Adam D. Weinberg has been the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art since October 2003. From 1981, Mr. Weinberg was at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, where he served as Director of Education and Assistant Curator until 1989, when Weinberg initially joined the Whitney as Director of the Whitney at Equitable Center. Weinberg subsequently assumed the post of Artistic and Program Director of the American Center in Paris in 1991. He returned to the Whitney as Curator of the Permanent Collection in 1993 and was made Senior Curator in 1998.
Previously, Weinberg was the Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, from 1999 to 2003.
Weinberg has curated dozens of exhibitions on artists including Edward Hopper, Isamu Noguchi, Alex Katz, and Terry Winters. He has also organized numerous thematic exhibitions, The Architectural Unconscious: James Casebere and Glen Seator; A Year in the Collection, Circa 1952; Vanishing Presence; and On the Line: The New Color Photojournalism. For the Whitney he organized the groundbreaking series Views from Abroad: European Perspectives on American Art with the Stedlijk Museum, the Museum für Moderne Kunst, and the Tate Gallery. He has also curated major public projects with a broad range of artists including Mark Dion, Jessica Stockholder, Annette Messager, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik. He is the author of numerous catalogs and essays on contemporary and modern art.
Weinberg has served as a board member of diverse organizations including the American Federation of the Arts; Storm King Art Center; Williamstown Art Conservation Center; Tang Museum, Skidmore College; and the Colby College Museum of Art. He has been a grant panelist for numerous federal, state, city, and private foundations. He holds a BA from Brandeis University and a Master’s degree from the Visual Studies Workshop, the State University of New York at Buffalo.
What began your interest in art?
I grew up going to museums with my family and that was initially how my interest started. In high school I studied photography, which led me to other areas such as art and the history of photography. After my freshman year of college I had a summer internship at Guggenheim New York. My first day on the job at the Guggenheim, I got there earlier than all of the other interns and a lot earlier than the director, when I walked into the rotunda, somehow it just hit me that moment and I thought, “I want to work in a museum.” I didn’t know how, I didn’t know why, but that was part of the moment.
Did you ever do any art making yourself?
Photography, I considered art making.
Did you ever pursue it?
No, I started taking photography fairly seriously. I studied with a photographer named Norman White but I found no interest in looking, marketing, and writing about pictures.
How did your concentration on photography benefit your career?
I don’t really think about it benefitting my career. I began studying art through the history of photography at a time when it was just becoming popular in the 1970’s. I began to notice what contemporary art had to do with photography directly and indirectly, whether it’s printmaking or interdisciplinary work. So much of it connects to photography, so I guess it made me a bit more literate in terms of understanding contemporary art and what it has to do with cameras or image making in general.
What does the term “Breaking Tradition” mean to you?
The idea of the camera goes back to at least the 16th century. There’s a continuity of photographic vision with artists using the camera obscura. If you look at Vemeer, it was quite common during the Renaissance for artists to use a camera without any kind of image-making material. It could be argued that photographic imagery has its roots from five hundred years of image making. I guess the idea is that even as one is breaking tradition, they’re still utilizing tradition to continue to make traditions.
Everyone is now a photographer because of the iPhone, what’s your opinion on that?
Everybody loves pictures. With the means that people have now, everybody can do it. However, it doesn’t necessarily make someone an artist just because the means are there.
How do you think that’s going to affect the standard of photography?
I think it’s a combination of quality and an idea that can manifest into a physical product. I’ve talked to a photographer (Louis Parkson? 9:52) in Paris about this and he believes most artists have developed their shortness in terms of their work without using photographs a number of years ago. He thought he had produced his best work already and felt that he had no need to continue instrumentally. The ability to send out something innovative is not “out of the loop”, but has a distinctive vision to it and can carry fuel for a creative time. Anybody can put a monkey in a computer and it will eventually make a sound. Anybody can take good pictures, but getting a picture or a series that gives a new twist to the language of what photography is, that’s the challenge. You can have a wonderful sense of color, but there has to be more to art than what can come from a form of instructions.
Given your background in photography, why was there not as much photography in the last Whitney Biennial?
