NEW MUSEUM ORAL HISTORY INITIATIVE
ELLEN HOLTZMAN, NEW MUSEUM MANAGING DIRECTOR, 1988–92
INTERVIEWEE: Ellen Holtzman, Program Director for American Art, Henry Luce Foundation, 1992–2016
INTERVIEWER: Dennis Szakacs, New Museum Associate Director, Institutional Advancement
LOCATION: The New Museum Sky Room, April 12, 2017
These interviews are part of the New Museum Oral History Initiative and have been lightly edited from the verbatim transcript. Readers are asked to bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of the spoken word, rather than written prose.
Full transcripts are available from the New Museum Archives by request.
Dennis Szakacs: Tell me a bit about how you got into the art world—your origin story, and how you came to the New Museum.
Ellen Holtzman: Well, I studied art history with the expectation—like everyone else—of being a curator. After receiving a Master’s and entering a difficult job market in the mid-’70s, I came back to New York, my hometown, and made coffee for the Director of the Brooklyn Museum, Michael Botwinick. That was my entrée into the art world.
I was the administrative assistant in the director’s office. I took that position knowing I was overqualified with a Master’s degree, and they knowing that [there were] no promises that I would stay long. I basically learned museum governance and structure in the director’s office of the Brooklyn Museum, and then eventually advanced into another position there and went on to the programs department. I then went to the Queens Museum as the Assistant Director.
I discovered quickly there were avenues in the museum world other than being a curator. After several years—I was at Brooklyn for five years, and at Queens for three—I had the opportunity to answer an ad for a position at the New Museum in the paper.
The irony with this job is that I had met [New Museum Founding Director] Marcia [Tucker] in the late ’70s when I was just looking for my very first job. She interviewed me at the New School in the lobby, for an assistant curatorial position. And she was fabulous. She was my idol already and was very complimentary, but it didn’t work because of timing. That was ten years prior to ultimately interviewing with her again for managing director.
DS: Were you tracking Marcia when she was at the Whitney, or after she started the New Museum?
EH: After she started the New Museum. I don’t think I was aware of her at the Whitney. I probably had seen the [Richard] Tuttle show in 1975 without knowing that it was Marcia, but I wasn’t tracking Marcia as a curator.1 I was really tracking her as a museum professional and the development of the New Museum. And she was somebody I already aspired to be like, because she wasn’t a conventional museum person.
Ten years later in 1988, I had the opportunity to interview for this managing director position, which if I recall was a new position. They didn’t have a second because, as you know, the Museum had been small and they didn’t need these hierarchical positions, but they were starting to grow. The title—I think Marcia came up with it from the theater. It was very clear that Marcia was the artistic director and she wanted a managing director to oversee the administrative work. I was quite suited for that, and was thrilled to work with her—to work at the New Museum. It really was the start of my higher-level museum career.
The New Museum, to me, was Marcia. It was her personality. It was her commitment. It was her connection to people, to me, and to whomever else—when she connected with you, you were the only person in the world.
And it was very contagious. I respected her efforts so much, and the efforts of the people around her, to create an institution—a place that could be both visionary and ultimately a solid organization that had its place in the cultural light of New York at the time. But very quickly internationally as well. I think internationally, certainly nationally, the Museum superseded its local reputation right away.2 So yeah, it was very much Marcia.
DS: So, tell me about what it was like to work there at that time, and some of the challenges you encountered.
EH: Well, I came in summer of ’88, and the Museum was already at 583 Broadway. The Museum was about eleven years old at the time, so it was an interesting moment when they were no longer fledgling. They’d been around. They had been in the space for, I think, five years. And if you recall, it was the exhibition space, about 2,000 square feet, and then two subterranean levels.
It was a moment when the Museum, administratively, was struggling with its identity. There were, if I recall, about twenty-five, maybe even thirty staff people. Programmatically, it was still visionary and only going forward and making more strides.
The original vision of the nonhierarchical management—they were still trying to make that work, but it was less and less tenable. There was this dichotomy between being an institutionalized force, a presence, a cultural institution in New York, and still being nimble, flexible, and all of those things. And they were successful, but it was always a struggle. There was never enough space, and there was never enough money, and the scene was very different.
