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“It’s why she started a museum, because people said, ‘You’re crazy. You can’t do that. Nobody does that without a collection, without money. You can’t.’ And if somebody said, ‘No, you can’t do something,’ that made her wanna do it a hundred times over.”
After years of facing both subtle and overt sexism as a curator at the Whitney Museum in New York, Marcia Tucker founded the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977 with a small volunteer staff and a budget of $15,000. Placing herself at the helm, Tucker became one of the first female museum directors in the country. The museum’s daring exhibitions—and its director’s radical approach to curating and power in the art world—soon became well known in New York and beyond.
Alongside her curatorial work, Tucker was also a prolific writer. Her wide-ranging texts include deep analyses of artists’ practices, essays for her controversial exhibitions, and critiques of power and institutions. Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker, a collection of Tucker’s writings recently published by the Getty Research Institute, draws attention to both her rhetorical skills and great influence on museology and curatorial practice. Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, and Johanna Burton, the Maurice Marciano Director of MOCA, Los Angeles, and former Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum, edited the volume with Alicia Ritson.
In this episode, Phillips and Burton discuss Tucker’s immense impact on their lives and on the art world, and explore some of the texts that appear in the book.
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JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LISA PHILLIPS: It’s why she started a museum, because people said, “You’re crazy. You can’t do that. Nobody does that without a collection, without money. You can’t.” And if somebody said, “No, you can’t do something,” that made her wanna do it a hundred times over.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Lisa Phillips and Johanna Burton, co-editors of the book Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker.
Marcia Tucker was an American curator, critic, and art historian, and one of the most provocative and influential voices in the art world of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. She was a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1968 to 1977, organizing major exhibitions of work by Bruce Nauman, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Richard Tuttle, among other artists. She also founded the groundbreaking and influential New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City in 1977 and was its director for twenty-four years. There she produced influential publications, including Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age and Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture.
The Getty Research Institute acquired Marcia Tucker’s archive in 2004, two years before her death. A selection of her writings was published by the Getty Research Institute and the New Museum in 2019 in the book Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker.
I recently spoke with Lisa Phillips, Director of the New Museum, and Johanna Burton, The Maurice Marciano Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Lisa and Johanna, along with former New Museum colleague Alicia Ritson, are editors of Out of Bounds.
Lisa, Johanna, thank you so much for speaking with me on this podcast episode. Now, Marcia is best remembered as the founder of the New Museum, by which she meant not only a museum, but new art, contemporary art. But exceptionally, a new kind of museum. Lisa, you’ve been director of the New Museum for twenty-three years, and the museum itself has been around for forty-five years. Is the New Museum still new? And if it is, what makes it new and not just modern?
PHILLIPS: Marcia had a vision for a new kind of museum that would be unbound by convention, and a place to shake things up, for the intrepid, for people that like to be challenged. And that’s very much part of our mission; that remains to this day. And our mission is very simply new art, new ideas, so we have to remain new. We have to stay new and true to our mission, even though we are forty-five years old this year.
CUNO: Yeah. Johanna, you’re the director of MoCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Having been a curator at the New Museum and director of the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. How do those contemporary art institutions compare to the New Museum?
JOHANNA BURTON: First of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here. I’m a relatively new director of MoCA; been here just about four months. And as you say, before that, I was lucky enough to work at both the Wexner Center for a few years, and before that, at the New Museum. You know, it’s interesting to compare these institutions because, in fact, they’re in dialog with one another, I think quite heavily. And in fact, we are, at MoCA, just a couple of years younger than the New Museum. We’re at our forty-third year, while the New Museum is at it’s forty-fifth.
And I’ve actually been thinking quite a lot about these relationships. Of course, what’s different about MoCA is that it’s in L.A., which is a very different city to New York, and certainly, to Columbus. But I think about them as sister institutions in many ways. And certainly, I feel my own training—very obviously, with Lisa sitting here—is one of kind of relationship building, rather than competitiveness. And I think Marcia, for certain, is at the roots of and the seed of many of the institutions, even if she didn’t work at them, and people worth looking at, models like the New Museum, all along.
What is different, of course, is that MoCA is a collecting institution, where the New Museum and the Wexner are not. And I think that’s a pretty profound difference, in some ways.
