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To become the world’s best contemporary-art museum, the Hirshhorn needs more money and more forward-looking art. New director Ned Rifkin thinks he knows how to get them.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
There they were, in the mountains, in the artist’s bare home. Museum director Ned Rifkin approached respectfully, the poet Edward Hirsch by his side. Would Agnes Martin allow Hirsch’s verse to accompany her paintings in a major exhibition? Rifkin had sent a gift ahead of them, the poet’s book On Love. The artist had titled a recent canvas Loving Love. The museum director hoped the poems might move Martin, win her trust. “Did you get the book?” he asked her. “This is the man who wrote it.” She was not given to small talk. Soon she would see her 90th birthday. Her estimation of the proffered lyricism was brief: “I do not believe in genital love.”
Such was the fourth visit in Rifkin’s quest to bring the twilight work of what he believes is one of the greatest living artists into the Menil Collection in Houston. By quest’s end, the highly evolved Martin had agreed to the show. After some months, Hirsch wrote a poem about a certain ineluctable geometry, leaving a certain kind of love behind. In the middle of a hissy fit over its direction, the board of the Menil Collection approved showing Martin’s hermetic abstractions in the museum. Twenty-three collectors—among them Hollywood power duke Michael Ovitz and Lea Fastow, wife of Enron scandal lord Andrew Fastow—lent their Martin paintings. The usual carpers—curators at other museums, critics sweating jaundice, artists jealously toiling in obscurity, politicians patrolling for smut—were mercifully silent or extravagantly approving.
For Rifkin, now the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, these events from a year ago capture the current state of the once-gentle art of museum directing. A not-too-easy artist. A jumpy board. Generosity from enlightened, if occasionally legally challenged, rich people. On one side, the pressure to show art that is important and strong; on the other, the pressure to enlist the help, and more often the money, of the wealthy.
Until recently, the Hirshhorn, run for the past 17 years by a media-averse curmudgeon named Jim Demetrion, was spared such stresses. Demetrion, 72, was old-school. He would not fundraise. He didn’t have to.
But the $8.3 million the museum relied on this past year is expected to shrink to $7.5 million in 2003. Such funds are inadequate in a contemporary art market where a Gerhard Richter fetches $5.4 million at auction and the administrative cost of mounting a Jackson Pollock show is $1 million.
“This is a defining moment for the Hirshhorn,” says Robert Lehrman, board chair since 2000. “In the last two years of Jim Demetrion’s tenure, he made the board aware that to continue the level of programming while the federal funding was at best staying level or diminishing was impossible. To be competitive, we have to raise more money. And in today’s climate, it’s not going to come from the government, so we have to turn to the private sector—foundations, corporations, and donors.”
Rifkin has climbed a lot of small ladders to get to the Hirshhorn observation deck. He is the son of a Brooklyn couple, a public-school special-education teacher and an electrical engineer. Born in 1949, Rifkin has lived in Syracuse, N.Y. (playing forward on the university basketball team); Florence, Italy (frequenting churches and museums); Ann Arbor, Mich. (writing his dissertation on avant-garde filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni); Dallas (teaching art history to University of Texas students); New York (curating at the New Museum for Contemporary Art); Washington (curating contemporary art at the Corcoran and the Hirshhorn); Atlanta (directing the High Museum); and Houston (directing the Menil Collection).
The story of Rifkin and what he hopes the Hirshhorn can be tells much about the evolution of contemporary-art museums as modernism becomes antique. It also tells of the next chapter in Washington’s 200-plus-year walk from cultural swamp to cultural greensward. It is nearly undisputed that the Hirshhorn inhabits the first tier of contemporary art museums—with New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art; Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art; San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art; and London’s Tate Modern.
The Hirshhorn is already a destination for contemporary-art aficionados as well as Mall tourists on their way from the Castle to the National Air and Space Museum. Its next step is to be the best contemporary-art museum in the world. With its Mall location, on the proscenium of American ideas about tolerance and freedom, the Hirshhorn can and should be the leading repository for work marked by risk and imagination. Practically speaking, this means that Rifkin needs to attract a board of sophisticated trustees who give often and generously (in the seven-figure range) and come not only from across the nation but around the globe. It means that Rifkin must lead the acquisition of the best of contemporary art worldwide, through donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals. It means that Rifkin must spearhead programming—both traveling exhibitions and in-house shows—that is first-class.