There were sixty-one artists in the show, and I would argue that at least five or six artists were using photography in one way or another. There was LaToya Ruby Frazier who does written photography, and Lutz Bache, a conceptual artist who appropriates images taken of a celestial sky. There was also a photographic presence in mixed media work, and Moyra Davey who had photographed prints that were then mixed with video. Another artist did two slideshows on two different series, which were essentially photo-based work. These photographers were only ten percent of the entire show, but each of them had a broader definition than what one usually thinks of traditional photography.
How important is photography to the Whitney?
Photography is essential to the Whitney because it’s an essential and intrinsic medium for the 20th and 21st century. The way people are interested in photography has transformed because it now comes from our culture and has an intellectual base, affecting the way we look at the world.
Who was the last photography-based artist that the Whitney purchased?
We just purchased some books by Moyra Davey 20:39, that are photographs. Working with our exhibition committee, we acquired two of the Biennial photographs. In recent years, we have also acquired a whole range of photographic works, such as a large group of Ralston Crawford that we will be showcasing in the fall. We’ve always integrated photography into our displays in the collection and into the Gilman gallery, which is primarily devoted to photography.
What upcoming plans are you most looking forward to implementing at the Whitney Museum downtown?
I am looking forward to the fact that we will have three to four times more space than we currently have for showing the collections. The idea of being able to present a real range of what our collection has, not just in photography, is something I’m looking forward to. We have an incredible collection of hidden treasures that people don’t even know about at the Whitney. We are also going to have a more concentrated study center that will give access to all the works in the collection by appointment, which we never have had before. We will have two black-box theater spaces, with one in the cinema. One will be for performance, where we will use an indoor/outdoor black-box. We will also have about 2,000 square feet of empty gallery space which will have continuously changing instillations.
As your roles at the Whitney evolved, how did your responsibilities change?
I worry more! [Laughs]
What draws you back to the Whitney every day?
The challenge. The Whitney has a tremendous amount of raw material: not just the art and the collections that we have, but also the potential of the staff and the board. It’s an institution that can really transform and be different from all of the many wonderful art institutions in New York. The Whitney is small enough to be free of the struggles that bigger institutions face, as well as the complications of bureaucracy. Small institutions are able to get things done very quickly, but we don’t usually have the resources. The wonderful thing about the Whitney is that it’s small enough and large enough at the same time. I like that it’s a family museum; it’s also an international arts institution, and it’s very much a New York Museum. I like that New York has been so fantastic about the Whitney.
What was your transition from curator to director like?
When I worked at the Addison Gallery, it was an easy transition relatively speaking because I was curating about three exhibitions per year. It was a much harder transition to the Whitney, I thought I knew what I was in for. I love what I do and it’s a privilege, but it is really hard. You have to do everything for everybody all of the time. You’re in service for the staff, the trustees, and the public, but that’s how it should be. Life as a director is the same thing in a broader and higher sense with aspirations and major creativity, but it’s a great honor to be able to do that. Doing this at the highest level, in a way that’s not overly encumbered in politics and compromise, is a lot to do this day and age at any museum.
In your opinion, what makes a great curator?
It’s all about looking, looking, and looking. Any curator will tell you that you can never stop looking. Like eating three meals a day, you have to view three works of art per day. There has to be a passion that drives you. A good curator does not just look for what they’ve seen before or what will look different from what is expected. It’s about being absorbed in what’s going on in the current culture and understanding that what has happened before is not likely to be exactly what we’re thinking presently. I’ve said not to become a victim of your generation, but that’s the tricky thing, how do you not become a victim of your generation? It’s all about how you step up into the next generation.
What advice can you offer emerging photographers and artists who are looking to display their work in a place like the Whitney Museum?
My advice would be to do what drives you and discover what your passion is. Whether its photography, drawing, or painting, you have to go wherever your work takes you. I love cameras, I love taking pictures, and I also love the fact that I can now take photographs on my iPhone. It’s all about figuring out what drives you, what interests you visually in the world, and figuring out how to go forward with that. Being in the art world is really, really, really hard and most people do not make a living being an artist.