CUNO: Well, let’s talk about that.
PHILLIPS: As Johanna said, the New Museum is not a collecting institution. And that was part of the concept from the beginning, that it would not be tied down by a collection that would inevitably become historical over time. So how do you remain a contemporary institution, really looking at the present, if you’re saddled with a collection that’s aging and becoming historical?
So that was one thing. But yet she really wanted to bring the seriousness and scholarship of museum practice to the exhibitions and the production of programs at the New Museum.
BURTON: And Lisa, it’s true that Marcia often called the New Museum not just the New Museum, but an anti-museum, in that sense, right? Pushing up against that idea of preserving. Which is interesting.
CUNO: Now, Marcia started as a curator at the Whitney in 1967. Lisa, what was the Whitney like then?
PHILLIPS: Well, it was a small family-run institution that was an institution in transition. And I started working there myself in 1975. I overlapped with Marcia at the Whitney for a couple of years. And Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s daughter Flora Miller and her daughter, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s granddaughter Flora Biddle, were very much present and around the museum on a daily basis back then.
And a new director, Tom Armstrong, had just joined the museum in the early seventies, and wanted to put the museum on a world stage. It definitely was going through a transition, had some growing pains, as we all do, as its ambitions and its audience grew. And Marcia was a radical curator at that time, who we all looked up to. She had done a very noteworthy exhibition in 1969 called Anti-Illusion: Procedure and Materials, which really put the Post-Minimal generation, her own generation, on the map. And she embraced the artists of her generation, like Bruce Nauman, Richard Tuttle, Barry Le Va, Lynda Benglis, among so many others. But she also was devoted to work that was not part of an avant-garde orthodoxy.
When I started at the Whitney, I was a summer intern, just out of college and about to start graduate school, and was assigned to work in the Richard Tuttle show, which Marcia organized, an infamous Richard Tuttle exhibition, that was my— My first museum experience was working in that exhibition and providing information to the often irate visitors who came to the museum and found it difficult, at first, to even see the work that was on view.
Marcia made a very controversial decision to not complete the catalog until after the exhibition was over, because she wanted to incorporate within the catalog, all the reactions and responses to the exhibition, both public and critical. That was quite controversial because people were looking for help and guidance to this really challenging exhibition, and there really wasn’t anything there except for me sitting on the floor, to ask questions to.
But it really was a courageous idea that she had. You know, and unconventional. And she— And maybe it didn’t work in every instance, but she was a proponent of trying things out and being prepared to fail at it, if you had to, in order to risk doing something different.
So this was a great way to learn about contemporary art. And I developed just enormous respect and admiration for Marcia and her courage and bravery in mounting that exhibition.
CUNO: Given what she did as curator at the Whitney, what compelled her to start the New Museum?
PHILLIPS: So I think that Marcia was frustrated a bit with her experience at the Whitney, and feeling that museums were becoming— or that museum was becoming increasingly corporate, and seeing that as a trend in the museum world. And she believed that there was another path that one could take. I mean, she was in her mid-thirties, had a lot of difficulty at the Whitney, and ultimately lost her job, and decided the next day that she would start her own museum.
I think she thought about it for a while. So it wasn’t an idea that just came overnight. But there were no women directors at that time, of any significant institutions. So that was also a frustration, and a glass ceiling that she wanted to puncture. And she said that she was very privileged to be a museum director, but also marginalized, by virtue of having had to create the institution, in order to work in it.
I’m the second director. The majority of our leadership is female. And the majority of our board members are women; and significantly, the majority of our program and our— the artists that we show are women, as well. Sixty-five percent in the past five years.
So I just wanna say that it was such a privilege to edit this book with Johanna, for us to work on it together, and to work closely with Johanna over several years at the museum. I know that’s a legacy and privilege that we both share.
BURTON: Well, it’s hugely influential on me.
CUNO: And what was the physical structure of the New Museum like at the time?
PHILLIPS: Okay, so we’re going back to the founding of the museum in 1977. And Marcia was in her mid-thirties. She started up with a voluntary staff of three, and I believe a budget of $15,000. I think it’s great to think that a young person with ideals could make something happen just through sort of sheer force of will, could make it happen.