You could say the New Museum was akin to an alternative space at that time. There was Artists Space [New York contemporary art space founded in 1972]. There was Exit Art [New York cultural space from 1982–2012]. There was White Columns [New York gallery for emerging artists founded in 1970]. And programmatically, there were similarities, but the fact that the New Museum strove to be a museum—that was always a question: “Why are you a museum and not just a space?”3
I think that’s one of the things that Marcia held dear to: the idea that it was a museum. Not that it be old and stuffy and everything in storage, but that it be a real, solid institution that’s going to be around for a really long time. It was going to be around for one hundred years like the Met has been, and make that kind of contribution to the cultural scene, but programmatically doing what was new and exciting.4
DS: Who were some of the Board members and the staff members you worked with at that time?
EH: Well, the Board: Henry Luce III was president for most of my time there. Allen Goldring, Vera List, Arthur Goldberg were very active at that time. I’m sort of that second incarnation, that second decade. Tom Pulling for a moment. Laura Skoler. A little bit later, Paul Schnell, and at the very end of my term, Saul Dennison [Trustee and President of the Board, 1990–2013] had just come on, who then became sort of the saint and savior of the institution.
The building was always an issue, and one of my last tasks was trying to get out of 583 Broadway. It was before that second real estate deal when they were able to expand, and the reason I bring that up is it was incredibly frustrating and difficult to make happen. The trustees were trying so hard to make it work, and people like Saul finally made it happen. I just remember feeling so grateful that their commitment was so genuine. That was a great effort on their part.
DS: And some of the staff at that time?
EH: Bill Olander [curator, 1985–89] had been the curator when I first arrived. I didn’t know Bill for very long because he was already sick, and it was early in ’89 when he passed away. So Bill, of course, was, for me, the main curatorial voice when I arrived.
And then—as is typical in the New Museum—many young people. Laura Trippi [1989–95] is sort of the next incarnation of curator. And then even younger people like Alice Yang [curator, 1986–93]. Then slightly later, we imported some international voices with the presence of France Morin [curator, 1990–94] and Gary Sangster from Australia [curator, 1990–92].
Those were the curators of my time. We also had a great publications librarian, Russell Ferguson [1986–91] who went on to the Hammer Museum and then to be, what, the chair of the Art Program at UCLA?
EH: Right. Russell really made incredible strides with publications. I mean, they were Marcia’s vision, but Russell made them happen, and he was a primary thinker at the New Museum during my time there.
Susan Cahan in Education [1988–96] was absolutely in the foreground with diversity issues.
DS: So you really felt like you were doing something new at the New Museum. What did that feel like coming into work every day?
EH: There was a great sense of pride. The place was ambitious in the most positive sense of the word. Idealistic, scrappy at the time, and it just made you feel like there was so much that art could say to the public and reach beyond what’s traditionally thought of as a museum. And that was very exciting and very rewarding to try to make happen. It was a very intellectual process also—there was a little dichotomy there. We were highly intellectual, but also trying to appeal to people who might feel threatened by a traditional art museum.
DS: And how did people respond to the transition from a collective way of working to one that was more structured?
EH: Well, there were fits and starts. For most of my four years there, things were still done by what Marcia called “consensus management.” We would have people come in and talk to us about what that meant periodically. Really, what that meant for most of the staff is that everything—every decision from personnel to what color the walls were going to be—was done by committee. And on the committee were people from all departments. I think that was one of the motivations for many people to come to work there. But it became harder and harder.
My greatest consensus management recollection comes from “The Decade Show,” which was, as you know, a collaboration with three institutions. So, we now had consensus management times three. It must have gone on for two years with the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art. There were usually twenty people around the table for everything.
DS: “The Decade Show” is one of those New Museum projects that is now a touchstone in the history of contemporary art. How was the project received? The whole idea of three museums coming together to do one show, which seemed new—
EH: That kind of inter-institutional collaboration probably was new. Curatorially, the concept was important. I think whatever back-and-forth there was, was part of the process of having three different points of view, and that was a good thing. Where it bogs down is the administrative stuff.
