PRINT May 1999

US News

Lisa Phillips

FOR MUCH OF THE ’90s, the New Museum of Contemporary Art wasn’t high on the list of must-see New York venues. Its feisty glory days a thing of the past, the institution, with its uninviting space and an exhibition program that was spotty at best, seemed ready for a major overhaul. Now, the changes that began with the museum’s renovation and expansion as well as the appointment of a new senior curator have led some to think the New Museum may be on the road to respectability. “With the right director,” says artist Matthew Ritchie, “the museum could take over the Whitney’s mantle.” In any event, the New Museum’s new chief is taking part of the uptown museum’s reputation downtown with her. Lisa Phillips, formerly curator of contemporary art at the Whitney, is succeeding the museum’s founder and only other director, Marcia Tucker, who stepped down this spring after twenty-three years at the institution’s helm.

Tucker and Phillips have crossed paths before—at the Whitney. It was the first year of Phillips’s tenure and Tucker’s final one before she headed downtown. “The last show she curated was a Richard Tuttle exhibition,” Phillips remembers. “I was an intern, and that exhibition was how I learned about contemporary art.” Doubtless Tucker’s example influenced a host of younger curators as her politicized and largely performance-based aesthetic gave rise in 1977 to a museum based on a curatorial vision. “It was not a collection, not a foundation,” says Dan Cameron, the New Museum’s senior curator since 1996. “It was not about a philanthropic relation to art.” By the late ’80s, however, with the character of the art world growing slicker and considerably more commercial, the New Museum was no longer living up to its name. It wasn’t until Cameron came aboard that observers started to believe things might change. “As the museum kept growing, its ability to operate by surprise, to keep reinventing itself, became more limited,” Cameron explains. “In a sense, [Tucker’s] tenure was a victim of the success of the museum, which resulted in a squeeze on her time.”

“We couldn’t clone a Marcia Tucker,” says New Museum president Saul Dennison. “We sat down with a committed group of trustees, and defined what we wanted: one part creative, one part administrative. And while it wasn’t a primary goal, we needed someone who understood budget problems,” an issue of exceedingly pressing concern to smaller contemporary art institutions.

The budgetary role is one in which Phillips should excel. “Lisa knows the mechanics,” says Whitney director Maxwell Anderson, who was (very briefly) her boss uptown. “Curators now are trained in a way that gives them more breadth in management.” Phillips acknowledges that “fund-raising is part of being a curator at the Whitney.”

Unlike the Whitney, however, the New Museum is not limited to American art, and Phillips is expected to broaden its reach. “Lisa is sensitive to the idea that New York needs a museum with a global vision of art,” says longtime friend Cameron. “The museum had not done much more than touch on Latin American art in the past. Now we do more work with Latin American artists than any other museum in New York except Museo del Barrio.”

Phillips, who co-curated the ’97 Whitney Biennial, made her name organizing a string of mid-career retrospectives showcasing the work of artists like Richard Prince and Terry Winters; monographic shows, Cameron points out, have never been a real part of the New Museum’s signature. “It was famous for its group shows,” he says. One timely, single-person survey already in the works, a Paul McCarthy show slated for fall woo, can only help the museum in its bid to rejoin the living.

For artists like Ritchie, the McCarthy show augurs well. “The New Museum is one of the last great hopes for an institution that does powerful shows on young artists. They’ll be competing for ground that had pretty much been ceded to the Biennial,” he says. In this respect Phillips’s challenge will not be so different from the one her predecessor faced two decades ago. Having established herself at one of the country’s top museums, Phillips will have to prove herself all over again, this time without the resources or reputation of the Whitney. What’s in it for the New’s new director? Tucker’s achievement is not an unheroic model (at least in the broad view); and given the New Museum’s current stature, there’s no place to go but up.