She didn’t have a collection of her own; she didn’t have resources of her own. She just had an idea that this needed to be done. And it survives to this day, so she clearly had a really good idea. But it was a single room at 105 Hudson Street, where Artists Space was.
And it really was a startup. Then one of her early board members, Vera List, provided space at The New School for the New Museum, which it occupied from, I think, 1977 to 1984, when we moved to Broadway. So you know, the Downtown art world, which was fairly small at that point, turned out for every opening, in this little space at The New School.
It was just absolutely required viewing for anyone starting out in the art world. These were unmissable exhibitions. And it was really remarkable how big the impact was at a small scale. You know, this is a two-room operation on the ground floor of The New School, but that was the beginning of this startup, which in some ways, has maintained its quality as a startup.
CUNO: Now, that institution had its first incarnation in what we— Maybe not its first, but soon-thereafter incarnation, in what we think of as SoHo today. And SoHo today is very different than it was then. What was SoHo like then? What was the environment on the street like, for the New Museum?
PHILLIPS: It was quite rough then, when the museum moved to Broadway in 1984. Moved into a building that had no roof. It was leaking, and it was derelict. There was a lot of light industry along Broadway. But the museum helped to establish it as the retail corridor that it became over the subsequent decades. So it really was an anchor for that neighborhood. But it was quite rough in the eighties.
I remember witnessing gunfights on Broadway. And nobody went east of Broadway. There were a few galleries in Little Italy, and it was quite dangerous to venture over there. So it was a different landscape in the city than I tis now.
CUNO: Johanna, what about you? When did you first come across the New Museum and what was it like for you?
BURTON: Well, I don’t know about the New Museum before I could ever set foot in it. I read about it a lot. I paid attention to the shows that were happening there. I grew up in Nevada, where there weren’t a whole lotta museums; but I could access books and magazines. And I moved to New York in 1997 to go to graduate school, to study art history. And by the time 1999 rolled around and I became a curatorial fellow at the New Museum, it was funded by Joanne Leonhardt Casullo. I was the first Casullo Fellow at the New Museum. I had attended the Whitney Independent Study Program, where I had the great privilege of studying with amazing artists and thinkers, including Isaac Julien, Yvonne Rainer, you name it.
And I remember coming inYou look back and you realize there are these moments in your life that are pivotal. I thought I was gonna teach art history, until I was offered this fellowship, and realized I wanted to work in museums. And I was so nervous; I cannot even tell you.
They were still in the Broadway space. And I worked there for a year, and then I got a second year, because they renewed that for me. But I remember as soon as I moved to New York in the late nineties, I saw the Paul McCarthy show that was at the New Museum. I saw many, many experimental thematic shows by lots of curators at the museum, including my current— Currently my best friend and my child’s godmother is Anne Ellgood, curator here in L.A., who Lisa introduced me to.
So it really was a game changing part of my life. And then I went on and did more graduate school and had several jobs, and then returned to the New Museum in 2013, as the Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement, where I spent the next seven years. So I’ve had a lot of New Museum in my life. And it was particularly moving to be able to work with Lisa and the team of women on Marcia’s archives, at a moment that really marked the fortieth anniversary of the museum, but also just a really pivotal time, I think, for many of us in the art world, as we looked to values that Maria really stood for well before her time, and that carried on in the institution.
CUNO: And Lisa, you instigated and oversaw the completion of the museum’s first free-standing building, designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA. It opened on the Bowery, in 2007. What effect did the new building have on the New Museum?
PHILLIPS: Well, when we opened on the Bowery with our first free-standing building, we became an international cultural destination right away. The form and structure of the building telegraphed many of the values that we embody, of change, dynamism, openness. And of course, attendance soared and the neighborhood boomed.
We had an effect on the Bowery similar to what had happened on Broadway that many years earlier. And so it had a very big impact, both inside and outside of the institution. And of course, there were many challenges in that growth. Primarily, how not to become too institutional as the institution grew—which is a challenge for many of us. So you know, how do you sustain an institution that’s growing and use your power well for the benefit of your mission and public and staff, without it becoming too top-heavy, too top-down, and starting to migrate away from those values that are sort of essential to its inception, and our inception?
CUNO: Yeah, you started out, you said, with three staff members, I think. And you grew to how many?
