Will the New Clyfford Still Museum Be Forced to Broaden Its Mandate?

12/06/2011 05:11 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

It was several years after the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh opened in 1994 that the museum's trustees and administrators knew the institution needed to make a big change. "When it opened, it was conceived of as an Andy Warhol museum, exclusively showing the work of Warhol, arranged largely in chronological fashion," said Eric Shiner, the museum's current director. "Pretty early on," he noted, "people realized that they didn't want this museum to be a mausoleum but, rather, a vibrant place that is connected to what else is going on in contemporary art. You don't want visitors to say, 'Now, I can check that off the list. I don't need to go back.'" Repeat visitors, who are the people most likely to become members and donors, are the financial backbone of any museum, requiring institutions to find ways to bring visitors back. That job is more difficult if the work of only one artist is going to be exhibited. As a result, the Andy Warhol Museum, which continues to a permanent display of the artist's work, still laid out chronologically and thematically, reinvented itself by the late 1990s into an institution that "tells the story of Warhol but also keeps his legacy" by exhibiting artwork by the artist's contemporaries and those who were influenced by his work, "looking at contemporary art through the lens of Andy Warhol."

That hard-won experience presents the largest challenge for the Clyfford Still Museum, a single-artist institution that opened in Denver, Colorado on November 18th. Still (1904-80) was a prickly personality, turning down museum offers to exhibit his paintings during his lifetime and (through his will and the demands of his now-deceased widow, Patricia) requiring that any museum devoted solely to his work show only his artwork, never loaning or selling any of roughly 2,400 pieces, 825 paintings and 1,575 works on paper) in its collection and not even having a restaurant or auditorium. All those strictures on how the world must appreciate his work was the reason it took so many years to find a municipality "sufficiently meek to go along with" Still's terms, according to art historian Dore Ashton. All-Clyfford-Still-all-the-time may sound quite interesting at first, particularly for those interested in abstract expressionism. However, "I don't think anyone here ever heard of him before all this came up" in 2004, said Donald K. Bain, a Denver attorney and former chairman of the Colorado Council on the Arts. Those in charge of the museum "will need to do a very creative marketing job to get people to see him and then go a second time."

That's the thing. The Andy Warhol Museum (115,000 visitors per year, 35 percent of which are repeat visitors) saw the need to broaden its mission in order to ensure its longevity, and some (not all) other single-artist museums have done the same. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico (170,000 visitors), for instance, evolved into a center of American Modernism (with a large dose of O'Keeffe), while the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (125,000 visitors annually, between one-third and one-half are repeaters) grew with its new building in 1993 into a center for illustration art, and the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York (25,000 yearly visitors) now "contextualizes" Noguchi's work, displaying it amidst the art of "those in his peer group," according to its director, Jenny Dixon.
The issue of repeat visitation has come up, well, repeatedly, according to Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum, as has the need to work around the restrictions set down by the artist and his widow. "There are some guidelines in the donation agreement that are not entirely enforceable," he said. "Retail is not expressly forbidden, and we will have a small area in which visitors may purchase books and other things. We are not prohibited from discussing other artists here, such as Pollock or de Kooning. There will be no cafeteria or auditorium, but that actually is doing us a favor, because there are lots of restaurants in the area, and the Denver Art Museum itself has two cafeterias."

The Denver Art Museum is a key element to the present and future viability of the Still Museum, which received lots of art but no money for an endowment or general operating support. Both museums share the same stretch of ground ("I can almost put my hand out the window and touch the Denver Art Museum," Sobel said), and they will have joint ticketing, allowing visitors from one institution to go into the other, as well as shared security and some administrative services. Many of the future exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum will have tie-ins to the Still Museum collection, such as a yet-to-be-publicly-announced exhibition on the New York School of Abstract Expressionists.

Restrictions on exhibiting other artists' work at the Clyfford Still Museum, which only has a $2.5 million operating budget, also will save the new institution money. "Changing exhibitions can be very expensive in terms of staff, insurance and shipping. All our programming will be in-house."

Most single-artist museums take a different path. The C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana (30,000 visitors), for instance, which was founded in 1953, overcame its initial single-artist focus in 2003 and started featuring the work of Russell's contemporaries and even more current western arts and crafts. The museum's current exhibition, through the end of the year, is "Andy Warhol: Legends from the Cochran Collection," which includes Warhol's "Cowboys and Indians" series.

That "big tent" lesson has been ignored by other single-artist museums at their peril. Take the Burchfield Homestead (1,500 "or so" annual visitors), which opened in 1999 and is the house that landscape painter Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) lived in from when he was five until he was 28. He did a number of important paintings there, "and the land hasn't changed much, so you can see what he saw and painted just by looking out the window," said director Richard Wootten. You won't see the paintings, however, since the money that the founders of the Homestead could raise only was enough to buy the house back, but "we have photographs of the Burchfield family and high-quality reproductions of the actual paintings." A better place to see a grouping of actual Charles Burchfield paintings is at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on the campus of Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York (70,000 visitors), which "started in 1966 being just Burchfield but expanded to celebrating all the art and artists of western New York State," said Kathleen Heyworth, the director of marketing.

The lesson has been absorbed even by a single-artist museum that is only on the drawing board, the William Eggleston Museum, or whatever it will be called when it finally has a location - a small group of Eggleston Museum supporters have had discussions with the Mayor's office in Memphis about obtaining permission to build in Overton Park, which also is the home of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art - and when it raises the $15 million that supporters hope will be sufficient to build and endow the place. The museum will highlight the work of Eggleston (b. 1939), who was one of the pioneers of fine art color photography. Mark Crosby, a Memphis-born and raised lawyer who works primarily in New York City and who has been spear-heading this museum project, stated that "when you think of Memphis, you think of William Eggleston, well, after you think of Elvis Presley and Graceland, I guess. At least in the art world, you think of William Eggleston." Both Crosby and Winston Eggleston, director of the Eggleston Artistic Trust, which houses the artist's archives of prints and negatives, saw the need to exhibit more than just William Eggleston's work, expanding its focus to "artists that dad was influenced by and artists dad likes, from Ed Ruscha to Kandinsky." Kandinsky? "That's one of dad's all-time favorites."

The idea (hope?) of keeping an artist's entire body of work together under one roof only makes sense if there is sufficient interest in that artist and if the estate is able to provide an endowment that covers most or all of the operating costs. The alternative is spreading through donations the collection to museums around the country, which offers more access to the public. For instance: "Our basic premise is to donate works," said Debra Burchett-Lere, director of the Glendale, California-based Sam Francis Foundation, "to public institutions, primarily with museums and university galleries throughout the United States." Sometimes, a deal can be made. The Menil Collection, a museum in Houston, operates the Cy Twombly Gallery, exhibiting a permanent installation of the artist's paintings, sculpture and works on paper in an annex building. On the other hand, talks with a number of Manhattan museum directors in the late 1970s and early 1980s about taking possession of his artwork proved frustrating for Isamu Noguchi, because of their unwillingness to commit to showing or even keeping the work; some things they wanted and other things they didn't want. Noguchi "felt terribly misunderstood in his lifetime and didn't want his work relegated to a museum basement," Dixon said.

"A mausoleum is not sustainable, because the program must be varied and vital enough to keep people interested," said Michael Conforti, director of the single-collector Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts and former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. "The Clyfford Still Museum will go in some direction, beyond the artist's assumptions. What about The Center for the Study of Postwar Abstraction in Denver?"