Friday, November 9, 2001
Ned Rifkin, director of the Menil Collection and Foundation in Houston, has been selected to be the third director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. He will begin work on February 1, 2002. Rifkin succeeds James Demetrion, who retired in early October after nearly 17 years at the post. Tom Lentz, director of the Smithsonian’s International Art Museums Division, will continue to serve as the Hirshhorn’s acting director until Rifkin arrives.
The director-designate’s extensive experience includes serving as director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (1991 to 1999) and as chief curator of the Hirshhorn (1986 to 1991).
“Ned is the clear choice to guide the Hirshhorn into the 21st century,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small. “A leader with a proven record for effective management, success in fundraising and in forging new and wider audiences, most importantly Ned has a passion for contemporary art. He’s an inspiration to everyone, from beginner to specialist, and he will ensure a dynamic future for the Smithsonian’s museum of modern and contemporary art.”
“To re-join the Smithsonian at this time is both a deep honor and an exciting challenge for me,” Rifkin said. “The Hirshhorn, already renowned as a collecting and exhibiting institution, is poised for an even stronger role in the public arena. I am pleased that the Smithsonian has confidence in my ability to lead the museum in new directions.”
The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden opened in 1974 with a collection of more than 6,000 works donated to the nation by philanthropist Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981). His bequest of 1981 nearly doubled the collection. An acquisitions program of purchases and gifts from other donors became particularly active after Demetrion took over in 1984, replacing Abram Lerner, the founding director. Currently, the Hirshhorn presents three major exhibitions a year and three smaller “Directions” shows, frequent thematic presentations from the permanent collection, and a variety of diverse public programs. The museum reported more than 900,000 visitors in 2000.
Rifkin, 52, was born in Alabama and raised near New York City. He received his bachelor’s degree in fine arts, with a minor in philosophy, from Syracuse University in 1972 and a doctorate in art history from the University of Michigan in 1977, specializing on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. After three years teaching art history at the University of Texas at Arlington, Rifkin switched to museums to focus on emerging art and artists, first as curator and then assistant director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (1980-1984). He served as curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington from 1984 until 1986. There he launched a new-art series called “Spectrum” and organized the 40th Corcoran Biennial Exhibition of American Painting.
As the Hirshhorn’s chief curator from 1986 until 1991, Rifkin was instrumental in developing the collection under Demetrion and supervised the Hirshhorn’s diverse exhibition program. He helped strengthen the museum’s commitment to contemporary art by re-casting “Directions” biennials to focused one-gallery solo shows and introducing a site-specific series called “WORKS,” in which artists were invited to intervene in the Hirshhorn’s distinctive architecture. At the Hirshhorn, Rifkin also curated a major touring retrospective of Robert Moskowitz’ paintings in 1989-1990.
The next year, Rifkin moved to Atlanta to head the High Museum of Art, one of the most important art institutions serving the southeastern United States. Serving as the High’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Green Jr. director until 1999, Rifkin significantly raised the museum’s profile. He initiated significant increases in membership and attendance, an architectural expansion that doubled public space, a reinvigorated acquisitions program, a fiscal turn-around and endowment growth, and an expansion of educational programs to focus on community outreach. While at the High, Rifkin oversaw such nationally visible projects as “Five Rings: Passions in World Art,” a broad-reaching thematic exhibition for the 1996 Olympics, and “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People,” a traveling exhibition that broke attendance records at every venue, co-organized and launched by the High Museum in 1999. Arriving at the Menil Collection in February 2000, Rifkin initiated plans to build a dynamic public profile for the museum, which holds a prestigious place among Houston’s several art museums. Housing a privately assembled collection that is among the 20th century’s most important, the Menil is prized internationally for its mix of major examples of modernism with antique, Byzantine, medieval and tribal art, and for its distinctive architecture.