David A. Ross, Curator / Writer / Musician

12.28.14 Beacon, NY

"What I’ve always found since the beginning of my work as a curator is that it wasn’t just Nam June who was teaching me — it was every artist that I ever worked with. Everything I know about art today, is a function of what artists have taught me." — David Ross, Former Director of Whitney, SFMOMA & ICA

Interview & Photos: Kate Orne                                       

Ross at one of his fav spots at the confluence of the Fishkill Creek and the Hudson River, Beacon NY

UD: Without any formal art education, you have had a stellar career as the director of the Whitney Museum, SFMOMA and ICA — a career only few can dream of. How did that happen?

DR: Starting in junior high school I wanted to be a journalist and photographer. “I will go to journalism school. I’ll work on school newspapers in high school and in college. I’ll get a job at a newspaper, and maybe someday I’ll work at The New York Times. And that’ll be my life, and that’ll be great.”

All the stories of heroic journalists, the bravery of people standing up for free expression and for journalistic integrity — that all meant a lot to me growing up. It still means a lot to me today. So I idealized journalism — completely.

But as fate would have it, I got pushed away from journalism by an advisor in the journalism school in Syracuse University where I was studying.  He responded to my interest in learning about portable video, which I had seen at Woodstock in ‘69.

I came back and said, “This is it, man. I want to learn this. This is going to change journalism.”

He said, “No. These are toys. We’re in a professional school here. If you want to play with toys, go across the street to the art school.” And, you know, that was sort of dismissive.

But it probably wasn’t something I disagreed with at that point because I didn’t know any artists and I wasn’t remotely interested in art. And I kind of thought, especially at that point in my real stupidity, “What are artists doing to change the world or to stop the war? I mean, these guys are just making pretty pictures. Who cares?” But of course there were hundreds of artists doing important things for peace and justice. I was just seriously uninformed.

On his 1892 Victorian porch

UD: You were just not aware of them?

DR: Looking back, I’d say I knew very little. I wasn’t really paying attention beyond my bubble.

For instance, in the modern art I saw as a kid on school trips to the museums, you didn’t see much art by women. You surely didn’t see any art by people of color. You surely didn't see any art that was transgressive or calling attention to large social issues. My teachers made no connections between what artists saw and how they represented the world to the realities of life around them. My early education didn’t engage art in any serious way. There wasn’t a serious consideration of what art meant.  

There was no context. I was living in the suburbs on Long Island. The only education resembling anything visual would be the way my mother decorated our house. And though the suburban towns of metro New York actually provided a pretty profound visual education, I didn’t appreciate it until I experienced the work of artists like Dan Graham or Vito Acconini or Thomas Struth. It was a revelation to realize that artists were looking at the same things I was looking at growing up — but they were looking critically. I didn’t know how to look critically. Critical looking and thinking was not part of my education.

UD: So how did you get your art education?

DR: I was invited by a friend to photograph James Harithas, the newly appointed director of Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY.  For a number of reasons I wasn’t really into it, but for a $100 , I was more than willing.  Remember that at the time $100 got you four ounces of weed or a month’s rent, so I went.

Jim Harithas was sitting behind his desk in this I.M. Pei designed building. Reading and signing documents on his desk, he wasn’t paying me any attention. So as I stood there waiting with my camera around my neck, I recalled how Karsh took the epic photograph of Churchill using a touch of provocation. So I said, “This museum is full of shit and if it doesn’t become a TV station it will become obsolete.” Harithas looked up. “Well if you are so fucking smart, why don’t you become my assistant. Show up here 9a.m tomorrow to work or we’ll see who is full of shit.”

I imagine he thought my arrogance and apparently complete lack of knowledge was a good premise for a potential assistant. He hired me on the spot and six months later appointed me the world’s first curator of video art. I was 21 years old. I had no art or art history experience to speak of; nothing. I was just a fourth-year journalism and political science student who had found himself hanging around the Experimental Studios at S.U. so I could have access to portable video equipment.  But Jim is a museum professional who believes that the art museum is a social instrument that needs to be operated with a sense of radical abandon. So hiring me was typical of the way Jim worked, and still works.