PHILLIPS: Well, we grew to 150. That was over the course of many decades. When Marcia began, it was a staff of three; when I arrived, I think there were thirty when I came in 1999. So it was a long trajectory. And I think in the beginning, many of the staff were volunteering and it was really a labor of love. And of course, you know, there is now a structure and much larger staff, and all of the things that go along with that.
CUNO: Now, Lisa and Johanna, the two of you were among the editorial team of four women who published the book Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker, co-published by the New Museum and the Getty Research Institute. Tell us about that book and how it got started.
PHILLIPS: First of all, I think that we’d very much want to acknowledge and thank Alicia Ritson and Kate Wiener, who worked with us on the book at the New Museum. The genesis of the book goes back to the early nineties, when Marcia began to work on a collected group of her essays. I was not aware of that until after death in 2006, when her husband, Dean MacNeil, approached me with some folders and said, “This is something that Marcia was working on, and would you see this through?”
That was right after her death in 2006. It took another decade, before we were able to realize it. So we resurrected the project in 2016 or so, and happily, worked with you on it, as well as with Tucker Neel, who was a research assistant of Marcia’s, and I think a teaching fellow at Otis, who was working with her back over those many years. And then maybe Johanna, you’d like to talk a little bit about the structure of the book and how we thought about it.
BURTON: Yes. So as part of my post at the New Museum, I was particularly interested in and worked closely with Lisa to really think about the centrality of publishing, which was a big part of the DNA of the New Museum. And though the book that we’re speaking about now wasn’t part of the seminal series called the Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture, it was in dialog with those. And I mention them just because alongside exhibitions, the role of emergent research, and done by and around artists, is just so key to the history of the New Museum, I think both during Marcia’s time, and of course, during Lisa’s.
We started thinking a lot about the structure of the book because Marcia, in essence, was writing multiple histories herself, and actually utilized a kind of series of methodologies, and even voices, alongside each other in real time and space. So we ended up pulling out three sort of structuring elements. One is monographic essays; the second is thematic essays. She was also very dedicated to thematic shows.
And then third was really reflecting self-reflexively on institutions and the role of museums in society. So rather than having a strict chronology of one essay after another, we have three chronologies dedicated to each of these strands. And it’s interesting because not only is she able to kind of cohabitate at the same moment, writing in different styles, but also these things reflect upon each other.
So the book was structured in this way so that we had a kind of logic, but also we could show her multiple sort of intelligence at dealing with the field in different ways and zooming in and out on artists and on the field itself. But also because her archives—which again, it’s so wonderful that you tend at the Getty—were not necessarily organized in such a way, nor was the original table of contents, though we did follow some of it closely, to reflect that kind of multitude. And I think as a historical document, it shows how one figure can have such great impact, through using different modalities.
When Lisa and I spent—and Alicia and Kate—spent the week here. But the archives, her life and her work were— You couldn’t separate them. It was totally inappropriate. There were New Museum budgets in the archives, there were love letters from artists. There was a real desire— For a moment, we wanted to include those kinds of things that weren’t proper materials, but were so amazing. There’s something really wonderful about that again. It was the story of a life. A really intimate, intimate archive.
CUNO: Now, the first essay of Marcia’s appeared in Artforum in 1970. That is, the first one that’s included in this book. It was a critical essay on the work of Bruce Nauman, of whom she wrote, “Although he is no longer interested in ways of making art, nor in the interpretation of a made object, he feels it’s still important that a piece be neither over- nor under-refined. In this way, focus can be directed to the experience and our response to it, rather than to the object itself.” What did Marcia see in Nauman’s work, and how does this essay tell us about that?
BURTON: It’s a great question. I just reread the essay and was, as every time I’ve read it, so amazed by how much sensitivity she has to this moment. So what she saw, in a way, was what she didn’t have to see. It was more the relationship between an artwork and a body, or a body in space and time. And something that is really interesting, reading that essay from 1970, about an artist who is often talked about as conceptual or cerebral, is how much attention she pays to what she calls the personal or the emotional response to this work.
Which of course, is part parlance and vocabulary that is usually—at least at that period—attributed mostly to women artists. I think it’s very subtly quite radical, how she utilized gendered language and applies it in a really powerful way to this incredibly important male artist, who is, I think, quite a sensitive artist, but was often, I think, not talked about that way. Interestingly, in the course of that essay, she talks also about the way in which an emotional, personal individual response is itself always imparted by or shaped by cultural conditions.
