Art Set INTERVIEW
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.
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
How did you get involved in the Whitney Museum?
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?
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.
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.
Joanne with Fred Schneider and Leelee Sobieski, Whitney Gala 2006.
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.