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Friday, October 10, 2003

"Critical Distance"

By Maxwell Anderson

Most art critics approach their beat with a healthy dose of objectivity, admixed with passion about the subject at hand. One of their challenges is how to maintain an appropriate distance from an institution's protagonists while getting close enough to understand what makes them tick. Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz is well known for the strength of his convictions and for his contrarian spirit. His latest article ("The Whitney Museum at the Crossoads") invites a reply. As the Whitney's former director, freed for a time from the well-meaning restraints of publicists, and in a lively setting rich with blogs, it's a pleasure to respond on behalf of all museum directors who are congenitally obliged to hold their tongues.

Saltz has disliked almost every exhibition mounted at the Whitney over the last several years. Many other distinguished critics have found much to like at the Museum over the same period. Kim Levin, also writing for the Village Voice, noted about the 2000 Biennial: "Finally, the Whitney Biennial does everything everyone always complained it failed to do....Bravo? No way. Up pop the usual gripes about missing artists....Never mind that hardly ever are there more than a handful of truly memorable works in any big survey (statistically speaking, 18 out of 55, crankily cited by Jerry Saltz in these pages, ain't bad)." (The Village Voice, April 11, 2000). The public responded favorably to the Whitney as well. Attendance grew by 40% during my tenure and its membership doubled.

While Saltz considers the Whitney's fall exhibitions to be promising (curated by the very curators he attacks in another breath), the rub is that museum shows are generally planned three years in advance or more. The final show on the books as I left the Whitney this month in Adam Weinberg's very capable hands is the Walker Art Center's Kiki Smith show, scheduled for the fall of 2006. Adam will of course make changes to the calendar, but in assigning blame/praise for perceived failures/successes over the next three years, Saltz's forthcoming judgments about the Museum's path after leaving the 'crossroads' need to be taken with a grain of salt. Like universities, museums are places where decisions are made thoughtfully, by many people, over time, with lasting effect.

Leaving aside the task of sharing personal preferences about shows, too few critics are informed enough about the realities of running a museum to write about the museum--as opposed to its manifestation through exhibitions accounting for only a portion of its energies and budget. For example, assigning the Whitney's curators with responsibility for the care of the permanent collection when I arrived was hardly a novel idea--it's how all museums work.

Over my five years as director, the Whitney's staff, with the support of the Board, overhauled the care, documentation, publication, and display of the permanent collection, added mightily to that collection, launched "The Contemporary Series" to commission and present contemporary art year-round, reserved an artist's seat on the Board of Trustees, initiated the Bucksbaum Award, America's largest endowed prize for visual artists, included New Media and Architecture as collecting and programming areas, led the effort to pass the artists' rights tax bill on Capitol Hill, started pay-what-you-wish Friday nights with artist-curated events to make the museum more accessible, added universally distributed audioguides, created, with federal funding, 'Whitney on Tour', a traveling exhibitions program reaching over 20 cities in two years, opened a superbly led conservation department in partnership with Harvard, attracting grants from private donors, the Mellon Foundation and federal agencies, published the museum's first handbook and other collections-focused books, invested $2 mm in a renovation of off-site storage, inaugurated New York's only M.A. in curatorial studies with Columbia, increased annual giving to the Whitney by $2mm, and made many other strides in opening itself to a broader audience.

The enduring story of the Whitney is that is was founded by an artist who relished supporting artists, including those who might not be household names. And all of its directors, including Tom Armstrong, David Ross, and myself, have done their best to honor that founding intention. Its next chapter, like its last ones, will have champions and detractors, but Adam Weinberg will doubtless stay true to Mrs. Whitney's vision. And no one who has spent time at the Whitney can walk away without pride in what its directors and staff contribute to the ongoing, restless, and important dialogue about the art of our time.

Maxwell L. Anderson
Leadership Fellow
Chief Executive Leadership Institute
Yale School of Management

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