So she’s already alluding to how she will think about the role of art and the role of artists in terms of social considerations. And so reading this, I think we can zoom forward to think about how she will write later about somebody like Mary Kelly, who’s taking up very, very different issues, and the inversion of some of the gendered language that happens. She’s reading a lot psychoanalytic theory, which I will confess I also have read quite a lot of, and thinking very radically about how women writers and artists in particular at that moment were really kind of considering social construction alongside the role of the personal.
So it’s interesting. I read that essay this time and found so much sort of heart and depth in it. And it’s still a unique reading, I think, of Nauman’s work.
CUNO: Now, she wrote, in a 1974 Whitney Museum catalog essay on the abstract landscape painter Joan Mitchell, she said, “Mitchell is a landscape painter, but her images are not those of recognizable landscape. She does not paint directly from nature. ‘I would rather leave nature to itself,’ she wrote in 1957—’” that is, Mitchell wrote. “‘It’s quite beautiful enough as it is. I do not want to improve it. I could certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.’” Talk to us about the range of Marcia’s writings, to go from Bruce Nauman to Joan Mitchell.
BURTON: Yeah, it’s tremendous. It’s what I was alluding to before. It’s almost a different voice entirely. She’s taking very seriously the need to posit Mitchell’s place within a much longer art historical trajectory, and to really fight for her place there, in terms of the canon, in terms of Abstract Expressionism. But also to really subtly push back against it, as well. I think it’s quite key that she spends quite a lot of time in that essay talking about Mitchell’s biography and thinking about how both the aesthetics and the personal history come together to bear on this incredible artist.
There’s a great quote in the essay from Mitchell that says something like, ‘landscape and dogs make we wanna paint, but painting allows me to survive,’ that I think is really interesting, in terms of, again, the role of emotions, but also how one humanizes somebody, even as you sort of willfully insert them into a canon a they both continue and disrupt. It’s an incredibly rigorous art historical essay. And again, she could write that way; but also in other essays, fought very vigorously against that kind of sort of valuation with respect to the canon.
So I think about her, in some ways, as a chameleon. She was able to utilize the very structures that she would also critique. And again, what was so great about putting these essays together—and I think you’re getting to this, Jim, by asking this question—is how you can read a relationship between, say, the essay on the Nauman and the one on the Mitchell, and understand that she’s doing something that’s bigger than either of those essays in and of themselves—which is why this book is so satisfying.
You know, if you read it cover to cover, there’s a story that gets told about her own methodology and her impact, I think, on the world. There’s the writings, but also she went all over the country proselytizing what the impact of art and politics could be. And I think, again, understanding how to sort of temper your language for a particular audience to get different kinds of results is really something she was very, very good at and did extremely well.
So I love the Mitchell essay; but if you read if without understanding the rest of what she does and how she was so limber, you would only see one small part of how she operated as a writer.
CUNO: Lisa, in 1981, Marcia wrote an essay for Artforum on the state of the art of the tattoo. Was it for the article that Marcia got a tattoo herself, or did the tattoo provoke the article?
PHILLIPS: The tattoo provoked the article. She had gotten several tattoos by that point. She did an exhibition at the Whitney on tattoo art, actually, down in the restaurant level. Marcia was able to do a lot at the Whitney, but in kind of interstitial spaces. She commandeered these spaces because it was hard to get the real estate, as a woman curator. And I know, having been on there, that it continued to be difficult. So she would commandeer these interstitial spaces and things, hybrid spaces.
They weren’t quite galleries. And she mounted some memorable projects there—one on tattooing, another one on body building that I recall. She was always looking at the edges of things. She always found those edges the most interesting places. And art forms that may have been disparaged or overlooked were certainly things that merited attention, and her attention.
And she wanted to point out in this essay that there were serious practitioners of tattoo art. Tattoo art had a very long and non-Western history, and there were outstanding artist practitioners, like Ruth Marten and Jamie Summers. And so she was bringing attention to these individual artists within an art form that was not taken seriously in the high art realm.