DS: What other projects from that period spring to mind as things that you remember with either great fondness or great chagrin?
EH: Soon after I arrived—you know, ’88 to ’92—we were doing the Window at the New Museum, which in itself was an innovation in museum practice: to have something out there, free, for the public to pass by. Of course, Bill had made a mark by having Silence=Death (1987) in the Window, that ACT UP installation that began as “Let the Record Show…,” in 1987, which was before my time.
So, because of that and several other shows, people looked to that window: What’s the New Museum? What’s going on there? What are they saying? That was the tradition already, as the program started in 1979, two years after the Museum opened.
DS: What was it about the installation that really set people off?
EH: It was in that moment of faux patriotism of “How dare you cross something iconic like the American flag?” It was in the days of—not so much burning the American flag like in the ’60s, but artistically using the American flag in ways that people disapproved of, like the incident at the Art Institute in Chicago.5 I think Jasper Johns had done it twenty years before, but this was different. This was more of a political statement. And so, this person or these people were responding to that statement.
Then there was the show, “Have You Attacked America Today?,” a small Window show, in 1989. I think it was by Erika Rothenberg.
DS: That’s right.
EH: And we were in that moment of controversy—not for the sake of controversy, but because there were things to say that some aspects of the world didn’t want to hear. Most of the time, including during Silence=Death, the Window was received with respect.
During the Rothenberg piece, the window was smashed with a garbage can three times, I believe. Certainly twice, but I believe it was three times. That kind of vandalism was new—new to me, and I think it was new to Marcia.
DS: On the one hand, I’m sure it felt incredibly frightening and invasive. On the other hand, the Museum was there to provoke and challenge. And sometimes you don’t know where that’s going to take you or how far that’s going to take you. Did it ever go to that kind of place again?
EH: Not to my knowledge. It may have been after that incident that we established the comments book, which seems like such a small thing right now.6
The institution of comments books in the exhibitions—which wouldn’t have helped in the case of the Window—was to let people express themselves. I think that was one way we were allowing the public to either challenge and dispute what the New Museum was doing or to accept and support it as well.
DS: The New Museum has always really been defined by female leadership at all levels, and by people from different backgrounds and perspectives. I think if anything, that may have been one of its biggest contributions to changing how the art world is now. What was that environment like?
EH: Well, it was very different … The leadership at the New Museum, obviously, with Marcia was—I won’t say predominantly female, but people in the highest positions were women. But it wasn’t exclusive, and Marcia didn’t set out to only have female voices at all. Ned Rifkin was one of the original curators, and then of course, Bill. So there were always men and women.
I think that’s really what Marcia was about, almost a disregard for what your personal background was, and really a focus on, What do you have to say and what do you have to offer intellectually or artistically? She respected smart, energetic, forward-thinking people, and many of those were women. And she gave those people a chance, whereas in another institution, somehow or another, gender might have prevented their elevation.
There was a time toward the end of my tenure—and I think it was maintained—where there were conscious efforts in the hiring of staff to make sure that there were multiple perspectives in the form of background, ethnicity, and things like that. It wasn’t just a quota system. It was about having those voices available to enhance the conversation.
DS: The New Museum was able, in some way, to kind of bring uptown downtown and maybe bring a little downtown to uptown. Do you think that was part of Marcia’s charisma and ability to bridge those worlds?
EH: Yes, and I don’t think even she knew why she was so successful. Vera List—who couldn’t have been more different from Marcia except in her artistic passion—and Marcia were dear friends. I don’t know how they met. But yes, absolutely, Marcia was able to bridge that world and any other world—
DS: Or someone like Henry Luce, who came from one of the most distinguished New York families.
EH: Right. And in many ways—Henry Luce is a good example—the Board didn’t always appreciate everything that was on display, but they supported it because of their confidence in Marcia and the staff. But it was Marcia all the way.
