David A. Ross Four
Edifice Complex of Mega Museums
By: David Ross and Charles Giuliano - Nov 25, 2011
Charles Giuliano Of the artists you have been associated with over the years are there some who are particularly important to you?
David Ross There have been dozens. I learned everything I know about art from artists. I learned nothing about art in school. One after another artists have taken the time and been generous enough to educate me. To point me to things I needed to read. To point me to things I needed to look at. To argue with me about things they thought I needed to understand. There are dozens. Literally dozens. Painters, sculptors, video artists, dancers, poets. It’s a huge list and I’m enormously and eternally grateful.
CG Are there any in particular you might mention who, for example, did one person museum shows with you?
DR Of course one of my nearest and dearest friends whom I shared a studio with as an undergraduate is Bill Viola. Bill is like a brother. I did his retrospective at the Whitney but only because I had to. I didn’t really believe that as a museum director you should do shows. It should be what curators do not museum directors. Once I became a museum director I really didn’t do shows. I supported my curators. I helped them do what we agreed was important to do. The Viola show we did at the Whitney went around the world. It is one that I am very proud of. I worked very closely on the Kienholz show with Walter Hopps. Walter had a stroke half way through the organizing of it. So I had to do a lot of that work. Then Ed died before it opened so that made it even more complicated. I learned a great deal from Ed. He was an amazing artist. Of course I learned a great deal from Walter as well. As a friend. A lot of curators like Walter or Jim Elliott who hired me at Berkley were incredibly important to me.
CG Haven’t you also tried your hand at art critcism?
DR Not very much. I don’t believe in writing negative stuff. Ever. I like to write about things I like. I like to write appreciation. I very rarely write criticism. In fact one of the very few times I every wrote criticism it got me in terrible trouble. I’m sure you’ve gotten over this a long time ago as a critic. I hate the idea of having to call somebody on something they didn’t do right. I hated being in that situation. I would much rather write essays about things I love and catalogues about artists whose work inspires me. If that counts as criticism then sure I have written many essays in museum catalogues. I’ve never functioned as a critic for newspapers or magazines. As I say I have written only one critical piece and I so resent, I so regret it because I feel it was so misunderstood by the target of the piece.
CG For the ICA the only solo show you curated was for Robin Winters. During an interview at the time you threw the catalogue at me with the command to read it.
DR I did that show with Robin Winters and he and I are still very good friends. (He is on Ross’s faculty at the School of Visual Arts.) Roberta Smith wrote one of the essays which was kindah cool and I did an interview with Robin. Yeah, I love Robin.
CG That was your only solo show for the ICA (in nine years). It’s probably the only show you entirely curated yourself.
DR That’s probably true. It was a beautiful catalogue and I’m glad I still have a copy of it.
CG We had fun.
DR Absolutely I look back on those years at the ICA only with great pleasure. But it was the right time for me to leave. I don’t believe in general that museum directors should be longer than ten years wherever they are. Particularly for contemporary museums they need to have their visions refreshed. Periodically. Great collecting museums like the Modern or the Met can stand slightly longer tenures. In general I feel there should be far more turnover on the director level and even on the curator level. It opens up different ideas and approaches. The art world is so filled with closed little cliques. It’s nice to just change channels every once in a while.
CG Do you have an opinion on Mass MoCA? You say that you visit frequently.
DR I love Mass MoCA. It’s one of my favorite museums. It’s a totally non bullshit museum. Joe Thompson. There’s somebody who pulls rabbits out of a hat. He doesn’t have a wealthy community. He has a few people behind him who he very carefully courted. He has a great vision. Even though Mass MoCA is not what it set out to be I like what it is now. More than what it intended to be in its initial blue sky phase. It’s a great community museum on a regional level. Everybody who lives and works in Western Mass. feels comfortable there.
CG What about the current status of the Guggenheim?
DR I think it’s rebuilding itself. Under Richard (Armstrong). I think (Tom) Krens was a fucking disaster. On every level. He destroyed the image of that museum in his attempt to build the brand “Guggenheim.” The museum may never fully recover from that as it builds its brand image game in Abu Dahbi. It’s not for museums. That’s a different industry. If that’s museums then I’m glad I’m not working in them.
DR Doing much better now that it has very powerful women running the departments like Connie Butler in drawings. And Ann Temkin running painting and sculpture have made an enormous difference there. I’m very happy with what I see. I’m not a fan of the building. I still don’t think they’ve got it right.