“They have to underline their image of being a museum devoted to cutting-edge art internationally,” said Robert Rosenblum, a Guggenheim curator and art historian at New York University, who serves on the Hirshhorn board. “Because no other museum of that stature in America can.”
The Hirshhorn began as a New York collection. Joseph H. Hirshhorn was the 13th child of a Latvian widow who fled pogroms to land at Ellis Island in 1907. Hirshhorn grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, tenements, dropped out of high school, and made a fortune in gold and uranium mining. From his Upper East Side home, he amassed works of American painters from Thomas Eakins to Willem de Kooning, European masters of modernism, and international sculptors from France’s Auguste Rodin to Shanghai-born Mark di Suvero. By the ’60s, museums in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Zurich, Florence, and Tel Aviv wanted the collection. Queen Elizabeth offered 10 acres in Regents Park and a $7 million building. It was art-clueless Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson (motivated by then-Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley), however, who seduced Hirshhorn into donating his 6,000 art objects to the United States for a museum on the Mall. They did it by using one of the great overlooked weapons in the arsenals of persuasion: kindness.
Unlike others seeking the collection, the first lady made a special trip to Hirshhorn’s home to see it. As she walked in, she charmed him by saying, “I really know nothing about art. I’m prepared to learn.” She tarried through the tour even as her aides told her she was falling behind schedule. And when she visited the collection a second time, according to Hirshhorn biographer Barry Hyams, Hirshhorn remarked, “She remembered a lot of things I had told her. I couldn’t get over it.”
For its first decades, New Yorkers dominated the Hirshhorn board of trustees. The first Washington resident to join the board was lawyer, foundation president, and collector Robert Lehrman of the Giant Food family fortune. Lehrman lobbied to change the board’s size from 10 members to a potential 25 and helped recruit new trustees from New York, California, Iowa, and Ohio. Under Lehrman’s leadership, the Hirshhorn caught up with the times and hired its first development director—the fundraising point person who has become a necessity at most museums. Lehrman, at 51 part of Rifkin’s generation, has helped attract younger trustees. More, younger, farther-flung—all three elements are designed to increase contributions from the trustees themselves and widen the circle of opportunities that their connections bring. The concept at all museums is that board members call on friends and other institutions for support, particularly if the museum has a compelling “story” that creates an atmosphere of excitement. That’s where Rifkin comes in.
“People give money because they feel engaged and they feel a sense of ownership,” says a bluejeaned Rifkin over breakfast one Saturday. “They have to feel that this is their museum. At the same time—and I’ve done a lot of corporate fundraising—when you get a business to sponsor a major exhibition of artworks, the point of the message can’t be the business. But very few corporations want to sponsor contemporary art, anyway. A lot of contemporary museums have used big new buildings as a way to build excitement. And then there’s Thomas Krens franchising the brand with Guggenheim Bilbao, Venice, Las Vegas. That’s not an option for us. But we have something they don’t.”
According to Rifkin, that thing is proximity to the seat of democratic ideals. Walking through the museum one afternoon, he comes to the third-floor balcony overlooking the Mall, facing the National Archives building across Constitution Avenue. “Here we are facing where the Bill of Rights and the Constitution are housed,” he said. “And it’s just an amazing thing to behold. We have an opportunity to bring the visitor—not only the sophisticated, well-educated one, but every person—an experience of contemporary art. This may be their first and only visual experience of it. I think we have a different obligation than other contemporary museums, because the Hirshhorn is here on the Mall, in this city. That, to me, ultimately is why I’m here.”
Raising money to inspire Everyman with the art of his time—it sounds noble. And making the Hirshhorn the best contemporary art museum in the world—it sounds ambitious, but within reach. And yet, for the directors of Rifkin’s generation, it is here where the pitfalls wait.
