From the Editor
by Claire Ruud
Ned Rifkin, who resigned from his position as Under Secretary for Art at the Smithsonian Institution last spring, has been appointed director of The Jack S. Blanton Museum at The University of Texas at Austin, where he will also hold the positions of professor of art and art history and special advisor to UT president William Powers. Rifkin succeeds Jesse Otto Hite, who retired last year after 15 years as director of the museum.
The Blanton must be looking for good connections, good money and stability.
Rifkin is scholarly. In 1977, he received a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Michigan, where he wrote his dissertation on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, and then taught for three years at The University of Texas at Arlington. Since then, he’s produced a distinguished list of publications, including Agnes Martin: The Nineties and Beyond (2002) and Sean Scully: Twenty Years , 1976-1995 (2001). A scholarly choice makes sense for The Blanton; after all, it’s a university museum.
Rifkin is very well-connected. Particularly in Washington. In 2004, after two years as director of the Hirshhorn Rifkin became the Undersecretary for Art at the Smithsonian Institution. In other words, he oversaw the Archives of American Art, the Cooper-Hewitt, the Hirshhorn, the National Museum of African Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler galleries, and the Smithsonian Photography Initiative. (While he was there, some people made a fuss that he and a few other staff members made more than the president. To me, it sounds like conservatives trying to take funding away from the arts. At $440,000, his salary wasn’t nearly competitive with those paid to directors of the big private museums.)
Rifkin is familiar. In the nineties while he was at the High Museum, he must have worked with the Blanton’s Curator of American & Contemporary Art Annette Carlozzi on the Olympics in Atlanta. Moreover, he was director of the Menil for a brief year from 2000 to 2001, an appointment that went down in flames. It’s not clear what part Rifkin played in this fiasco, but some suggested that he was transforming the museum into an institution that was too commercial and too mainstream. On the other hand, commercial and mainstream translates into numbers. During Rifkin’s nine years as director of the museum, the High's annual attendance more than doubled from 300,000 to 650,000, and its endowment grew from $15 million to $56 million.
Is Rifkin a conservative choice for the Blanton’s next director? He has said that the piece of art he was most affected by was The Remembrance Project in Washington, D.C. Regina Hackett commented on this fact, “The problem with people who are good to their cores is that they tend to like art with the same quality and give weak art a generous read when it comes with a radiant back story.”
Hopefully, Rifkin will channel his supreme administrative and fundraising capabilities into support for innovative programming at The Blanton, building on the museum’s strengths in Latin American and contemporary art. Looking forward to tapping the keg at Okay Mountain with ya, Ned!
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good and Associate Coordinator of testsite.