2017-05-04 13:56:02
The Most Powerful Woman in the New York Art World

Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum in Lower Manhattan, walked into a cafe on Broadway one late-winter afternoon trying to steal a few minutes for lunch — it was 4:30, almost sundown. She had looked at her phone, and her eyes widened at a piece of news just then ricocheting around the art world, that Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for eight years, had resigned under pressure amid budget and leadership problems.

“I don’t have any idea what the circumstances are,” Ms. Phillips said, “but, look, no matter what, it’s just a very hard job.”

And she should know: At 63, Ms. Phillips has been running an art museum in New York longer than anyone except Glenn Lowry at the Museum of Modern Art (she took over in 1999, he in 1995.) She is one of only two directors in the city who has overseen the construction of a brand-new building (the New Museum’s unorthodox Bowery home, opened in 2007; Adam Weinberg, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, opened his new building in the meatpacking district two years ago.) And she is now in the midst of an $80 million capital campaign to double her museum’s size, a project notable at least so far for its sotto-voce nature, in sharp contrast to the expansion Mr. Lowry is overseeing, which has involved the widely criticized razing of the former home of the American Folk Art Museum.

“Even with the expansion, it’s not about bigger being better, which has become the reflex position,” she said. “Yes we need space. But it’s more about using the space and the money we raise to think about what the museum needs to become in the 21st century.”

She added: “The concept of soft power has become a bit of a cliché, I guess. But it’s the way I’ve always thought about what I do, and I think it’s the way this museum has made a difference.”

As her institution celebrates its 40th anniversary, Ms. Phillips has fully entered the dean stage of a museum career. Yet she remains one of the least publicly recognized members of the museum-leader tribe, owing in part to a constitutional aversion to chest-thumping that has left her standing somewhat in the shadows of her contemporaries. (She has, for example, over more than 30 years as a curator and director, never been profiled by this publication, and I could find only one extensive magazine article devoted to her.)

But her molding of the New Museum from a near-guerrilla, artist-beloved operation founded by another woman, Marcia Tucker, into what it is today — a highly regarded, still-nimble institution that has shaped its own unmistakable personality in the world’s most overcrowded city for contemporary art — has earned her the respect of those who compete with her for shows, patrons and attention.

“Because she’s so low-key and doesn’t blow her own horn, I think that in 20 years, when she’s no longer a director, people are going to look back and say she was one of the great museum directors of her generation, I really do,” Mr. Weinberg said.

During Ms. Phillips’s tenure as director, after 22 years as a well-regarded curator at the Whitney, the New Museum’s numbers have all risen the way they must for any museum to be considered successful today: an increase in annual attendance to more than 400,000, from 60,000, since the museum moved from a smaller SoHo location in 2007; a quadrupling of exhibition space, staff and budget; a larger board, with veterans; and a steady infusion of young trustees with means.

But Ms. Phillips said she considered her true accomplishments the things that could not be easily quantified. For one, an eclectic, at times unsettling, exhibition program (a heavy focus on technology, art from the Middle East, work by outsider artists and strident social activists, work by underrecognized women) that does not put thoughts of the gate first. And highly experimental programs — like an urban think tank and a tech-business incubator, the first of its kind for a museum — that seem so far afield as to be strange but that have tapped a pent-up desire for museum expertise on issues like socially progressive commerce and city planning.

“This museum has always thought of itself as another model, and I think right now especially, in these times, another model is the right thing to be,” she said one recent afternoon, visiting start-ups at the incubator, New Inc, in a warehouse building next door to the museum, where the museum will expand into new, raw exhibition space beginning in the fall. (As just one example of the incubator’s growing reach outside of the museum world, this year’s Sundance Film Festival featured four virtual-reality projects that were nurtured on the Bowery.)

Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director, told me that when Ms. Phillips first interviewed him for a job 11 years ago, “the first question she asked me was ‘What do you envision a museum is going to be in the 21st century?’” James Keith Brown, president of the museum’s board, also told me: “It’s still pretty hard for people in the straight visual arts to grasp why something like an incubator is important.”

Ms. Phillips has been a champion of women in the museum field, initiating the first study to collect salary data by gender for museum directors in the United States and Canada — finding, no surprise, that women running large museums earned about a third less than male counterparts. An update released this year found improvement but not much. As of the last publicly available figures, from 2015, Ms. Phillips earned $619,000, less than Mr. Weinberg at the Whitney ($870,000), or Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim ($843,000), though their museums and budgets are far bigger.