To have broad appeal, museums are tempted to forgo showcasing more difficult, edgy work. To raise money to be the best, museums are tempted to accept dollars from benefactors who wish to control the works purchased, mandate that their corporate logos attend the works’ display, or have their names stenciled in granite on building wings. But what makes a great contemporary art museum is a melange of independence, intensity, and a sometimes radical rearranging of how the world is experienced.
Because of these competing imperatives, art-world citizens have increasingly been dividing their kingdom into elitists and populists, scholars and fundraisers, enlightened patrons and greedy self-promoters, aesthetes and Disney-izers. The word—and the worry—about Rifkin and his generation is that maybe they are nothing but fundraisers, Terry McAuliffes who talk up indecipherable art for an ulterior motive. Rifkin, so diplomatic and so self-effacing, conjures up dire fears. He’s the kind who likes to schmooze up big shots. His ilk can’t make big money themselves, the thinking goes, so they court it, sacrificing hapless artists on the altar of their own ambition to fraternize with the mighty.
These wild suppositions also grow out of recent Smithsonian Institution history. Over the past two years, the solemn “battle for the Smithsonian’s soul,” as newspeak has it, has resembled comedy more than crisis. Make-it-snappy donors want to install the Martha Stewart story in a $38 million history exhibit; tweed-jacketed Smithsonian researchers wear “Dump Small” buttons protesting what they see as new Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small’s betrayal of the organization’s scholarly mission. What isn’t so amusing is walking inside the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and looking around. The ceiling has peeling paint; the exhibits feature yellowed glass, funky velvet. It is, all in all, embarrassing. But the members of Congress, a few blocks east in smartly painted edifices, apparently think the 70 percent they pay of the Smithsonian’s $700 million budget should be enough for its 400 or so buildings.
The Hirshhorn’s finances are less shaky than its parent institution’s. But it must drastically improve them to achieve its ambitions. Historically, the museum has run on three funding sources. In 1999, before Lehrman expanded the board and brought in a development director, private donations generated about $180,000, Congress appropriated $4.3 million, and Smithsonian money from magazine ads, book sales, restaurant revenues, and an investment fund added another $4.3 million. This last fiscal year, donations were budgeted at $3.7 million, Congress appropriated $4.6 million, and the Smithsonian contributed $1.2 million. Next year’s funding is expected to drop sharply, with $2.2 million from Hirshhorn donors budgeted, $4.7 million from Congress and only $529,000 from the Smithsonian.
Unlike private institutions, the Hirshhorn cannot lay off employees in bad times; Congress mandates a certain number of positions. Unlike private institutions, the Hirshhorn cannot charge admission—which eliminates highly attended blockbusters as moneymaking propositions. And so it has come to pass that Congress thinks it befits the most prosperous nation on earth to dispatch people like Rifkin to beg for money for the stately buildings on the American Acropolis that is the Mall.
Some people believe Washington’s greatest museum director was the recently deceased J. Carter Brown. Brown’s aristocratic family started the colony of Rhode Island, gave Brown University its name, and bequeathed him a multi-million-dollar fortune. He went from Harvard to the Louvre to directorship of the National Gallery at 35. He was, as the New York Times noted in its obituary in June, so patrician that he was mystified by the packaging of a Big Mac a colleague once brought him. Brown’s father was a collector and connoisseur. As a boy, Brown was first exposed to art at home.
Rifkin, by contrast, first saw art in museums. (Hirshhorn’s first exposure was to Bouguereau cherubs on insurance calendars.) One of the important paintings of his boyhood was Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy.
Rifkin’s parents regularly took their two sons and two daughters into New York from the family’s suburban Long Island home for the symphony, ballet, theater, and museums. Ina Rifkin devised a game: “Tell me a story about this painting.” Rifkin remembers none of the stories, he says. “I just remember how mysterious the painting was.”
Rifkin was a slow reader; he thinks he may have had undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder. Literature didn’t interest; art was dull. “I was fed it,” Rifkin says. “I was interested in sports as a boy. I was interested in girls as a young man.” The high-school basketball star went to Syracuse University, but he needed knee surgery after freshman year. Laid up, he read.