BURTON: There’s a great picture of her in the book getting a tattoo from Ruth Marten, on page four. And she’s got this amazingly confrontational, but also kind of sexy look on her face, while this very intimate thing is being captured. And I love that picture. It’s hard to tell at first what is happening there, but once you know, it’s freaky.
CUNO: Now, Johanna, the first representation of a publication for the New Museum was a text for the New Museum exhibition The Other Man: Alternative Representations of Masculinity, in 1987. Tell us about that exhibition and its accompanying text.
BURTON: I wish I had seen that show, I have to say, and many of these shows that actually have personally really influenced much of my practice. Right before I left the New Museum, I did a show in which, actually, a lot of— a lot of archival materials from this show and others appeared in the catalog.
She was extremely interested, as I mentioned, even in the Nauman essay, in thinking about the role of subject positions and identity. And this was a moment, in 1987, where some of the feminist post-structuralist and heavily psychoanalytic theory-driven practices were kind of unpacking ideas of gender, and particularly essentialized gender. So this notion of difference, which I think continues to be quite pertinent, was bubbling up. And in fact, two years before The Other Man, there was a very influential show at the New Museum that Jane Weinstock and Kate Linker curated, called Difference: On Representation and Sexuality.
It’s a canonical show that I continue to look at. So like many things that we’re describing here, Marcia is even utilizing some of— You know, it’s a conversation. She’s referring back to that exhibition, and also looking forward. This was actually, speaking of experiments in curatorial and artistic practice, quite risky to do—which is, as a feminist woman, to do a show staging all men, reflecting on masculinity and manhood. And in fact, she talks about this in the essay. What does it mean? Does it undo or does it challenge patriarchy to foreground a bunch of men who are taking up the very topic of their own subjectivity?
And I think the answer is yes, in the sense that just asking the question allows for a different kind of dialog. So again, what was very interesting at that moment was she staged a show thinking about masculinity through the lens of sexual difference. And at the end of the essay, asks really provocatively who it address if you, as a feminist, a white feminist, curating this show of male-identified artists is hanging on the walls, who’s it for? What does it do? Who does it bring in? Who does it leave out? And she quite provocatively says that because the nature of much of the work, which is largely representational, feels very accessible—which she goes on to think about a lot in the future— that it allows for a dialog that while imperfect, kind of cracks things open.
So this is a kinda quiet, a smaller— There’s not a big publication; there’s just the brochure. But I think it’s actually a really key moment in her work and what follows, so I’m glad you asked about it.
CUNO: Now, fifteen years earlier, Marcia gave a lecture, “Women in Museums,” addressed to the American Association of Museums. Fifteen years later, she gave a lecture at the New Museum titled “The Ten Most Pressing Issues in the Art World Today, and Some Uncommon Solutions.” How important was Marcia’s voice as a woman and as a professional in the museum world?
PHILLIPS: Hugely important, I think. Maybe the most important aspect of her work, I mean, I would say, for generations of women. And Marcia came out of the sixties, and was absolutely a feminist. May have been part of the Guerrilla Girls, I don’t know; it’s always been rumored. And she was a firebrand. And she was outspoken and really thoughtful. And this was something that she came back to over and over and over again. I mean, it’s just a through line through all of her work, from beginning to end. And so I think of critical importance.
And I know that among her colleagues, she was also very important, often a lone voice. I mean, she talked about her getting the job at the Whitney. When she went for her job interview with David Solinger, who was chairman of the board of the Whitney, he asked her if she had a boyfriend. If she was married, was she planning on having any children? All sorts of things that would not be legal today to ask.
Weren’t really right then. And she was taken aback and she, after about an hour of questioning, she said, “I took a breath and said, ‘Let me tell you why you don’t wanna hire a woman. One, I won’t be able to do budgets because as you know, women can’t even balance their own checkbooks. Two, once a month, I’ll go crazy and no one will be able to reason with me, much less talk to me. Third, and most important, no one will want to take orders from a woman, so I’ll be completely ineffectual, no matter how smart I am.
“‘And of course, I’ll get pregnant within the year, so your investment in me will have been completely wasted.’” She got up to leave and he said, “Wait a minute. Sit down. Let’s talk.” And that’s how she got her first job. So, she was always outspoken, and we love her for that. But what I think is amazing—and I’d love to hear, Johanna, what you think—in reading back over those pieces from the early seventies and then in the eighties and nineties, because she wrote so often, we think that we’ve made a lot of progress; and in some ways, we have.
