Interview: Ned Rifkin
by Claire Ruud
Ned Rifkin, the Blanton's new director and the former undersecretary for art at the Smithsonian Institution, is charming and diplomatic. Despite his punishing schedule—he is conducting half-hour interviews with every single staff member and meeting all the various "stake holders" in the museum—Rifkin graciously agreed to give me his full attention for nearly an hour.
…might be good: So, what’s your sign, Ned?
Ned Rifkin: Are you asking what my birthday is? It’s November 10.
…mbg: A Scorpio? So what does that mean about you?
NR: I have no idea. I know what Scorpios are supposed to be, but I don’t know what that means about me.
…mbg: I’m a Ram. I think we’re supposed to have a firey relationship. We both want to be in control. So your official start date at the Blanton was May 1, but how long have you actually been living here?
NR: I’d been back and forth a number of times in May and June, but I actually moved here on July 4th.
…mbg: Have you had time to explore the city at all?
NR: Not much. I’ve been focusing my energy here at The Blanton, which hasn’t had a permanent leader for well over a year, so the anticipation and eagerness of people here and elsewhere has been pretty substantial. But of course, I’ve had to go shopping; I’ve had to eat.
…mbg: Have you fallen in love with any Austin restaurants?
NR: Well, I’m vegetarian, so the answer is yes, but I’m still finding my way around. Besides, it’s so hot out that I’ve found myself just wanting to be cool, really to just stay inside.
…mbg: I was a vegetarian until I moved here. After about six months here, I just had to try the barbecue, and that was the end of that.
NR: The barbecue may be excellent, but I’m going to forego it for sure, as well as anything else that has parents.
…mbg: You’re a parent; you have children.
NR: Yeah, and I don’t eat them either. I’ve nibbled on them, though, and they’re very tasty.
…mbg: Where are they now?
NR: I have a son who teaches at The University of Southern California, another son who is also a teacher in Seattle, and third who’s a musician in Atlanta.
…mbg: That’s a lot of sons.
NR: Yeah, it’s a lot of sons; it’s a lot of light.
…mbg: What are you reading right now?
NR: I’m reading a biography of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. And of course, I’m reading memos, histories of this organization [The Blanton] and so forth. I’m taking in a lot of information right now; it’s like trying to sip water from a fire hose. It’s pretty wonderful; I’m just sponging.
…mbg: Who’s Sam Cooke?
NR: Oh my goodness, is the door closed? Don’t let anyone hear you. Sam Cooke began his career as a gospel and spiritual singer, and then crossed over into rock. He was a very famous singer in the 50s and early 60s, but he was murdered at a fairly young age. He was one of my very favorite singers from that time period. And the author of the biography, Peter Guralnick, is an historian with a wonderfully rigorous, detailed style. The book paints a very rich picture, kind of like a cultural anthropology.
…mbg: Sounds like music might run in the family.
NR: I’m musical. I grew up on rock and classical music.
…mbg: Do you, by any chance, play electric guitar?
NR: I do play electric guitar, but I tend to play more steel string acoustic. Actually, two of my guitars were made in Austin by a great luthier here in town—Collings Guitars. But I also have an electric guitar and a classical guitar and I like to play them, too. I actually have five guitars.
…mbg: Do you plan on joining a band?
NR: It’s not a priority. I’m not a joiner so much, but I do like to play with people.
…mbg: Speaking of priorities, what have been your first priorities at the Blanton?
NR: My first priorities are to get to know the people who work here, the organization and the university—to understand the organization’s past and present, strengths and weaknesses. Practically speaking, I’m starting with individual meetings with every member of the staff and the various stakeholders and supporters. There’s a lot of people time. And here we are.
…mbg: Here we are. So what do you see as the Blanton’s strengths?
NR: I took this opportunity because the Blanton is part of a university community that values learning and teaching, within a larger Austin community that values creativity. What is created here in the film, music and intellectual communities reaches audiences nationally and internationally. Everything’s in place here to cultivate a museum that functions on that same level.
…mbg: What about weaknesses?
NR: One of the questions this museum faces, as all museums do right now, is how to generate revenue in order to fuel programming and staff and other initiatives. This is a youthful organization; the Blanton in its current incarnation is almost brand new. Three years ago when the new building opened, there was incredible excitement—a convergence of energy and resources. Now, the organization is hitting that “get real” moment in the midst of a time when the world doesn’t have as much disposable cash as it did a few years ago. It’s not a weakness, it’s a diagnosis of the situation.
I’m reluctant to start talking about the organization’s weaknesses because, at this point, all I have are first impressions from an outside perspective. Others have told me what they think our weaknesses are. For example, more than a few times, I’ve been told that Austin is not a very philanthropic community.
…mbg: I’ve been thinking a lot about the philanthropic culture here in Austin. I recently went to a workshop on fundraising run by the city for nonprofits. Nell Edgington, the president of a “social innovation” firm called Social Velocity, seemed to think that there is the potential for a more philanthropic culture here. She pointed out Austin’s robust venture capital ecology and suggested that nonprofits and their funders might use a similar model to their advantage.
NR: If this is a “tough town,” as people have told me, I’m interested in where is that culture being developed.
When I was at the High Museum in Atlanta, Coca-Cola was one of the biggest businesses, and for that reason, it was a key player in developing Atlanta’s culture of philanthropy. I’ll never forget the day when the CEO of Coca-Cola started talking about “strategic philanthropy,” which is basically a euphemism for marketing. It sounds better, but it isn’t. Within the concept of strategic philanthropy is the expectation that organizations are working for the shareholders, and therefore the shareholders should be somehow “getting the most” out of whatever they give. That makes sense from a business point of view, but that’s not what philanthropy is.
I don’t know yet what the equivalent of Coca-Cola is here in Austin. Through good leadership, it’s possible to develop a vibrant philanthropic culture that supports and sustains what we really value.
…mbg: And, as you already mentioned, it’s a hard moment financially. I took a look at the Blanton’s budget, and it looks like you’re going to be in the red next year.
NR: You know, I don’t think so. We’re in good shape compared to many institutions.
…mbg: Will the Blanton be replacing Gabriel Perez-Barriero [former Curator of Latin American Art] this year?
NR: You’re right, there is a conspicuous vacancy in leadership position in Latin American art. We will certainly look for a successor fairly soon. I don’t think there’s any chance of replacing Gabriel. People aren’t replaceable. But Ursula Davila-Villa [Interim Curator of Latin American Art] has done a wonderful job since Gabriel resigned.
…mbg: Just one last thing. You’re the “special adviser” to President Powers. What does that mean?
NR: It’s actually not an official position. What it means to me is simply that when Bill Powers has a question about art, I’m the “go-to guy.” This came out of conversations with the President about art and the university. I said, let’s take a holistic approach. If the Blanton is going to be successful it has to be so in its emanations. I have a lot of experience in public art and so on that could be helpful.
…mbg: Yes, I mean, you’re used to running 6 museums at once.
NR: No, I didn’t run six museums. The directors of six museums reported to me. I directed directors. After that, I wasn’t sure I was going to return to art museums, but this opportunity at a university museum like the Blanton in a community like Austin’s really inspires me.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.