In a course called Arts and Ideas, Rifkin saw Delacroix slides, heard Baudelaire read, and encountered his professor’s playing of Chopin. The less-than-literary hoopster had his epiphany. “I became studious after that,” Rifkin says. He began to paint. Awful stuff, he concedes, but a tame self-indulgence in 1969. Rifkin was 20, “a big jocky guy becoming an aesthete.” He took philosophy courses, a semester in Florence. Before he went, he and his older brother went to Woodstock. They left the concert early; the rain and mud were too much.
Italy proved more intriguing. Rifkin learned Italian and drank in all the art he could, but an altarpiece in the Santa Maria Novella, like The Sleeping Gypsy, exerted a hold. Its maker was a teacher of Michelangelo named Domenico Ghirlandaio. Looking at Adoration of the Shepherds, Rifkin noticed that the faces of the people he saw walking around Florence matched the shepherds in the Ghirlandaio. Eureka II: Art was more than sacred objets from the past.
Rifkin returned to the United States in 1970, “to Kent State, the Cambodia bombings, strikes on campus,” Rifkin says. “My friends were in turmoil. I had spent the last seven or eight months painting and thinking about painting. It was like seeing the world coming apart.” He dropped out and worked in a record store. As it turned out, no one took finals that semester; Syracuse shut down temporarily.
Rifkin went back to school more dedicated. “He was always interested in perception. He was always interested in meaning,” says former Whitney Director David Ross, who was a housemate at Syracuse. “We were classic hippie college students together. Ned was earnest in his searching. Always searching for meaning, even to the point where some of our more cynical friends would say, ‘Ned, come on.’”
Rifkin graduated with a degree in fine arts and philosophy and went on to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to be an art historian. As he had strayed from jockdom, though, he wandered again. After years of studying painting and sculpture, he wanted to write his dissertation on a filmmaker. His choice was Antonioni.
“When I first saw Blow-Up, in either 1966 or 1967, I was a high-school senior, and I was totally mystified by the elasticity of narrative and time,” says Rifkin of his first encounter with Antonioni. “It was upsetting but engaging. The template for how to tell a story in a movie was clearly blown open, and it was disconcerting, because I knew it was important but I didn’t know why.”
Rifkin’s was one of the first art-history dissertations about film. His subject was risky, his methods puritanical. He spent months at the British Film Institute in London at a flatbed Moviola, cataloguing every shot in every Antonioni film. Antonioni’s films are sensuous and alienated; they are unlike any movies previous. They feature love triangles, violence, and anxieties. But their “subject” is perception—the way the mind orders, or misses, reality.
The Antonioni dissertation was not a brilliant career move: It landed Rifkin a job teaching art history at the cultural backwater that is the University of Texas at Arlington, a Dallas suburb.
After only three years, he was restless. At 30, with wife and baby, he took a sabbatical to New York to recast his dissertation as a book. One night, he went to a show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Soho. Founder Marcia Tucker, a rebel who had been fired from the Whitney, hired him as a curator.
“He didn’t have any museum experience,” Tucker remembers. “He was an art historian, very smart. But he was also warm and didn’t see curatorial work as some kind of position of power or authority. He saw it as a kind of shared investigation with artists.” Rifkin lived in Hoboken and worked out of converted classrooms in lower Manhattan. It was “extremely difficult to hear, let alone think,” he recalled in an essay on the experience. “The New Museum, in only its eighth year and struggling—as it always has—for survival, stood for the most experimental, edgy, and ‘new’ art, those things one had not yet seen in galleries or museums of the mainstream, e.g. the Whitney, Guggenheim, Modern, or Met.”
Rifkin was basically a talent scout. He could have just looked for unknown younger artists, but he also sought overlooked veterans. He quickly became known as the guy who would look at any artist’s slides. At the time, young artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel were showing at Mary Boone’s new gallery, where a Wall Street boom under Reagan had prices climbing. Such work and that of Eric Fischl, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman had made figurative art acceptable again after three decades of abstraction, minimalism, and pop.