You know, here we are, two museum directors today, and now the field, which was 50% female back in the early seventies, but there wasn’t a single director who was female, is now— Now we have 50% of the field are female directors. That’s a big shift. But in many respects, things haven’t changed enough either. There are pay gaps and gender inequities. There are all sorts of biases that persist.
And in reading her words, you feel that. It’s not over. It hasn’t ended; there’s still a lot of work to do. And of course, the idea of gender binaries is no longer so appropriate either. And things are even more nuanced and complicated.
BURTON: And I think we remarked on it quite a lot while we were going through the papers, which was— I could’ve been written yesterday. In some cases, it even felt like it could be written tomorrow, because she was able, I think in many ways, to point to issues that are so systemic and so lasting. I mean, I’m the first woman director of MoCA, which is an interesting fact, after almost fifty years.
And I think one thing that has been really interesting working on the book and then also going back to it from time to time is watching the evolution in Marcia’s own thinking. Something that was, I think, really of note to us as we constructed these three timelines together was the moment when she very clearly recognized that just looking at White feminism was not enough.
And there was a very conscious turn to thinking about other really important intersections and intersectionalities. Something that I appreciate—and I feel very lucky—is that I’ve had a lot of women around me—Lisa’s one of them—who’ve wanted to support other women. In some cases, I think she also points to the ways in which that is not always the case. There’s an internalized kind of misogyny often at the heart of a patriarchal culture that’s enacted by women on other women.
And so I think these kinds of texts also allow for or provide a model for people to come together and be really conscious about supporting, so that the field as a whole and the ecology is something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. There’s a politics of collaboration and a methodology of institution building that I myself carry forward. She says that you can only—I think about this all the time; especially these BURTON (Cont.): days, because museums are so fraught—but you can only relinquish authority from a position of authority.
And it’s something that now that— now that I am in this seat, I think about very differently than I did before. But it, I think, continues to be a very, very important prompt for how we move forward as women leaders, as diverse leaders—really, any leaders at all—how we hold our power and how we distribute it.
CUNO: Now, Marcia was also always, it seems, a character. Your book of her collected writings includes the text of a 1995 docudrama in three acts, The Battle of the Tightends, originally delivered as a speech at the New Museum. Tell us about that, and about Marcia’s sense of humor.
PHILLIPS: She had a wonderful sense of humor that runs through this book and through so many of her interactions. And she had a background in theater. She also really loved to push herself to places of discomfort. I think that’s why she loved contemporary art, too, because it did that constantly. And it’s why she started a museum, because people said, “You’re crazy. You can’t do that. Nobody does that without a collection, without money. You can’t.” And if somebody said, ‘No, you can’t do something,’ that made her wanna do it a hundred times over.
So she was always pushing up against resistance and against places of discomfort, what made her feel uncomfortable. And I think she really craved being a performer. She wanted, also, to sing so badly, and she was tone deaf; she had a terrible voice. But she was determined to learn to sing.
She formed an a cappella group called The Art Mob and became quite good, and really enjoyed it. And that was part of her character. She was a character. She was an extraordinary performer. She spoke on the lecture circuit, really actively. She was out proselytizing about the New Museum, about contemporary art, about social issues, about the vital social function of art that she deeply believed in.
But she always did it with a theatrical flair and a sense of humor, and really brought these tough issues to life, I think, for the audience, in a way that very few others have, that I’ve witnessed. And she would do it at board meetings and she would do it at meetings for donors. And so there was always the unexpected. There was never a lot of heavy academic art jargon, but she really spoke in very plain language and with a tremendous sense of humor. And I think that was just an enormous gift that she had, and really sets her apart from almost anyone else I can think of.
CUNO: Now, the final essay in the book dates from 2004, and it’s titled “No Title: Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art.” And it begins with a reference to Marcia’s earlier essay on the work of Richard Tuttle, which a number of critics criticized as the emperor’s new clothes, meaning, of course, that there’s nothing there, that the art under consideration was anti-meaning. Marcia, on the one hand, used it as a reference to Buddhist teaching, ending her essay with a question. “Buddhism teaches us to relate to the world with openness, acceptance, generosity, and joy. Could it teach us to art in the same way?” What was Marcia’s relation to Buddhism?