Zush, untitled drawing, 1982 and Ross portrait of Jim Harithas 1971

Yoko Ono & John Lennon, Courtesy of Everson Museum of Art

'This Is Not Here' Poster by Fluxus founder George Macuinas in Ross's studio

UD: Would you call your hiring a fluke?

DR: I don’t know; he must have had a sense that he was doing the right thing. (Laughter.) One of the first artists he introduced me to was Yoko Ono, which was late in in 1971. She had just done her kind of mock exhibition where she wrote “Museum of Modern Art” with a little “F” put up like a proofreader’s correction. So it was “Museum of Modern Fart,” and it was a show that never took place in which she let a lot of flies loose in front of the Modern, and that was an amazing piece. It was right around when she made that great double album, Fly, which was a really important work of art. Great, great piece. (This spring MoMA will actually give Yoko the survey show she so richly deserves.)

Anyways, Yoko’s Everson show ‘This Is Not Here’ in ’72 was one of the first projects I got to work on at the museum. Part of my job was to keep John (Lennon) busy so that the organizing of Yoko’s show could take place with her voice being primary. I didn’t object to that because it meant that I got to hang out and play music with John while Jim and Yoko shaped the exhibition. Can you imagine how that must have felt?

At this point, I was this kid who could take on more or less any task without complaining, because, believe me, I wasn’t about to complain. I was just absorbing stuff like a sponge. For instance I learned about the extraordinary art movement called Fluxus, and learned about artists like Joseph Beuys and what Fluxus artists were trying to do.

One of the Fluxus artists — a key artist for me — was Nam June Paik. And Nam June was the one that would say, “No, Dada is very different than Fluxus. Dada was political in a very different way in a different time. Fluxus was looking at ideas of change and transformation at a very different moment in history.” He had a truly brilliant mind.

Nam June Paik in New York, 1983 Ph: Lim Young-Kyun

 Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf, Germany 1978  Ph: Gerd Ludwig

UD: I get the impression Paik was really generous with his knowledge.

DR: Oh, Nam June was an incredibly generous genius. And one of the sweetest and most truly unbelievably hilarious person that I have ever known. He was just filled with revelation after revelation. I miss him terribly because, at this point, he might finally be recognized as one of the great geniuses of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

If you were part of his circle, the people who he spoke with and who kind of looked up to him, he’d call you every once in a while. So he’d often be up at three, four in the morning working. He had many medical problems throughout his life. If he thought about something he wanted to talk about, it had to be someone that he knew. We’re talking ’72 or ‘73, so it wasn’t like he could just go online and find someone. And he didn’t have any money, so he wasn’t going to make any long distance calls. Or Skype.

UD: Of course. (Laughter.)

DR: So I remember one night the phone rang. And what Nam June would do when he knew he was waking you was he would be silent after you picked up the phone. You wouldn’t hang up because, if it was silent, you’d know it was probably Paik.

So after about 15 seconds, a slight giggle “Heh, heh. Oh you boy genius.”

“Yeah what, Nam June. What’s going on man?”

“Boy genius. You boy genius.”

“Yeah, right. Okay. What do you want to talk about?”

And this is one that I remember so well because I had no understanding of what he was talking about for like a year!

He said, “The information highway….” He was the one that coined the term. “Information highway is not a highway.” I said, “Alright. Okay.” I’m thinking he’s talking about Claude Shannon (a.k.a. “the father of information theory”) or is he talking about video? I was clueless (and half asleep).

He said, “Information highway is not a highway.”

“Okay.” He said, “It’s an ocean. We’re in a boat in the ocean. We don’t know where the shore is.”

I say, “Alright. Okay. Sure. Good night, Nam June.”

Many years later, I made the connection. Paik had essentially predicted Google. Nam June really understood the entire structure of the Internet. He saw the entire thing. The man understood
technology and its social impact like few before him or since. I think Nam June was a genius on the level of Buckminster Fuller. Nam June was a poet too. He was able to express himself in all of the nine languages he spoke, even though he sounded like a ‘just off the boat’ immigrant. So anyhow, whenever I’m asked to talk about my art education, it always has to start with Jim, Yoko and Nam June Paik.