“Here’s Leon Golub, who at that time I think was around 60, who had been showing these mercenary paintings—about torture, death squads,” recalls Rifkin. “They were tough, political, in-your-face, scraped-down paintings. They weren’t sumptuous. They were absolutely frightening—raw canvas pinned like hides to the wall. He had totally been on the outs after abstract expressionism blew out any kind of imagery. And yet he was hanging in there and he was making his art, and his art was compelling.”
Rifkin and co-curator Lynn Gumpert did a Golub show in 1984. It was contrary to where the buzz was—at Mary Boone with Schnabel. But the New Museum show was a critical success. Since then, Golub’s work has entered the major museums.
And so has Rifkin. Word of Rifkin’s talent reached the Corcoran in Washington. When then-Director Michael Botwinick interviewed Rifkin for a curator job in 1984, “He said, ‘What kind of shows do you want to do here?’” Rifkin remembers. “And I said, ‘Well, we’ve offered you the Golub show, and you haven’t responded yet.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re going to take the show—and you.’ So it came with me. And I remember walking Jim Demetrion through that show at the Corcoran. Jim went and bought a Leon Golub for the Hirshhorn. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of our special rapport.”
It was also the beginning of Rifkin’s rapport with Lehrman, whom Rifkin later recruited to the Corcoran board. “I remember the instant that I met him, because he showed up at my door for a dinner, and I had a sense of kinship and familiarity that rarely happens without a great deal of time,” Lehrman recalls. “Talking with Ned elevated the conversation into very interesting conceptual ideas, but grounded in real-life relevance. My metaphor would be that, when I talk to Ned, I feel like I’m on a trampoline with a lot more bounce to it. I get higher and I see more, but I still come down to where I need to land.”
But then Botwinick told Rifkin his first show, of sculptor Jonathan Borofsky, had to be axed for lack of money. The exhibition had been organized in Philadelphia by curator Mark Rosenthal, and the Corcoran had committed to take it. “I was put in a very precarious situation,” Rifkin says. “The show would be canceled, and it would look like I wasn’t supportive of this artist. I didn’t know people in town, so Robert introduced me to some people and they introduced me to some people. There was a kind of take-up-the-cause, man-the-barricades kind of thing. I would actually say we rescued the show through some eleventh-hour fundraising. I had not really raised money up until that point.”
None of the benefactors of that show required their names on any Corcoran real estate. They just gave. And the Borofsky, with its clown-head ballerina singing “My Way” excruciatingly slowly, was far from conventional. As for Rifkin’s judgment about his artistic merit? Borofsky’s sculpture has been commissioned for public spaces in Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin, Basel, Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, and Boston, among other cities.
In 1986, Demetrion hired Rifkin as chief curator of the Hirshhorn. “I looked over the field,” Demetrion says. “He was at the Corcoran, and I’d seen what he was able to do there in terms of exhibitions. And he had good rapport with various collectors in town.” Lehrman joined the board. Rifkin started “Directions,” a series of solo shows of artists who had not had museum shows before. He also started an experimental program called “WORKS,” which sponsored artists to do temporary projects that made use of the Hirshhorn building—among them Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s nighttime projections on the museum’s exterior walls of massive hands holding a revolver and a burning candle.
Rifkin’s organization of the 1989 Robert Moskowitz show still wins praise. It was the first exhibition of a living artist originating from another museum that MOMA accepted. “It put the Hirshhorn on the map in terms of exhibitions,” says Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a former Hirshhorn curator. Here was beautifully original work made by an artist who was a maverick and never fit neatly into the broad categories of abstract expressionism, pop, and figuration. Although Moskowitz’s work had gained some exposure through its inclusion in 1978’s influential “New Image Painting” show, it was awaiting a champion who could bring it to a larger audience.
In 1991, the High Museum in Atlanta came courting, and Rifkin became director of an institution deep in debt, with an annual budget of $7 million. When he left, in 1999, its budget was $18 million. “Ned helped to put the High on the map,” says the current director, Michael Shapiro. “Under his direction, the museum achieved an unprecedented level of success in attendance, membership, fundraising, and more.” Annual attendance grew 18 percent (from 384,448 to 454,969 visitors per year). Museum membership increased 68 percent (from 22,544 to 37,960). The annual giving total nearly doubled (from $2,120,612 to $4,191,862). The endowment more than tripled (from $15 million to $56 million). It was far from easy.
