With exhibitions of John Currin, Arshile Gorky, and Lucas Samaras on its fall schedule, the Whitney Museum of American Art should perk up. It better, because this institution is in trouble brought on by good intentions, bad curators, meddling trustees, and an inept director. Now the Whitney is trying to right things by turning back the clock: Adam Weinberg, its former curator of collections, recently director of Andover’s Addison Gallery, returned as its director on October 1. Weinberg is an encouraging choice; he’s smart, convivial, knows the board, and loves art. In order to save this ailing institution, however, he must do several thorny things while standing up to its pesky trustees. Hopefully, this museum’s future will be brighter than its recent past. Before we look forward, however, we need to look back.
Last May, after five desultory years on the job, hapless Maxwell Anderson announced he was resigning his directorship. Now he’s gone, having done a lot of damage. Unlike at the Guggenheim, where all roads lead to and from its domineering director, the Whitney’s problems are systemic, and start with its 39 trustees, many of whom are passionate and knowledgeable, but a few of whom are bullies. In any case, the institution has a history of fickleness and compromise. Anderson was the result of these shortcomings.
In 1998, after ushering the museum into and through the culture wars, its energetic director David Ross moved on. Skittish and perhaps envious of MOMA’s erudite director, Glenn Lowry, the Whitney’s board cast about for a Lowry clone. Enter Anderson, then director of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Anderson apparently enticed the trustees with managerial speak and corporate airs. He looked the part and was a smoothie; he was one of them and was hired.
Within weeks of taking on the job, Anderson blundered. Before communicating his intentions to his curators, he spoke to The New York Times about “restructuring curatorial portfolios” and some managerial hooey called “Power Up.” Whether they were pushed or left of their own accord, soon three of the Whitney’s top curators, Thelma Golden, Lisa Phillips, and Elisabeth Sussman, were gone. This created a vacuum that Anderson parlayed into a crisis. Attempting perhaps to appease the art world and the social circuit, he made three flawed hires: Marla Prather as curator of post-war art, Sylvia Wolf as curator of photography, and Lawrence Rinder as curator of contemporary art. Prather mounted perhaps the worst museum show ever of a great artist, “Robert Rauschenberg: Synapsis Shuffle,” Wolf, the horrendous Michal Rovner show and the benign but pointless Kenneth Josephson survey. (More on Rinder later.) Meanwhile, Anderson ignored the question of what to do about the once proficient Barbara Haskell, a Whitney curator for more than 25 years.
Shows outside the jurisdiction of these curators, while not gems, were commendable. I’m not enamored of either Joan Mitchell or Wayne Thiebaud, but both their retrospectives were credible. Better were the Barbara Kruger, Sol LeWitt, and Alice Neel shows. The exhibition of early video art, “Into the Light,” and the Jacob Lawrence survey were both superb, and “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” while patronizing, was a huge hit.
But Anderson couldn’t leave well enough alone. Citing financial problems and making vague allusions to 9-11, he canceled the much anticipated Eva Hesse retrospective that Sussman had originally developed for the Whitney. Things might not have soured so had Anderson found a way to keep this show (as Lowry, Philippe de Montebello, Lowery Sims, or even Thomas Krens might), replaced Haskell, and retained Golden, who was then working on the 2000 biennial as well as the lively “Freestyle” exhibition (eventually mounted at the Studio Museum).
Instead, we got Haskell’s flawed Elie Nadelman retrospective, the Diller + Scofidio, Rovner, and Rauschenberg fiascoes, the dreadful 2000 biennial (overseen by Rinder and five other Anderson-appointed curators), Rinder’s weak biennial two years later, and his iffy “BitStreams” and arid “The American Effect.” None of Rinder’s shows needed to be as bad as they were; all contained outstanding artists. He’s also adept at spotting and highlighting trends. Rinder’s intentions are exemplary. Unfortunately, his eye isn’t. He’s better suited to the issue-driven atmosphere of a university art museum, someplace more about ideas than objects.
Now the Whitney is at a crossroads. Weinberg needs to deal with Rinder and anyone responsible for Diller + Scofidio. After reassuring the rest of the Whitney’s talented, underpaid staff, Weinberg should then hire art-oriented curators, people with good eyes, not good politics or social connections, and annul Anderson’s ridiculous “portfolios.” Next, because 39 are too many trustees, 10 should graciously step down. Three or four highly regarded, mid-career artists—individuals who would attend meetings and not be afraid to speak their minds—should join Chuck Close on the board (I nominate Elizabeth Murray). The Haskell question has to be dealt with; historical shows must get juicier and more relevant; and many more exhibitions of living artists must be mounted. All this could lead to good things. I’m hoping that even if the upcoming biennial is a failure, it’ll be an art-driven one rather than an academic one, which is what we’ve been getting. If Weinberg does nothing, the Whitney may feel more user-friendly but it will keep drifting into darkness.