Left to Right: Untitled object by Ryan Gander, 2002. Untitled mailed object (petri dish) by Nam June Paik, 1972. Photo postcard from Robert Frank, 1995. Bronze model of Marcel Breuer’ s Whitney Museum building. Untitled mixed media sculpture by Arturo Cuetera, 1970. Untitled gun prop from “Hans & Grete" by Sue de Beer, 2003

UD: Why would he call you “boy genius?”

DR: That was just his little way of saying, like, you know, (kissing noise). “Boy genius, oh, boy genius.” And you’d think, “Maybe he thinks I’m a genius?” And then years later you’d meet someone else from the Paik circle and discover he called them that too. (Laughter.)

UD: I’ve heard that about Irving Penn. When he met with young photographers, he would say, “You have a good understanding of photography." And these kids would walk out of the studio feeling amazing and probably think, “Irving Penn really believes in my work,” to find out later he told many of these kids the same thing.

DR: But it’s a nice thing to say though actually, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s exactly what someone needs to hear — at a certain moment where they need to believe in themselves in some way.

A few guitars from his collection

Currently playing: The Legend of Elmore James

Have a pick!

UD: Do you still think it’s possible to change the world?

DR: Sure. I’m just not sure that we can actually observe those changes in real time. I think we all know that things are changeable. They are not always changeable in the way we think or in the time frame we imagine or even pray for. But change does take place.

So your faith in the ability to create change has to also include a certain healthy level of recognition that the change you create may not be the change you’re prepared to see. For instance, I don’t think that some of the changes that have taken place in public discourse brought about by the Internet are the kinds of changes that we imagined in the early days of the Internet. Cyber-bullying, on-line trolls, cyber crime, massive denial of service attacks, and other forms of cyber-warfare are truly frightening and far from the kind of new media world that Nam June Paik imagined and I idealized.

I mean have some changes been very good and even necessary? Absolutely. Have they supported movements towards democracy around the world; have they improved the lives of millions of people by expanding the base of literacy and education and access to information…yet many people are now even more remote from one another, more alienated.

UD: …and communication…

DR: …and communication? Sure. Even as in something as narrowly defined as the art world — when I was in Mongolia recently, the Mongolian artists who have never traveled out of Mongolia are completely aware of what’s going on in the rest of the art world, because the global art world has become a conversation. And that global conversation is incredibly inspiring and effective and engaging to people from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds. And desires and interests in that conversation are also equally varied.

After spending time and listening to Ross play, I can totally imagine him jamming with John Lennon. Ross's band is named RED

UD: Since we are kind of all looking at the same things. Do you think that the Internet creates a sense of gentrification in art?

DR: Well, that does have an impact on, you know, the real scourge of our time, which is the mistaking of the art market for the art world. Because once people all over the world of wealth see the same potential trophies, it creates this unhealthy competition and ridiculously out-of-whack values for works of art. Is there a painting really worth $100 million? I don't think so. But since this is not a fantasy, then we need to define what we mean by “worth.” If two people will pay vast sums for a work of art—if that’s what we mean by “worth”— then yes. If it means intrinsic value, then no.

UD: You very clearly define the difference between the art world and the art market.

DR: Yes. But many people confuse the art market for the art world. It’s not that the art market isn't interesting. It’s fascinating.

UD: Like the stock market can be.

DR: Yes, like the stock market. More like the film industry where it’s run by people who’d rather read weekend box office results rather than think seriously about film. But there are many people who are more interested in, “number one at the box office this weekend,” because it helps us understand the public appetite.  But it doesn’t show anything more than that the expensive marketing plan for one movie worked better than the marketing plan for another movie.