“I remember talking to the search committee when they were interviewing, and I said, ‘Are you sure you want a contemporary-art specialist coming from a museum like the Hirshhorn as your director? I never hear anything about contemporary art in Atlanta.’ They said, ‘Yes, but you’re the one who’s going to bring us into the 20th century.’ I thought, I suppose it’s not too late; the century’s not over yet. And indeed, it became a journey through the 20th century rather than an exploration of now.”
Rifkin organized annual shows with works imported principally from MOMA’s collection. One was Picasso, a greatest hit if ever there was one. But Rifkin could not persuade Atlanta’s largest corporations—Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, Holiday Inn—to pony up the $1 million customary for corporate sponsorship of a blockbuster. To come up with the total $1.5 million needed in corporate contributions for the Picasso show, Rifkin cobbled together $200,000 from Philip Morris in New York and much smaller donations of $50,000 from Atlanta banks and businesses. Two other big shows—a Matisse retrospective and a pop-art exhibition—found no million-dollar corporate sponsors either. The Picasso and Matisse shows were successes from an attendance standpoint, garnering more than 200,000 visitors each. But the pop-art show brought in only 33,000. “I realized that there wasn’t a contemporary-art audience like the kind that you see in other, major Northeastern or West Coast cities,” Rifkin says.
In Atlanta, Rifkin proved himself a passionate and persuasive fundraiser, but by no means a miracle man. He was a sophisticate in a less-than-sophisticated town who treated people with respect—patron and visitor alike. His warmth, one on one, accounts for his greatest Atlanta fundraising achievements: tripling the endowment, doubling the annual contributions. With corporations, though, Rifkin was less successful. And his skills as a populist—bringing more people into the museum—won’t translate as financial advantages to the Hirshhorn, because unlike the High, Smithsonian museums are prohibited from charging admission, even for special exhibitions.
Increasing audience is never all good. Two of Rifkin’s most popular shows at the High were also the most controversial. “Rings: Five Passions in World Art,” timed to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, grouped artworks by “love, anguish, awe, triumph, and joy.” Its guest curator was none other than Brown, the patrician who had transformed the National Gallery from a barely visited place into a well-trod cathedral for the many. (Some say he made it into an assembly line for tiptoe glimpses of Vermeer.) Brown imported art from Kyoto’s Daigo-Ji, Madrid’s Museo del Prado, and everywhere in between to the High. And this concept was attractive to a corporate sponsor—credit bureau Equifax gave $1 million. Attendance was 205,000.
But those who think Brown has made museums into circuses hated it. The Wall Street Journal’s Deborah Solomon wrote, “Never before have such sublime works of art been put in the service of such dopey ideas.” Critics at the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer bathed Brown and the High in scorn. He countered with stories of the good citizens of Atlanta moved to tears by a 12th-century Japanese scroll. Weren’t these sniffy critics bored silly with monograph shows of still another Impressionist?
Also provoking was “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People.” Rockwell’s cloying sentiment was modernist anathema. The thing was, the modernists emerged 80 years ago. Jackson Pollock painted 50 years ago. Maybe, just maybe, their dusty orthodoxies needed a rinse. “Ned was one of the few curators and art professionals willing to step forward,” says Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
Rifkin decided to do a major reassessment at the High. Rockwell brought the museum Ford Motor Co. sponsorship, 230,000 visitors, and 6,000 new members. But getting other museums to take the show after it opened at the High “was a tough sell,” Moffatt remembers. Eventually, art critic Dave Hickey’s essay articulated Rifkin’s case. “Neither a scientific naturalist nor a conservative realist, Rockwell was always the democratic history painter, portraying a world in which the minimum conditions of democracy are made visible,” Hickey wrote. “His best paintings insist in a perceptible way that the atmosphere of benign tolerance, the tiny occasions of kindness, comedy, anxiety and tristesse that he portrayed, far from being evidence of human vanity, are critical elements in the fate of the Republic, conditions that must exist if it is to survive in historical time.”