Her road hasn’t been without some bumps. She was accused of art-world myopia when the museum initiated a 2010 show of the prized private collection of a trustee, Dakis Joannou, curated not by museum staff but by Mr. Joannou’s most prized artist, Jeff Koons. Ms. Phillips defended it as prime New Museum territory — taking risks, showing provocative, important art the public might not see otherwise — but it didn’t help. The show was pummeled; Jerry Saltz in New York magazine wrote that “in playing to its largest audience to date, the New Museum is not only pandering, but trying to trump the competition with the undeclared game of ‘collect the collector.’” (Ms. Phillips hasn’t done anything remotely like it since.)

The museum’s unusual building, designed by the Japanese firm Sanaa before the acclaim that came with its Pritzker Prize, also hasn’t worn particularly well, with critics complaining about poor crowd circulation, a lack of seating and a tendency to deaden some kinds of art — problems she hopes the expansion will help solve.

But Ms. Phillips — a tall, elegant woman with a tendency to laugh when speaking about herself, as if doing so is a bit tactless — has weathered these trials, mostly through a determination not to overreact to criticism, a composed resolve that friends say has been a trademark since she was young. “She was always a beacon of calm for me in a very crazy world,” said the critic Hilton Als, who met her in the 1980s when the art world “was newly full of drugs and money — before rich people started spending their money on trainers.”

“She was incredibly even-keeled and never lost her sense of what was important to her,” he said, “which was artists and preserving what they made.”

Her adult life has been inextricably tied up with art. Her first husband was the Venezuelan painter and sculptor Meyer Vaisman, whose studio was above the Mudd Club, the raucous late-70s TriBeCa watering hole of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kathy Acker. (“It’s surprising sometimes when she comes out with these stories about places like that, and you’re like ‘Wow, Lisa, you were there?’” the artist Cindy Sherman said.)

With her second husband, Leon Falk, a film producer, she has twin daughters (now teenagers) with whom she became pregnant just after starting the job as New Museum director, while simultaneously curating her last large show for the Whitney. “I had been trying to get pregnant for a long time,” she said. “I thought of it all as good luck.”

Her sense of a public persona and the fickleness of public opinion came early, as the daughter of a career newspaperman, Warren H. Phillips, who rose from the copy desk of The Wall Street Journal to become chairman of Dow Jones & Company. She grew up well off in Brooklyn Heights and talks about two profoundly different formative experiences. One was a sailboat wreck off the coast of Virginia, with her family when she was 8. “It was a waterspout,” she said. “My parents didn’t have life vests on, and my sister and I did, but somehow we all got back to shore.” She added, almost dispassionately: “The lesson from that, from my family, was you get over it by getting back on a boat and continuing to sail. You don’t let fear get you.”

The other story is about a painted copy of Velázquez’s famous portrait of the Infanta Margarita Teresa in a blue dress, an image that hung in her family’s home and fascinated her as a child. “Then in college, in Vienna, I saw it in the Kunsthistorisches Museum,” she said, “and I was stunned that this picture I knew so well was in a place like that, immortalized. It was really powerful.”

Her first experience in contemporary art was less felicitous, but no less powerful. As an intern at the Whitney, she was charged with sitting on the gallery floor inside a 1975 exhibition of the work of Richard Tuttle, art so minimal and humble it infuriated many viewers and was a factor in the firing of the curator, Ms. Tucker, who promptly went out and started the New Museum in two small temporary rooms in TriBeCa.

“People would come into the galleries, and they’d be not just confused but mad,” Ms. Phillips recalled, “and me, this young woman, my job was to try to explain to them why this was art and why it mattered.”

“I don’t know if I was good at explaining it,” she added, “but doing it made me into a convert, a true believer.”

She added, smiling: “It also made me realize that when people have hostile reactions to things, it’s a good sign they might be important.” (Jennifer Russell, a New York museum veteran who worked at the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and the Met, said: “Even when the material might be abrasive, Lisa never is. She always gets away with it somehow.”)

As she approaches what is sometimes retirement age for museum directors, Ms. Phillips only occasionally, half-jokingly, mentions thoughts of winding down, of retiring to Long Island to become a gentlewoman farmer. I asked her if she had ever considered going to a larger museum — the Met job is, after all, open and its previous occupant, Philippe de Montebello served until he was 72.

“There are still so few women running those kinds of major museums, and more women should be in those positions, and one day I’m sure they will be,” she said. “But I think women are also sometimes a little wiser than men in understanding what they need and want, in defining their own version of success. And just because the world says that’s the goal might not mean it’s so, at least not for everybody.”