UD: If we look at the art world, artists who have been victims of this marketing machinery…

DR: I don’t see artists as victims of the machinery in that sense because I think — look, it’s not a completely terrible thing that art has become commodified in this way. Because at least in the minds of some people, they believe that art must be really important if it’s worth so much money.  And that elevates the idea of what art could be for people who haven’t thought about it at all. Which, by the way, most people don’t. People who are as deeply involved in art often imagine that everyone is thinking about art all the time. No, most people are thinking, “How do I get my fucking car to work?” And, “Goddammit, when are my children ever going to listen to me?” They think about art rarely. Unless they hear about a headline: “Painting X just sold for $100 million,” then they’re like, “Shit. Maybe I should be an artist.”

UD: (Laughter.)

Coolest bar in town! Ross, never a bar guy, is a regular at Dogwood in Beacon, NY. The only bar he ever liked. And definitely a fav of mine.

DR: “Honey, why aren’t we sending our kid to art school?” “Sounds better than law school. One picture; $100 million? Wait a minute, I could do the math.”

And it’s nothing to do with anything except the same mentality that controls most journalism these days. We constantly read headlines about a jet crash or an earthquake where 5,000 people get killed, but rarely about the 584,000 people dying of malaria in one year, or the number of people killed by handguns annually. .

UD: I was just going to say that.

DR: Because that’s not a headline.

UD: Exactly. Who do you think is guilty of this? Is it the media? The readers who want the latest and most sensational news?

DR: I think the notion of ‘guilty’ here is an antique concept. There’s no guilty party. It’s a process that we’ve been in, like the slowly boiling frog myth. It’s a great metaphor for the culture that we live in. Life gets more coarse. Human relations become more difficult. Politics become more venal and stupid. I mean, we look back and look at Reagan now and say, “Geeze, he was okay.” Compared to Ted Cruz. And it’s like we’ve been slowly boiled to death. Many don’t even know that they are listening to the ranting’s of absolute maniacs. It seems oddly normal. And that’s frightening.

In his studio

UD: And in twenty years, we’re going to look back and go, “Well, they weren’t so bad.”

DR: And that’s the scary part. So that’s why I say life has become coarser. I complain about the sorry condition of the art world today and about the ways in which museums have let us down. And yet there are many that are doing amazing things and taking risks and moving the idea of a museum forward in ways that I never imagined. And frankly, I have to take some responsibility for some of the problems that museums face today because I didn’t fully or successfully address them when I had the opportunity. And because they still exist, it’s really inappropriate for me to say, “Oh, you haven’t solved that problem.”  I don’t believe I caused the problem, but I don’t think I solved a lot of the problems that existed at that point. Though sometimes when I wade through hours of really bad video I think to myself, “what have you done?”

UD: Talk to me about the “spiral” of the museums and the museum experience.

DR: The viewer experience in the museum is something that is obviously of a great concern today. But the irony is that, in the early ‘70s, when I began working in museums, the concern was how do we get more people to feel comfortable visiting museums. How do we engage the inherent class biases in the idea of a museum, by bringing in different forms of content, by using new technologies like video, by understanding that museum education is a critical component to how the museum, in fact, works and functions? That the entire museum is an education department, not just the relatively powerless and underpaid people who are called ‘museum educators.’ Now it’s fairly common; museum studies programs flourish, and museum education has become far more sophisticated both intellectually and technologically. And the number of museums around the world run by this new generation of museum professionals is expanding exponentially.

But as part of that explosion, the idea of what a museum did to attract an audience and to maintain the interest of an audience also changed to the point now where increased numbers of people meant you need more space to accommodate the crowds. And increased sensitivities to what a museum should collect, and engage art in new ways meant museums needed more space for their collections. And they needed more space for the people they were encouraging to come visit their temporary exhibitions.

And pretty soon, museums found themselves in the spiral of grow or die.

So you would have people who would say, “How can we make the museum more efficient? How can we make it work better?

So this spiral begins. You enhance the building. You make it bigger. You offer more space, more amenities for corporate parties, for education events, for a sophisticated retail operation. It’s not all bad. Because they’re going to experience actual works of art, and some of those objects are going to resonate. Some of these works of art are going to call out to them and provoke thought.