New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman offered qualified praise. Curator Robert Rosenblum “took a deep breath,” he remembers, and proposed it to the Guggenheim. The show finished its seven-city tour there this year.
“It was a brave thing for Ned to do on the one hand and not so brave to do on the other,” explains Rosenblum. “What’s not brave is to have a show that is going to keep the turnstiles going, and if anything, Rockwell in that regard was a sure thing. That immediately smacks of commerce, populism, vulgarity. But if you turn the switch around far enough, then it’s a brave thing to do, because you’re flouting the traditions of what’s good and bad. It’s like saying, ‘We don’t have the values that modernists and right-thinking art people have, and we are going to try something else.’ From that point of view, it was courageous, and I saw it like that.”
While Rifkin was ruffling the art waters from Atlanta, far off in Houston, the Menil Collection was having some havoc of its own. A Garbo among museums, the Menil had its meltdown in private. But inside its monkish gray plank walls, an unholy fight ensued after the board dismissed a revered adviser, and the director, feeling his authority undermined, quit.
The Menil had been the lifework of John and Dominique de Menil. The collection they fashioned of antiquities, Byzantine art, the arts of tribal cultures, and 20-century art graces a Renzo Piano building on a quiet, tree-lined residential street. Nearby are the Menil’s Cy Twombly Gallery, the Menil-commissioned Rothko Chapel, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, and Richmond Hall, a former grocery store housing a Dan Flavin light installation.
John died in 1972, Dominique in 1997. “Anytime you go through the death of a founder, it’s not easy,” says Peter Marzio, once a Smithsonian curator and now the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Without Mrs. de Menil’s presence, and her vision and her energy and compassion that she always conveyed, it would just be another place. Now the institution has to stand on its own, without that kind of magician.” Rifkin was to be the wizard who would channel Dominique. The Menil board unanimously voted to hire him, citing his intelligent curatorial choices, his warmth, his diplomacy, and his fundraising acumen.
From the outside, the Menil is an unobtrusive, hard-to-find building. Its name, on a small lawn sign, is barely visible. No banners flutter, as they do from most museums, to announce current exhibitions. Inside, black-stained pine floors give and creak in a way the institutional stone of most museums never does. Its roof is made of glass and graceful louvers that admit light. There is a difficult-to-articulate sense that the Menil and its nearby chapels and nunnish galleries are on hallowed ground. Awe and intimacy are the hallmarks of a Menil visit.
This was all because of Dominique de Menil. The Menil board, director, and staff always ceded to her. She decided what to collect, how to house it, everything down to the colors on the walls. When there was a shortfall, she wrote a check. After her death, the board during Rifkin’s tenure was led by a dear friend of Dominique’s, Louisa Sarofim, who was not an assertive chairperson. The power vacuum meant that certain board members, such as founding director Walter Hopps and some Menil family members, began to exert more influence on a body split along several lines. One half of the board was from New York, the other from Houston.
The New Yorkers viewed the Houstonians as being only a few steps above yokel. The three Menil children—Houston-born but now scattered internationally—allied with the New York contingent. The acquisitions committee had no Houstonians on it. Early in Rifkin’s tenure, his suggestion to buy a painting by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was turned down. It was his first inkling that something was amiss. As it turned out, the committee never approved a single purchase during Rifkin’s two years at the Menil.
“I felt that I was grossly misunderstood by a number of people associated with the Menil,” Rifkin says. “For some reason, they perceived me as a threat to something they felt they needed to protect or defend. My view, naturally, was that I was coming there as a spiritual calling to advance the unique vision of its founders. Needless to say, this necessarily would involve change, and I believe the culture at the Menil could be characterized in one word: mistrust. It would have been so for anyone in the director’s position. It was deeply disturbing to be mistrusted, and it took its toll on me: I began to lose my sense of humor.”