CG They have another huge atrium like that of Art of the Americas at the MFA.
DR They’ve gotten too big. I have a hard time with museums that have gotten that big because it become an ordeal every time you visit. I still love the museum. I grew up on the Modern. I learned so much from it. It continues to be one of the most important museums in the world. For me the museum which I like the most right now is the Tate. I love what Nick Serota has done. Right now he’s my favorite museum director. He has been for a long time. For all the stumbles they’ve had they’ve built an enormous body of contemporary art in Great Britain. Unbelievable in scale and quality. I think he’s done a great job.
CG How much do you manage to keep on the circuit internationally?
DR I travel a lot because I serve on the boards of a number of foundations. I guest curate and lecture. So I get around the world. I get to China every year. I get to India every year and Europe a couple of times a year. I haven’t been to South America in a couple of years and am feeling a little out of touch there. I get to LA, the South, New Orleans. I get to Texas. I like to see what’s going around. I feel very little pressure. I don’t have hundreds of people depending on me for a living. It’s very nice not feeling the pressure of being responsible for so many people.
CG But you’ve got the band.
DR I’ve got the band but we don’t make our living on it. We only play for free.
CG What’s the band called?
CG You said that you got four encores at the ICA benefit.
DR It was such a great evening. OMG. I’m still glowing from that evening. It was so much fun. Playing in that space. Wow. Was that beautiful. The dinner was in the airport and the party was in the museum. We were originally going to play at the airport but the acoustics in that hangar would have been atrocious. You could hardly hear anybody who spoke but it was visually amazing. There was a 747 parked next to your dinner table. But we couldn’t control the acoustics so at the last minute we decided to move the music back to the theatre and I’m glad that we did.
CG Are you in touch with Milena (Kalinovska)?
DR She was there. Milena has been with the Hirshorn for years doing special programming. She did some amazing shows at the ICA. The show she did with Catherine deZegher (Inside the Visible, 1997) was so incredible. I didn’t see that many of her shows because I was busy with the Whitney but Milena is a woman to be contended with. That was a great period with some really serious curatorial energy. Now what Jill (Medvedow) has brought about is nothing short of a miracle.
CG Milena introduced us to Rachel Whiteread and Carol Rama, as well as Elvis and Marilyn.
DR The fact that under Jill that building got built and paid for.
CG Do you like the building?
DR I’m a huge Diller and Scofidio fan. I think the building functions very well. I agree that the computer learning space needs to be readapted into something else. It’s a cool space and I imagine it will function as a class room. In the gallery spaces I’ve seen some shows that look great there. I’ve seen three or four shows there and they all looked very good. You are critical that the ICA can’t be expanded. It’s how I feel about the New Museum in New York. It’s nice sometimes when museums are forced to keep their focus on shows of manageable scale.
CG They’re landlocked.
DR Yeah but what does it mean when you keep growing and growing like MoMA. It becomes impossibly big and impossibly confusing. And crowded. I like the scale of the ICA right now and I hope it can stay at that scale.
CG What about the Whitney selling their building on Madison Avenue to the Met?
DR They didn’t sell anything. They leased it for a certain period of time. Which was very smart. There is no way they could have managed both spaces as they developed the new one. But then eventually maybe they can. They have the option under whoever will succeed Adam (Weinberg). Which is a long time in the future. In ten or fifteen years the Whitney has the option of saying, ok we have this place stabilized, now we’ll reopen uptown. If it makes sense economically. For right now they’ve gotten out from under the financial burden of having to maintain two spaces. The plans that I’ve seen for their new space look really extraordinary. The energy of that part of town is great. My office is two blocks from the new Whitney.
CG The Meatmarket.
DR My office is on 16th street between 8th and 9th Avenue. Four blocks south of me is where the new Whitney will be on the Hudson River. Then High Line is a block from my office. I love that part of town. A million people visited The High Line in the first year. In New York you can get big crowds and the Seven Line is being expanded to the Jacob Javits Convention Center. There will be a second east-west subway line. In the next fifteen years it will make the Meatmarket all that more accessible. For tourists and the like. Obviously tourists are already finding their way there.
I think Adam has done the right thing. I sure hope he will. He has. It’s not what I would have done. So the Whitney is probably in better hands. Because I might never have done that. I don’t know if I would have had the guts to move downtown. In some weird ways I’m very conservative.
Ross Part One
Ross Part Two
Ross Part Three