His porch is a great place to hang

UD: To stop for a moment to investigate…

DR: There’s an upside to it all, but the spiral continues. And success can be it’s own worst enemy, because now bigger crowds come. You are in show biz at this point. And being in show business means you have to keep one eye on the quality of the program and one eye on the box office. And say, “Okay. For every obscure show you do, you also have to do a Matisse show.”

UD: And every five years will require a Picasso exhibition to pull in the big crowds.

DR: Right. It’s not that it’s bad. We can never get enough of the greats, and new generations of visitors need the opportunity to see Picasso and Matisse and Hopper and..whoever... But you may eventually find yourself having to compromise the program.

Very cool guys: With his good friend, and Dogwood owner, George Mansfield

Well these issues are not just true for MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Whitney; they are true for all museums going through this growth pattern. And it’s for me an example of the unintended consequences of the success of museums building interest on a global level in the art museum as a place to spend your time, as a way to learn about the world, as a place worthy of your leisure moments, or as Homi Bhabha put it, "as a site for the contest of values and ideas". But it remains in active competition with other leisure activities, and they know that they have to compete to survive.

And they’re doing this in very expensive-to-maintain buildings, designed in an era of blurring information and commerce.

Generations born since 2000 don’t know anything but the world of the invisible architecture that is the Internet. So imagine as we move forward, generations of artists who grow up in this new kind of space that’s not bound by concrete walls and by physical limitations and the direct engagements with an object. They are unbounded. And they are engaging art and artists in a context of values and ideas in a wholly unimagined way from 20 years ago, 10 years ago, maybe even today.

The question is: are these institutions investing too much in this unending spiral of building more concrete physical spaces for the direct interaction with objects? Or are these institutions, whether they’re libraries or museums, really planning for a future in which people will interact with ideas and images, with new aesthetic concepts that will be critical to lives we can hardly imagine today? Their world will be as different as ours is from the pre-1839 world — people who never saw a photograph.

We try to imagine the difference in our imagination, in our dream lives to the lives of people who only that a relatively short a time ago had never seen a photographic image, to the people who had never seen a film, to people who have never experienced the Internet. Well, we can just know that it’s going to be different. And it’s literally different in ways that we actually can’t imagine.

As smart as we want to think we are, I know we’re not smart enough to imagine the kind of space that artists, musicians, poets, and dancers are going to inhabit and use in a delightful and soul refreshing way in the years to come. So how are we planning for that? How are we imagining the future of that critical part of human life on earth? That’s where I feel that we kind of let ourselves down.

UD: Right.

DR: There is this collision that’s happening right now, and it isn’t just happening in art; it’s happening in journalism, in diplomacy, in science, it’s happening everywhere. And we are living in this incredible moment where this collapse of reason and the structures that we depend upon is upon us. And we’re all struggling with it because we can’t see our way clear of it. We’ve lost track of where we are. Maybe the answers lies with people who are 15, 20 years old and saying, “What is it that you’re seeing? What are you afraid of? What do you want? What is it that you want to try to do?”

UD: What interests you about teaching and working with young artists today?

DR: What I’ve always found since the beginning of my work as a curator is that it wasn’t just Nam June who was teaching me — it was every artist that I ever worked with. Everything I know about art today, and I think I know a reasonable amount, is a function of what artists have taught me. It’s not to say that I don’t respect what I’ve learned from academic art historians; it’s just I learned much more from artists themselves. So I always felt that if I could in return the favor, become part of that process, I would do it. I’ve always taught. Whenever I’ve been asked to do a lecture anywhere, I do it because I just feel I’ll probably learn something. I love being reminded, “Maybe everything I know is wrong.” I want to remain open to the possibility that everything I thought was right was wrong, and that I can change and grow.

UD: Are you spiritual?

DR: I’m spiritual in a sense. I believe in the human spirit.

And I believe deeply that art and music and poetry and dance carry the human spirit into a kind of collective human space, and that we are able to share our spirit with others. Sometimes by talking, sometimes by looking. I’m interested in what happens when people connect, when people engage in communion with one another in ways that are maybe not pre- or post-verbal. I’m interested in the sharing of intelligence and spirit even soul. But I don’t believe in soul as the kind of thing that floats up to heaven and rests with some deity after I’m dead. I think the soul is the animating spirit in me. And when I’m singing with other people… There’s something really special happening there.