When Rifkin suggested that the Menil post signs in the neighborhood to direct visitors to the museum’s location, the board declined. Though the board members approved the Agnes Martin show, they did not do so unanimously. Then, in a Jan. 30, 2001, story in the New York Times, the mistrust of Rifkin became public. “Some associates of Mrs. de Menil said that crassly commercial influences were intruding too insistently on the museum she left behind. They rejected moves made in the name of modernization, and said they suspected Mr. Rifkin of sympathizing with philistines,” wrote Steve Kinzer.
Board President Sarofim defended Rifkin in the Times, but she did not grant a promised interview to the Washington City Paper. Menil public-affairs director Vance Muse declined to discuss Rifkin. Responding to a request for an interview with Menil curator Walter Hopps, 70, a founding director and ex-officio board member of the Menil, Muse said that Hopps had nothing to say about Rifkin, and referred this reporter to a second story by Kinzer in the New York Times. “All Walter has to say about Ned is in that story,” Muse said.
That second New York Times story ran a month after Rifkin decided to accept the directorship of the Hirshhorn. It reported on the art fallout from the Enron scandal and Enron-related loans of three artworks, among them the Agnes Martin, to the Menil. Rifkin had served on a volunteer committee for the company that included Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, curator Barry Walker and Lea Fastow to guide purchases. Rifkin supported the Enron committee’s recommendation to purchase a sculpture called Bower by Martin Puryear for the company’s new headquarters. Until the building was ready, Rifkin suggested that Enron lend Bower to the Menil.
Kinzer wrote: “Ms. Fastow’s loans to the Menil have disturbed some of the museum’s longtime supporters. One of them, Walter Hopps, its founding director, who had been at odds with Mr. Rifkin over the direction of the museum, said that Ms. Fastow sought to use the museum to increase the value of her works and to increase her social standing in Houston and that the loans violate the museum’s anticommercial tradition.”
Many corporations collect art for their corporate facilities, and it is common for curators to serve as advisers to such corporations. The lending of corporate art to museums is also a widespread practice. “That kind of loan—they’re commonplace,” said Museum of Fine Arts director Marzio. “I think that issue is a red herring.” Then, in another odd twist, the Menil board replaced Rifkin—with Demetrion. He came out of retirement to move to Houston as “interim” director. Asked why Hopps clashed with Rifkin, Demetrion says: “I have no idea. I came down here to look toward the future, not to look into the past.” Asked about the Puryear, he replies: “That’s in the past.”
So how will Rifkin make the Hirshhorn not just first-tier, but first? It won’t happen if he doesn’t raise money. It won’t happen if the way he raises money is perceived as crass, commercial, philistine.
“I think artists will show me the way,” says Rifkin, one day in his office. “I want this museum to be a laboratory for them. I want them working here, part of here.”
He doesn’t mean on the payroll, at desks. He wants work they make expressly for the Hirshhorn—site-specific installations. But Rifkin also means his words in a more general sense. Ever since The Sleeping Gypsy, art has confounded and seduced him, but it is the artists and the museum visitor with whom he has been most tender.
Poet Hirsch, recently named president of the Guggenheim Foundation, recalls his and Rifkin’s visit to Martin in New Mexico, how his friend rescued the day. “He had a perfect manner with her. He was very reassuring. He communicated a deep sense of her work. I could see she didn’t trust many people, but she trusted Ned.”
Martin’s limpid abstractions couldn’t be further from the work of Antonioni, Golub, Borofsky, or Rockwell. As Hirsch points out, Rifkin loves best “spare lyricism suggesting the ineffable.” But Rifkin has championed diametrically different artists throughout his career. He has brought attention to work endangered by prevailing fashion, bad luck, or worn assumptions. He has persuaded people to give money so that visitors not unlike his suburban mother can see what only patricians like J. Carter Brown saw in the past.
“I’m not a missionary. But I am interested in making a difference in the lives of people who don’t understand what this could be for them,” says Rifkin one day, watching women pushing strollers on the Mall from the Hirshhorn. “I want to help them take this thing that is alien, often mystifying, and turn it into something compelling that generates appetite to see more, to help them reflect. I want them to know that to see actively is of tremendous importance.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.