PRINT October 2003


Adam D. Weinberg

“IT’S FUNNY HOW THINGS HAPPEN to one in life,” says Adam D. Weinberg. “Doors just open and you go through them.” For Weinberg, the door in question would appear to be a revolving one—one that keeps bringing him back to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. This October, almost exactly five years after he stepped down as the Whitney’s senior curator to run the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Weinberg returns to the Whitney, this time as its director. He replaces Maxwell L. Anderson, who resigned in May following clashes with the museum’s board over programming and cancelled expansion plans.

Weinberg’s current Whitney homecoming is actually his second. He first arrived at the museum in 1989, having served as a curator and head of the education department at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, to run its now defunct Equitable Center branch. He left there in 1990 to become artistic and program director at the American Center in Paris, then returned to the Whitney in 1993, overseeing its permanent collection until heading to the Addison in late 1998.

Weinberg has served under the Whitney’s last three directors—Tom Armstrong, David A. Ross, and, briefly, Anderson. With any luck, his familiarity with the museum’s recent directorial history will help him avoid repeating it. Although he becomes only the eighth director in the seven and a half decades of the Whitney’s existence, he is its fourth in just over a dozen years. The board’s 1990 dismissal of Armstrong, who had led the museum since the early ’70s, was widely seen as a sign of newly powerful trustees making a break with the old guard. His replacement, Ross, a risk-taking and famously garrulous advocate of contemporary art, gave the institution a much-needed infusion of energy. But the Whitney’s increased visibility under Ross brought new scrutiny; it soon became the critics’ whipping boy—berated for “political correctness” for shows like the 1993 “Identity Biennial” (as it came to be known) and accused of succumbing to style over substance for its 1994 Richard Avedon exhibition.

Ross left in early 1998 to become director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Anderson, a Harvard-trained specialist in Greek and Roman art, was touted as a steadier, more scholarly successor. Though he had little background in contemporary or American art, Anderson had earned praise for his business acumen while director of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. But he also had a reputation for high-handedness, one that manifested itself only weeks into his tenure when an awkwardly handled staff reorganization provoked stormy resignations from two of his leading curators, Thelma Golden and Elisabeth Sussman. During his five years at the Whitney, Anderson made important behind-the-scenes changes, establishing new acquisition committees and creating an in-house conservation department. Nevertheless, by the beginning of this year, faced with increasing questions about the museum’s overall direction and informed that the $200 million Rem Koolhaas expansion he had publicly advocated was definitively scotched, he chose to move on.

The search for Anderson’s replacement was relatively brief and appeared unusually efficient. Among those reportedly approached by the search committee over the summer were Whitney alums Lisa Phillips, head of New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Richard Armstrong, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; as well as Ann Philbin, director of the UCLA Hammer Museum; Lisa Dennison, the Guggenheim Museum’s deputy director and chief curator; and Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery and Weinberg’s immediate predecessor at the Addison. Given Anderson’s chilly personal manner, it’s no stretch to infer a bit of comparative subtext in Whitney board president Robert J. Hurst’s official statement, in which he extols his new director’s “inspiring, warm and collaborative leadership style.” Often praised by co-workers and artists alike for his collegiality, Weinberg also gets things done. During his time at the Addison, he secured major donations of work from Sol LeWitt and Tyler Graphics Ltd. The gallery mounted exhibitions on artists including Alex Katz, Wendy Ewald, and Robert Mangold, and Weinberg actively promoted a residency program that brought artists such as José Bedia, Anna Gaskell, and Jim Hodges to Andover. Though he oversaw essentially all museum operations, from fund-raising and long-range planning to publications, Weinberg says that contact with artists was and always has been his primary inspiration. In an era when major museum directors sometimes seem more comfortable in a boardroom than on a studio visit, his connection to the creative side of the business made him a perfect match for a board seeking a “curator’s director,” an explicit hiring criterion according to the New York Times, which reported the story on the very day the Whitney staff learned of the appointment.

“I think it speaks to a connection to the artist and the art object,” says Weinberg of the sobriquet. “I’ve worked with artists in almost every way imaginable, and it’s my greatest love, being part of that process.” Weinberg admits the urge to curate hasn’t gone away, and while he knows his new role will require a certain amount of sublimation, he’s enthusiastic about collaborating with his staff. “Working with the curators to orchestrate the exhibitions will be the excitement,” he says. The Whitney’s curator of film and video, Chrissie Iles, who knows Weinberg from his last Whitney stint, looks forward to such collaboration. “Adam has both the pragmatism needed for the pressured environment of the American museum and the scholarly approach of a European curator/director,” she says.

As he prepares to take up his new position, Weinberg is pragmatically focused on “fact-finding”— soliciting staff input and reacquainting himself with the institution. “At this point, it feels like there are good wishes and hope toward strengthening the connection between the museum and the artist community, in particular,” he says. “It was the museum’s second director, Hermon More, who said, ‘Wherever the artist leads, the museum will follow.’ That has always been the hallmark of this institution.”

Jeffrey Kastner is a New York–based writer.