UD: That’s really beautiful.

DR: If you want to call that spirit? Okay. Language fails as far as I’m concerned. And that’s why I’m passionate about art and music. Because it does connect me to other human beings, and I do believe that a particularly complex kind of animal, one of the things that defines the complexity of our species, is our ability to connect with other beings in ways that have yet to be discovered. We just keep finding new ways of connecting. And, ironically, in a time of increased alienation and isolation and even despondency, when so many people feel so alone in the world, I find it ironic that there are so many ways to connecting to this shared spirit, this shared humanity that we have.

Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean UN Ambassador, was murdered by Chilean secret police (the DINA) with help from the U.S. CIA.  He sensed he was targeted, and asked Avedon to record a photograph in full knowledge of what was to come. 'I look at that image of dignity, courage and resolve and it renews my faith in certain things."

Left: Untitled work by John Baldessari from the :”Miracle Chips” series, 2002 Right: 'The Legend of Elmore James'

UD: Traditionally, the term ‘practice’ was only used by doctors and lawyers, then about 10 years ago every gallery student was referring to the art that he or she did as their ‘practice.’ You titled your program at SVA “Art Practice.”

DR: Yes, this is a term that has been a darling of the theory set for a while, but it’s still open enough for me that it means that, as an artist thinking about the nature and redirection of what they do, that we can call it ‘art practice.’ An MFA in visual art, well, it’s not all visual. An MFA in fine arts; what the fuck is “fine?” That other arts aren’t fine or are less fine, or are determined by whether they’re commercial art or fine art and then we have this polarity between fine and commercial? I don't like that.  But finally, it’s just a word.

What is it that artists do? That’s the kind of question that I’m really interested in. What is an artist’s job? I also think artists are deeply interested in that question. So say it’s an MFA in media arts. That seems to me way too restrictive. This program was designed for artists who built a boat in the basement and then realized, “Well now what do I do? I can't get it out. Why did I build a boat? Why did I build it in the basement?”

The one thing about graduate education, which I never had, I barely made it out of my undergraduate years. So here I am talking people into coming to graduate school and working with them through their graduate programs, something that never even occurred for me to do. I don’t think I could have handled the rigor of it or the complexity of it or the necessary discipline and focus of it. It was all beyond me, especially at that age.

UD: What does failure represent to you?

DR: Failure is the greatest educational tool there is. It’s our friend. Truly, you know. Success is a trap. Failure tells us what not to do again, to try something else.

Whereas success, “Oh I love that. Can you do it again?” And we get trapped in this superficial kind of praise of something that may be working for all the wrong reasons but also might just completely shut you down.

You know great artists are the ones who take those risks and say, “I’m glad you liked it, but I really answered that question for myself.” But very few artists who find success have the courage to do that. They keep making the same work, refining it.

And there’s something to be said for real refinement, for a certain kind of approach to a process that slowly unfolds over a lifetime. Doesn’t move very quickly, doesn’t move very far from its origin, just slowly evolves. I don't have any problem with that.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Big Sea, #2), detail, 1969, Courtesy of Tate Galley.

I look at Vija Celmins’ drawings and I think, “I don't want her to do anything else with that” because what she’s done is so exquisite and so extraordinary. And it’s evolved so slowly and has such incredible spirit. I don't expect to see a new kind of Vija Celmins every year, but she’s a different kind of artist.

You know, I think about Agnes Martin and how she had a complete collapse of her work, and it provoked her to move out of New York to the mesas of New Mexico. For a period of close to 10 years she made no art. Or was slowly coming back to something after some enormous crisis. Crisis, failure.

Look at Vito Acconci. His entire career has been recognizing the failure to do one thing, but being honest about it and then moving on. “Okay, I needed to leave poetry, it wasn’t working. Needed to move out of that kind of space and out into the street.” Now that wasn’t working, so performance, then architectonic installations — to now where he works as an architect and a designer in the construction of other kinds of social spaces that, as a poet, he never would have imagined. But now if you go back and look at the arc of his work, the journey makes complete sense. But he got there based all on the failure of one method or another.

