floor previously allocated for temporary exhibitions will be redesignated to house more of the permanent collection.

New directors, of course, are expected to make curatorial staffing changes, but many in the art world were stunned by the speed of Anderson’s decisions, particularly since he has been reticent concerning his vision for the Whitney. In fact, he seems much more eager to talk about management structure and market research than to provide specifics about his curatorial plans: “We would like to be more than an institution that presents itself to a particular demographic of visitor and we would prefer to be accessible and available to every kind of visitor,” he says. A specialist in neither contemporary nor American art, Anderson, whose career began in the ancient Greek and Roman department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was previously director of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.

In addition to creating a single post to oversee contemporary art (to which Lisa Phillips was initially named), Anderson has divvied up some of Golden’s and Sussman’s responsibilities into not-yet-filled posts in postwar art (1951-89) and photography. (Plans for the next biennial, which had been assigned to Golden, are still up in the air.) Though in press reports he has discussed the need to clear up the institution’s often-muddled acquisition policies, Anderson is surely responding as well to frequent charges that the Whitney has been too trendy and lacked a scholarly backbone. Ironically, Sussman’s 1993 installment of the Whitney Biennial and Golden’s 1994 “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” both highly criticized at the time, were among the museum’s best-attended exhibitions and are now praised for their prescience as well as for breaking the market’s stranglehold on what makes it to the walls of major museums.

In reality, the Whitney does need more specialists. But it will also have to fill an unexpected void with Phillips’s surprise departure last month. The veteran curator’s decision to take the reins at the New Museum leaves Chrissie Iles, former head of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and the Whitney’s new curator of film and video, as the sole contemporary-art specialist.

It is probably too soon to determine where Anderson might go with the Whitney. He’ll have a number of problems to face: reasserting the Whitney’s authority as the leading museum of American art while remaining relevant to an international art world and audience; positioning the institution in relation to the richer, more visited museums with which he will compete for patrons and stature; balancing historical shows and the contemporary exhibitions for which the Whitney has been a prime venue. He also likely faces the challenge of an additional expansion. Despite a recent renovation of the museum’s fifth floor, the Whitney needs more exhibition space.

Somehow more human than the city’s other major institutions, the Whitney is perhaps an easy target because it is one of the few museums that seems open to changes in art and audience. And it’s useful to remember that the curatorial pendulum has swung before. In 1976, new director Tom Armstrong fired Marcia Tucker, then a cutting-edge curator, for being too contemporary. In turn, Armstrong’s contemporary curators (Richard Armstrong and Richard Marshall) were casualties of David Ross’s 1991 appointment. Each time, the museum survived and even maintained a strong contemporary presence. One hope is that the people who run the Whitney will realize that its most controversial shows have been some of its best, and that the museum’s vulnerability may in fact be its strongest point.

Allan Schwartzman