PHILLIPS: So I believe that Marcia took up Buddhism late in life, with a group of colleagues, including John Walsh. And I think that they went to some retreats in Northern California. But I think it became a very important way to greet the end of life, to understand life is ephemeral, to understand death as part of that cycle. And she really gravitated towards that increasingly, as she faced her own mortality.
And so, you know, that’s why we end the book with this. I believe that in hospice, she was working with a Buddhist master and was very, very close that at the end of her life. But the insistence on presence, of being present, of being proximate, of the ephemerality of all things—it really is very much in sync with how she lived her life and with how she thought about art. So it makes sense that she would have found that.
BURTON: I never knew Marcia, which makes it all the more, I don’t know, I think special that there’s an impact that continues on, obvious, beyond a person’s sort of living presence. But I do find—and it was such a nice way to close the book—that it does sort of loop back even to the earliest essays—the Nauman that we started with. This idea of the receptor, that as a body in time and space, you’re receiving, and that that reception is sort of mobile and changing, but also very ephemeral, I think continues to be there throughout all the writing, even as she sort of moves and changes.
And I’ve heard Lisa actually talk about the— I don’t know, your own gravitation towards some of these ideas. And I’m finding myself gravitating there, too. So there’s something interesting in reading this book almost as a biography of Tucker, as much as it’s a collection of writing. As things in the world feel harder and harder to stave off, you do find— or I find myself more and more interested— I’ve always been interested, but more even open and receptive to that kind of thinking that she was doing at the end of her life makes sense.
CUNO: Now, she died in 2006. And the next year, the New Museum opened its new building on Bowery. It’s quite a career.
PHILLIPS: You know, when Marcia was in the final days— She died of cancer in 2006, which she had had for over a decade. And she really fought valiantly against it, but it did catch up with her. But at one point, when she was in hospice, she got images of the New Museum going up. From me. I sent her images of the museum being built and the steel going up. And she was just so thrilled to see that happening and to know that the New Museum was going to have a permanent home.
And that this creation that she had birthed was going to survive. She gave her life for it. She really did. She devoted every ounce of energy and strength to the museum, and she gave so much to the field. She gave us all so much.
CUNO: So what is your favorite memory or thought about Marcia?
PHILLIPS: She hated questions about what was your favorite anything. Wasn’t that one of the things she answered in the book? She said, “That’s like, who’s your favorite friend or your favorite child?”.
I mean, I think just the example that she set of— And I think about this all the time now. In as we’re going through a transformative moment in our culture, with many, many upheavals and changes and turbulence, I think that her response to change and the inventiveness with which she greeted that, her understanding that she had to create something new in order to meet the present, is something that I think we can all be tremendously inspired by and is so important to go on into the future.
You have to come up with solutions and new models and new ways of greeting the challenges of the present and the possibilities of the future. And she really did that. So we thank her every day for that. And I hope that future generations and younger generations are thinking about the institutions that they can start or the activities that they can undertake. And things that may seem daunting are totally possible, if you put your mind to it. There is nothing that you can’t accomplish, if you want to. I think that’s the greatest gift that she gave all of us.
BURTON: was a beautiful quote of Marcia’s that said she had to build the institution to be able to work there. The exact quote actually is better than that. She summarizes her frustrations as a professional woman who had to, quote, “create the institution, in order to work in it.” And I feel like we— I stick to my guns that institutions are necessary because of people like Marcia and people like Lisa and people who started MoCA and all of these institutions that are under a kind of duress, but continue to have value. And they’re not monolithic; they’re made up of people.
And I think that’s one of the great gifts that Marcia’s work leaves, is a reminder that you do have the agency to create the foundation you wanna stand on. And maybe more importantly, the foundation you want others to stand on. And I feel that that’s an amazing— an amazing gift.
CUNO: Lisa and Johanna, thank you so much for joining us today on this podcast.
PHILLIPS: Thank you for having us, Jim, and for being a partner on this publication.
BURTON: Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure to have this conversation.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman and Karen Fritsche, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LISA PHILLIPS: It’s why she started a museum, because people said, “You’re crazy. You can’t ...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824