What Ned Rifkin lacks in pretense, he makes up for with abundant modesty and humor. The new director of the Blanton Museum of Art is a philosopher, professor, ingenious wordsmith and Austin’s neo-it-guy. As the former undersecretary for art at the Smithsonian Institution, Rifkin previously served as director of the Hirshhorn, the Menil Collection and the High Museum in addition to curating the Hirshhorn, Corcoran and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Joan Houck Reed explores the DNA of the Renaissance man behind the lofty resume.
What is your vision for the Blanton?
A vision is something one develops over a period of time when you are fully familiar with what might be possible. I can tell you that in the realm of visions, I believe our job is to enable people to see more actively. My vision is that the museum serves all of its visitors so that when they leave the museum they will see the world differently. The experience of coming into an art museum is to examine human creativity in the form of art, then to understand and commune with it through your own personal human creativity.
What is it about the Blanton that enticed you?
I started my career as a professor. My ambition was to become a scholar, teacher and mentor; to have an effect upon people who were in the modality of being open, probative and curious, and to advance that instinct which is natural to human beings. The nature of being open to learning is the very spirit that informs this museum in a community where creativity is celebrated, honored and held in very high esteem.
As director, how will you influence the Blanton’s traveling exhibits? Do you consider yourself “hands on” or more reliant on the museum’s curators?
I do perceive that curators have been and should be primary content providers. Coming out of curatorial ranks means that I have a residual desire to present art. I have been both a curator and a director and know the difference between them; it is my goal to enable the curators to succeed.
When did you first meet Jack Blanton?
When I lived and worked in Houston at the Menil, following Dominique de Ménil’s death. I was delighted that this position at the Blanton would present an opportunity to know Jack that much better. He was certainly an important part of my attraction to the job. I think it means so much to him that this museum was named in his honor. I just kept saying to him, “I won’t let you down.”
You often refer to spirituality and the humanity of art. Peter Marzio (Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston) said about your time at the Menil, “…he reveled in Mrs. de Ménil’s thoughtful, reverential approach to art, particularly art that evoked spiritual values.”
Art is aspirational, just like the human spirit. I think the endeavor of making art has an echo of the notion of creativity and a creator. The artist as a human being is a creative person and creator of his or her body of work, so in effect, we have the parallel. Ultimately it’s very intimate, to let something enter your eyes is to take it in, literally. What I think the artist does is reflect to us so many of the most aspiring dimensions of human nature.
Can a director “parlay” relationships from other museums/cities into a relationship with another –or is that bad form?
Museum directors must call upon relationships they’ve developed over the years, and if you’ve done a good job with the previous organization and its patrons then there’s a feeling of goodwill. We can and have gone to people in Houston and other cities around Texas, asking them to help us when they’re clearly supportive. People are devoted to different things, including a university where they went to college or if they live in Austin, the museum which can be a great amenity and enrichment to their lives.
What was your most profound spiritual moment?
As a young child, I remember having my picture taken by a photographer at Fire Island and thinking that I’d be looking at the photograph that was being taken for many years. Something like a photograph goes back before I was born and the thought that I was having was somehow created way before I was born. This is the spirit that you embody in your time, what we call life. I realized that it’s not just the body and the image, it was something far greater. My goal is to serve the University of Texas, the students, the community of Austin in this way because it’s the beauty of life translated into art. These are simple truths but they are far-reaching and it informs everything I do.
How do you spend free time?
I’m a big sports fan and I love great film. I’ve attended all the Texas Longhorn home games. I also read a lot and just started rowing on the lake. I meditate and I have a very rich inner life. I love music and play quite a bit of guitar and I like smaller venues and the intimacy of listening to someone play. I write. I do a little bit of art; it’s not a professional thing and it’s not therapy - it’s a way of just letting your creative self be and encouraging it to exist.
Photo by Rick Hall
STORY: Joan Houck Reed