Thursday, February 1, 2007

Art Set Interview: Joanne Cassullo

Joanne Cassullo and Charlie Scheips at the Whitney (with a Jackson Pollock behind).


by Charlie Scheips

Joanne Cassullo
has both brains and beauty. She is also a very active in charitable and philanthropic activities in New York — particularly the Whitney Museum of American Art and Creative Time on whose boards she serves. We met in the early 1990s through our mutual friend Beth Rudin DeWoody.

There are some patrons of the arts who just write checks; and others who seem to enjoy the endless series of meetings that board membership sometimes requires. But then there are those notable exceptions such as Joanne who pretty much give themselves to their favorite cause — literally devoting the majority their time, money and energy to every aspect of an institution. That is what Cassullo has done with the Whitney Museum of American Art.

She came to New York through one of the Museum's programs and within a couple of years was sitting on the museum’s board having endowed the program which brought her here
the Independent Study program and other programs with a more than $1 million personal contribution.

As this interview reveals, Cassullo seems to have her hand in almost every aspect of the museum. Among her biggest passions are the Independent Study Program and the Whitney Contemporaries. The Whitney is back in the news with the announcement that they are considering abandoning their already designed Renzo Piano expansion and are considering taking over the massive space in Chelsea that was until recently going to be the Manhattan space for the DIA art foundation.

I caught up with Joanne recently at the Museum's granite boardroom atop the Whitney's flagship Marcel Breuer building. I think you'll agree
she married the Museum.
Joanne at the 2005 annual Whitney Gala
Charlie Scheips:

How did you get involved in the Whitney Museum?    

Joanne Cassullo

In 1983, I was finishing up graduate school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and came across a flyer about a post-graduate program at the Whitney called the Independent Study Program.  It was a fellowship program supported by the Helena Rubenstein Foundation. Bearthe Kolin, who was a trustee, was married to the nephew of Helena Rubenstein and had created this education program. So I applied for that.

It ran from September of 1983 until May of 1984 — although they asked four of (the oreiginal nine) us to stay on and do a summer show that year.

There were seminars twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Ron Clark, who has been running it since its inception in 1968 was the instructor. It’s really amazing.

We studied critical theory text — from Marxism to feminism to post-Modernism, Derrida, etc. A second seminar was always led by an artist or an art critic or art administrator who would talk about their practice to the group. My year we had people from David Salle to Roberta Smith to Hans Haake and Vito Acconci.

It was terrific. Among my group were Bill Sofield, now the critically-acclaimed interior designer; Mary Trasker, a writer and author; Scott Gutterman who is now deputy director of the Neue Gallerie; Jeffrey Batchen a photography professor at Hunter; and Ingrid Schaffner, an independent curator. CS: Are you originally from New York?

JC: I was raised in Oyster Bay and went to Friend’s Academy in Locust Valley. In 1970, when I was fourteen, my family moved to Fort Worth. But I was always curious about New York. We also had a family foundation – the Leonhardt Foundation based in New York.

CS: What did you after the Independent Study program?

JC: I curated two shows — one called Visions of Childhood: A Contemporary Iconography which explored emerging artists as well more established artists in their use of childhood images. The second show was called The Feminine Gaze—women depicting other women from 1900 to 1930. I was in charge of the photography — we also had painting, sculpture and illustration.

It was huge learning experience. It also opened up my eyes to what the Whitney really means in the art world. We could go into any gallery -- in those days they were mainly in Soho or on 57th Street -- and borrow slides of potential artwork to be included. We had to do the loan forms and actually had to guard the exhibition once it was up.

Joanne with Fred Schneider and Leelee Sobieski, Whitney Gala 2006.
Our space was in Federal Hall on Wall Street where they have the statue of George Washington. We had the second story -- four rooms connected by walkways around the rotunda It was confining but also a wonderful laboratory. You could change the temperature of the room by changing the artwork.

CS: So, you decided to stay in New York after these experiences?

JC: I got a job at the Washburn Gallery, working for Joan Washburn for three years. About a year after I left the program, in 1985, the Whitney asked me to become a trustee. This is my 22nd year.

CS: You obviously kept up your association with the Whitney while at the Washburn gallery?

JC: I was then part of the Lobby Group — a junior members group, Then I approached Richard Armstrong, who was then director of the Independent Study program. Both he, and Tom Armstrong, the Whitney’s director, asked me “why would you want a permanent space for a program that is not endowed?” That’s when I started working with my foundation on raising an endowment for the Independent Study program.

CS: Is that your main focus at the museum?

JC: I also work on two membership committees and sit on all the acquisition committee except video. I am on the executive committee and Vice-chair of the education committee.

CS: The Whitney always seems to get into trouble with the press.

JC: We have had a series of directors. Tom Armstrong left in the early 1990s; then we had David Ross; then Maxwell Anderson. Now we have Adam Weinberg. Adam has a passion for contemporary art and is well respected in the field. He is the perfect director for this museum.

The board is very close. Some think we are indecisive about our future. We’re not. We know exactly what we are doing at the board level.
Clockwise from top left: JC with Carlton DeWoody at Whitney Contemporaries' "Art Party 2006"; JC with Meredith Burke and Tara Hannert at the Whitney's 3rd Annual ART PARTY; JC and Bill Soffield at the 2006 Whitney Gala; JC with Adam Weinberg; JC solo.
CS: What is the current status of the Whitney’s interest in the space in Chelsea that DIA abandoned recently?

