Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Marcia, it's Marcia"

[This is not a blog, exactly. It turned out to be a eulogy, and VERY long. I’ll have to continue it tomorrow. Sorry!]

Marcia Tucker, founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, ground-breaking curator, major art world force, and my friend and mentor of twenty years, died of cancer this past November. Last week I flew to Manhattan for her memorial tribute on Friday at The New School. It was a crisp, cold, clear afternoon, blue-skied, a gift. I took a walk along Central Park West, where I shared a bag of roasted chestnuts with the park squirrels.

Here on her home turf I realized how acutely I missed Marcia’s presence in the world: her phenomenal energy, brilliance, wise counsel, generosity, encouragement, and sense of humor; her prominent, expressive dark brown eyes, distinctive proboscis, bloodhoundish under-eye pouches, surprisingly delicate small hands, wildly curly graying black hair, and her musical voice. “Marcia, it’s Marcia,” was our usual telephone greeting; we sang it to each other.

Passing the Society for Ethical Culture building reminded me of her. Like other institutions in the Upper West Side it was founded by a visionary, a Jewish émigré from Europe named Felix Adler with the same incandescent passion for learning, commitment to egalitarianism and social justice, activist zeal, moral concern, intellectual curiosity, and respect for artists and cultural workers that Marcia’s career embodied. Characteristically she’d made that heritage new -- iconoclastic, radically open and inquisitive, and very much her own -- with The New Museum and with everyone and everything else she touched.

The 500 seats in the New School’s main auditorium were already filled when I arrived. Along with artist Fred Wilson and other overflow guests (many of whom I vaguely recognized as art world luminaries) I was ushered to an upstairs auditorium: “closer to Marcia,” Fred quipped in the elevator. Those seats filled up quickly too. Watching the program on video was a frustration only slightly mitigated by sharing the experience with 200 other people who’d also come to pay their respects and had been similarly exiled.

Marcia Tucker . . . was remembered yesterday . . . as a woman whose insatiable curiosity and ability to ignore her fears led her to alter New York’s museum landscape and become a mentor to a generation of curators and artists,“ reported Randy Kennedy in The New York Times (Saturday, January 13, 2007). Kennedy noted that the event “turned into a kind of reunion for many of the curators who had worked for her and with her over the years,” and also a gathering of artists whose careers she had influenced, “including Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, Elizabeth Murray, Fred Wilson, and James Rosenquist.“

The program opened with a video excerpt of an interview with Marcia that Lynn Hershman Leeson conducted and filmed in Summer 2006, only a few months before Marcia died. That was a shock, poignant yet exhilarating: to see her so much herself, so alive and vivid in her dangling earrings and wildly colored print shirt against a backdrop of crammed bookshelves, talking with her usual directness and humor about her career and the institution she founded.

The speakers included Lisa Phillips, who succeeded Marcia as director of The New Museum; artists John Baldessari and Pat Steir, who had each known Marcia for 40 years; Susana Torruela Leval, director emeritus of El Museo del Barrio, Manhattan; Martin Friedman, director emeritus of The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; Jessica Simpson, a young student at Brooklyn College with whom Marcia conducted a lengthy email correspondence; Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty at the Art Institute of Chicago; and Ned Rifkin, former director of the Hirshhorn Museum, now Undersecretary for Art [!] at the Smithsonian Institution, whom Marcia hired fresh out of grad school in 1980 as a New Museum curator.

Each speaker had a personal relationship with Marcia and an individual take on her legacy, but common themes emerged. Marcia transformed the careers of each of them, encouraging them to believe in themselves, take risks, and pursue their goals despite their fears. She had an amazing eye and “extraordinary antennae” for recognizing and championing potentially important, innovative new artists. She sought out and nurtured talent wherever she found it -- among curators, writers, artists, and arts administrators -- and was prescient in this regard. She understood the way the art world worked, including museums, but believed that entrenched structures could be changed, expanded, opened up, made more welcoming and experimental, less hierarchical and elitist. She worked successfully to effect those changes in her own museum and nationally. She was a feminist, allegedly a founding member of the Guerilla Girls, who made a point of encouraging women with self doubts to realize their dreams and believed that everyone’s consciousness regarding sex and gender needed to be raised.

Marcia’s writings and public lectures on artists, curatorial practice, museology, artists’ education and art theory redirected discourse on those topics. The New Museum -- the institution she founded after being fired as a curator at the Whitney Museum for the exhibition of Richard Tuttle’s work she organized there in the 70s -- became the test tube for her radical re-thinking of the ways museums could and should be run. She and her curatorial staff organized exhibitions that altered the parameters of what a museum could present: they were experimental, often anti-formalist, conceptually/thematically based, and politically charged. For her staff it could be a rough ride following the “crooked path” that Marcia advocated, but ultimately enlightening.

Marcia’s own crooked path embraced singing (she founded a group called The Art Mob that met regularly at her house every Monday night for twenty-five years to sing Sacred Harp music; they performed publicly and made several CDs); stand-up comedy (in her personae as Mabel McNeil and Ms. Mannerist); motherhood (at age 42 she gave birth to Ruby, her daughter with her husband Dean McNeil -- Ruby‘s now 24 and an MFA student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago); writing (she left an unfinished novel and a memoir); and, at the end of her life, the study and practice of Buddhism.

I should mention that the program began and ended with performances of Sacred Harp songs by singers from New England and members of The Art Mob. A spokesperson acknowledged Marcia as having almost singlehandedly revived the form throughout New England and the South in the past two decades.

I found out later that Marcia had chosen the speakers and, knowing her, curator to the last, she’d probably orchestrated the entire event. If you had lived the life she lived, this would have been exactly what you’d hope for as a public celebration of your life. It wasn’t a sad occasion at all; it was inspiring. As someone said to me, “There was a lot of love in that auditorium.“ I, like hundreds of other people present and absent, had been lucky to know Marcia. In the time we have left, we have work to do.

This has taken me all day to write and I haven’t even mentioned how I came to know Marcia Tucker, how I became a curator at age 54 thanks to her prodding, and why I may now be evolving into a writer, ditto. There are also some odd parallels in our lives which I’d like to talk about. A demain.


Moyra Davey said...

Marcia--this is a beautiful remembrance of Marcia Tucker. Thank you.
And, re: "evolving into a writer"--I'd say you're already there in spades.

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