DS: The Rothenberg project and the reception to that, Bill Olander’s work with AIDS activism—this was a time when artists in the art world were really engaging with important social issues of the day. And there was some pushback against that, and part of the pushback were controversies over government funding of the arts. You were there when some of that was taking place. Could you talk about your experiences with that and how the New Museum tried to address it in its own way?
EH: It was a moment to be active, to be out there, outside of the museum with other voices, other cultural institutions. I was there during the Mapplethorpe dust-up at the Corcoran, and of course, later there was the Andres Serrano controversy, which Marcia ultimately addressed. This was after I left, but the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia arranged a Serrano retrospective exhibition. Marcia and the staff moved heaven and earth to make sure that it had a New York venue.
DS: You’ve used a lot of great words when talking about the Museum and talking about Marcia: innovative, dynamic, exciting. What kind of impact did that have on your thinking and on your own career?
EH: What the New Museum taught me, in addition to honing my skills as a higher-level administrator: board relationships, government relationships, all those things. It taught me, as a traditional art historian, what a museum could be in allowing multiple voices to be present.
It’s much more established as a concept today, but in the early ’90s, museums might have given a little bit of lip service to sharing authority. But it was really changing—that a museum was not necessarily the authoritative voice. And the New Museum absolutely was first and foremost in establishing the public’s right to interact with what was being shown and to offer multiple perspectives. I think that’s one of the Museum’s greatest contributions. It helped me understand that that was the bigger and more significant role for art museums.
DS: When you were working there, did you ever imagine that the Museum would grow to where it is now? And after you left the New Museum—I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that transition and how you remained involved in the life of the Museum as it grew and developed over the years.
EH: Well, to your first question, programmatically, I always knew the New Museum’s impact was substantial and would continue. Physically, in a building like this? Never. I mean, from the three floors below ground in the building at 583 Broadway without sunlight, I never—
DS: From the basement to the Sky Room!
EH: I never, ever envisioned a freestanding beautiful building. I think of the word museum and without the context of collection and storage and all that stuff, if you think of a museum as a building, this place is now a museum. It’s solid, it’s here, and it’s an anchor in the neighborhood.
And the elaborate nature of the exhibitions, the physical feats you pull off. I wanted to ask you about the boat [Chris Burden’s Ghost Ship (2005)]—the things that you were able to do here, which I know cost money—it’s amazing that those things can be done now on a regular basis.
DS: So, you went from being a key administrator at a cutting-edge contemporary museum to the whole other side, becoming a funder of that kind of activity.
EH: That’s right. It was a total accident. One accident, though, that people still like to remind me of, is how I left the New Museum in the spring of ’92. It’s the first time I left a job without having a job waiting. And I left because of financial reasons. We were budgeting and things were tight. I don’t remember the numbers, but we were cutting positions. I was responsible for having to cut certain positions. And—it was just difficult and I wrote my position out of the budget.
DS: I didn’t realize that.
EH: Yes. And I only bring it up because people still bring it up to me. In fact, Saul Dennison, whenever he introduces me, will say, “This is the woman who wrote herself out of the budget.”
You mentioned my next step. Well, I went to the Henry Luce Foundation as program director for the arts. That is what they called it at the time. Later on, it became program director for American art. Of course, Henry Luce III and I had met at the New Museum. He had been the chair from 1978–98.
But what my experience helped me do at the Luce Foundation was to move the needle to what was now established and what was burgeoning. Artists that the Luce Foundation may not have previously considered as established in their significance—in their impact—were now easily understood by me to be appropriate.
DS: Any favorite Marcia story that comes to mind?
EH: I don’t really have stories; I just have the greatest fondness. She wrote me the most beautiful note. It’s probably the last note I got from her when she was ill, sort of from her perspective, telling me what I had provided for her as managing director, and in a sense, taking off of her hands things that were holding her back. So I have her generosity and her warmth and her intellect. And those are—they’re not stories, but they’re my very sweet recollections of Marcia. And she was that way with most people. She infuriated people too, you know. She didn’t always get things done on deadline and all of those things, but—no anecdotes. Just Marcia.
[End of interview.]