JC: There is a letter of intent that has been signed by the city and the Whitney. But nothing has happened yet—we are still meeting with neighborhood groups, etc.

CS: I perceive a major turn in the direction and image of the Whitney.

JC: Adam Weinberg is a director who is very immersed in contemporary art. But there are many different personalities here. Its not run by one person. We have wonderful curators. Donna De Salvo—who runs the painting and sculpture acquisition committee as well as the permanent collection. Chrissie Iles is amazing. The biennials she has done have been fascinating. Carter Foster a new drawing curator. David Kiehl our prints curator. I feel lucky to be involved.

CS: What else is new at the Whitney?

JC: There is a new performing arts committee that is starting that Beth (DeWoody) is chairing. Membership activities are getting stronger. I am the trustee liaison for the Whitney Contemporaries. Their spring Art Party, was underwritten by Calvin Klein. The money raised that evening goes to support the independent study program. What I love is that it all fits in with the original mission of the museum. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had parties to support the artists who were her friends—long before 1930 (when the museum was founded). The Contemporaries are a reincarnation of Gertrude Whitney.

CS: Some may even become curators or board members like you.

JC: Yes. There is Lisa Phillips, now the director of the New Museum. She went through the ISP and was a curator here for 20 years. Richard Armstrong is the director of the Carnegie. Richard Marshall is an independent curator. Roberta Smith from the Times and Tim Griffin from Artforum went through the ISP.

CS: There is an upcoming Gordon Matta-Clark show?

JC: Elisabeth Sussman is curating that. It opens in February.
Renée Cox
Queen Nanny of the Maroons, (2005)
From the series The Maroons
Digital ink jet print on watercolor paper,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York;
Gift of Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo and the Dorothea L. Leonhardt
Foundation in loving memory of Collin Harris
CS: There are still Whitney family members active in the museum?

JC: Flora Biddle, Gertrude’s granddaughter, was one of the reasons I loved joining the board. She understands what the museum can mean to the world. Her daughter Fiona Donavan heads up the library committee with Michele Gerber Klein. What is also amazing is that they both look like Gertrude. Takes your breath away.

CS: Are you involved in other charitable causes?

JC: I am on the board of Creative Time. We have a jointly organized with the Museum of Modern Art that Doug Aitken that opened a couple of weeks ago. Creative Time is about putting art in public places where you least expect it. It sponsored the Tribute of Lights with the Municipal Art Society after 9/11. We did the Rudolph Stingel carpet in Grand Central. We have a project in Las Vegas and we are thinking of expanding elsewhere.

CS: Do you think the Whitney remains focused on American Art?

JC: When I joined the board in 1983 you had to be an American citizen to be at the Whitney. However, he definition of “America” has broadened. It now means that if an artist has been producing art in America that would qualify them for being included. When Gertrude Whitney founded the museum in 1930 American art was a second-class citizen so to speak.

CS: Do you go to art fairs?

JC:  I was at Miami/Basel. I thought it was exhausting. I did NADA, Flow, Bridge, Aqua and the original fair.I went every day. It’s like being in a candy store for a week. I was there on the opening day and it was like the opening of the bridal sale at Kleinfelds. People were pushing to get in. I almost got run-over by someone.

CS: Isn’t there a National committee for the Whitney as well?

JC: Yes, I am the trustee liaison for that group. We just came back from California where we spent four days. We saw Doug Aitken, Mark Bradford (who won the Bucksbaum award in the last biennial), Tim Hawkinson, Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, Jorge Pardo. We had a wonderful dinner at Eugenio Lopez’.
Clockwise from top left: Joanne and Ron Clark, director of the Independent Study Program; JC and Bill Sofield; JC with Creative Time Board Member's Tom Healy and Anne Pasternak at Joanne's 50th B-day party during Miami Basel in 2005.
CS: Have there been any major gifts of artwork to the museum recently?

JC: The most major gift during Max Anderson’s tenure was called the American Legacy headed up by Leonard Lauder. He, and other trustees bought several major works to fill in gaps in the permanent collection. It was done rather quietly but incredible things came into the collection thanks to that. The largest collection of Ed Ruscha photographs was part of that gift. Leonard is incredibly generous, He could have given them in his own name but instead he got together a group. He is a role model for all of us.

CS: Do you have any non-artistic activities?

JC:  I am very involved with Help USA. It was started by Andrew Cuomo in 1986 to provide transitional housing for the homeless. It has blossomed. We are now in Las Vegas, Philadelphia. There are occupational programs, a culinary arts program. Domestic violence counseling is offered. And we provide scholarships as well. It is chaired by Andrew’s sister Maria Cuomo Cole.

CS: It seems like your charitable activities actually define your life in New York.

JC: You can have a very full life just by participating with the non-profits here in the city. It’s not just writing a check. It’s about meeting goals, sitting on committees figuring out how to get more sponsorship. There are many ways to participate. However, I love walking through these doors. Everyone has a private life, but you have to give up something. For me it’s a pleasure — not a sacrifice. The Whitney is a retreat. It’s a place to get away from the chaos.
The Art Set, ©Charlie Scheips, 2007