UD: What do you feel is your biggest contribution to the art world?

DR: I’ve been lucky to work with amazing people and that’s allowed me to participate in the production of great exhibitions over the last 40 years. Really amazing projects.

I remember being introduced to Steve McQueen at the closing dinner for Documenta 11. Steve says, “Oh, David. I’m so glad to meet you. I was just finishing film school in ‘93. I had no idea what I was going to do, because I didn’t think I was going to be able to make the kinds of films that I wanted to make. And then I walked into the Whitney and saw the ‘93 biennial. And I immediately understood what I could do.” And I nearly cried, because if an artist ever says or feels that strongly about an exhibition they see, they rarely tell you. And think of McQueen as a gracious man, because there was nothing in it for him. He was already well beyond the position where I could help him or needed help from anybody.

UD: He wasn’t trying to flatter you….

Bill Viola Heaven and Earth, 1992

DR: And the “Bill Viola: A 25 Year Survey,” which was the only major show I ever directly organized when I was at the Whitney and whose lives were changed when people saw that work. Bill has long been one of my closest friends, so that exhibition, working with Bill, Bill’s partner Kira Perov and Peter Sellars was incredibly gratifying, in a way that being a parent is gratifying — that exhibition was like our baby, growing up, going out into the world and doing well. You just feel such pride.

And, of course, between Whitney and SFMOMA, I had amazing opportunities to help acquire works for a permanent collection, to build the commonwealth, and to be greedy on behalf of the public and to bring great objects out of the marketplace and into the perpetual care of museums. For instance, at the Whitney I worked with Lisa Phillips to acquire Jay DeFeo’s masterpiece: The Rose. We had to rescue it from a ‘tomb,’ hidden behind a wall in conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute. Nobody knew if it had fallen apart, if it had rotted. We took a risk, invested a quarter of a million dollars on its renovation, which was a lot of money at the time, and it worked! That painting is now in the permanent collection at the Whitney; last year it was shown again, and I hope it will be up permanently in the new building.

So I look back and think, “Okay. I made that decision to push the Board of Trustees to give that money. What the museum got for it was so well beyond what you can simply measure in dollars.”

UD: You’ve said that artists won’t put up with your bullshit.

DR: I think we all get caught up in our self-importance — especially when one has an “important” job, you can really become like a caricature of yourself and start identifying with a projected image of who you are. The more you’re paid, the more people you have working for you – I mean, for years I had nearly three hundred people working for or with me. That’s a lot of smoke blown at you by a lot of people. All the time.

 Jay DeFeo working on The Rose, circa 1960. Ph: Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

People always want something from you. People of enormous power and fame wanted things from you as well. And at the same time, you are constantly kissing asses. You’d have to be a saint not to have that get to you. It absolutely got to me many times. And it would be artists who would bring me back to earth and say, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” And I’d say, “Yeah. Thank you.”

And finally, it took me a while to settle back to earth, but, you know, I feel a lot better about myself now. It’s a pretty intense 7-day a week 24-hour a day life when you’re running major institutions.

That’s why, as critical as I can be of institutions and museums in general, I have nothing but sympathy for the people, for the men and women, who run them, and what it does to their lives, and how hard it is to find that balance that keeps you human.

We are living in untethered time because people create opinions on partial truths, on complete manufactured conspiracy theories, which then get echoed back and forth in the Internet and get filtered out as truths somewhere. Or what my hero Stephen Colbert would call ‘truthiness,’ like truth. Truthiness. Smells like truth, but it’s like—

UD: Like ‘diet racism.’

DR: It’s like fake wood paneling. It’s the look of real truth, but it’s not truth. It’s in fact particle board. It’s in fact fear-based fabrications generated specifically to move power from one place to another, to allow someone’s vested interest to be supported. And fear is the key. One of the things that art should do is help manage those fears; help to create those connections between people.