July 1, 2010  |  Library and Archives
“ART WORK”: Famous Former Staff

Left to right: Robert Motherwell, Frank O'Hara, René d'Harnoncourt, Nelson Rockefeller at the opening of the exhibition Robert Motherwell, curated by O’Hara. September 18, 1965. Photograph by Allyn Baum. Photographic Archive, The Museum of Modern Art Archives

A number of notable individuals began their relationship with MoMA not as noteworthy artists and established personalities, but as conventional Museum employees. To name a few: actress Kathy Bates was a cashier in the MoMA Stores; artist Allan McCollum was hired as a preparator for the Museum’s 1980 Picasso retrospective; writer and poet Frank O’Hara curated exhibitions, mainly for circulation, at the Museum in the 1950s and 1960s; photographer Edward Steichen served as the director of the Museum’s Department of Photography from 1947 to 1961; and filmmaker Luis Buñuel worked under contract with the Museum on its Latin American Project in the early 1940s.

But it was mainly in the 1950s and 1960s that a significant number of now-established artists served the Museum in various administrative and operational capacities—working as security guards, manning desks in the Museum lobby, assisting with exhibition preparation, and teaching classes at the Museum’s People’s Art Center. The Museum Archives has conducted oral histories with several of these individuals to gain a sense of what it was like as a burgeoning artist to be employed at the Museum. (Some of these interviews are currently open to researchers by appointment in the Museum Archives; others are not yet available.)

Sol Lewitt. Distorted Cubes (B) from Distorted Cubes (A-E). 2001

In 1960, artist Sol LeWitt got a job at the Museum’s book counter through his cousin, who was working in the publicity department. After about a year or so, he began working evenings at the desk at the 21 West Fifty-third Street entrance. It was at MoMA that he met Dan Flavin, Bob Ryman, Lucy Lippard, Scott Burton, John Button, and Michael Venezia—all of whom were employed by the Museum as well. Among other incidents, LeWitt remembers the Museum de-installing important works to be sent to offsite storage during the Cuban missile crisis. In his oral history, he recalls Alfred Barr (the Museum’s first director, and then head of Museum Collections) walking past LeWitt’s station, when the artist said, “Excuse me, Mr. Barr, where these paintings are going, that’s where I want to go, too.” LeWitt also recounts a time when Barr replaced Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s sculpture The Horse, which had been on view near the entrance, with a work by Raoul Hague. LeWitt complained about the switch, since he spent a good deal of time looking at the sculpture while at the desk. So Barr took away the Hague and instead installed American Miner’s Family by Minna Harkavy. LeWitt said, laughing, “Mr. Barr, bring back the Raoul Hague!” LeWitt later taught a class in drawing at the Museum’s People’s Art Center, for about a year.

Robert Mangold. Pages #1 from the portfolio Pages. 1989

Robert Mangold was hired in 1962, as a replacement for guards going on summer vacation. He remembers, from the break room, that “practically everyone there was involved in the arts in some way.” In the Fall of that year, he became a page in the Museum’s Library, a position previously held by Lucy Lippard, now a well-established writer and art historian. Lippard quit to become a freelance researcher and writer, though she still “lived at the Library for another few years.” While a page, she indexed magazines and filed material on artists into vertical files. She recollects, “I looked at every single thing that went under my nose and I got an incredible education.” She also recalls what a supportive place the Museum was to these struggling young artists: “But when [Bob Ryman] came to the Museum, and this is a nice story…he came to town as a jazz musician, and he was studying with Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, and he had to have a job. He lived in a room way uptown some place and couldn’t practice his tenor sax. So, they let him, at the Museum, practice in the auditorium.”

Jeff Koons. Pink Panther. 1988

Jeff Koons began working at the Museum the following decade, in 1977. He was first at the ticket booth, and then at the membership desk. He reflects on the sense of connectedness he felt working at MoMA, where he met a more-established LeWitt and others. Apparently, Koons had a habit of wearing somewhat outlandish accessories–such as inflatable flowers and paper vests–while at the membership desk. He remembers with amusement being asked nicely by Richard Oldenburg, then director of the Museum, to leave the desk for a few hours one day when an important Russian diplomat was visiting with curator Bill Rubin, presumably on account of his attire.

In their oral histories, several of these individuals talk about what working at the Museum meant to their development as artists. Mangold states, “Well, being around the works that were here helps delineate what interests you and what doesn’t interest you. When you’re around them all the time, it’s like living with one of the great collections of painting or sculpture. And you sharpen your sense of what interests you and what you want to do and what doesn’t interest you. So, that’s important.”

The Museum continues to employ a number of artists at various stages in their careers, but certainly the 1950s and 1960s were a particularly rich moment at the institution for young artists looking to find their place in the art world. When thinking about his success, LeWitt posits, “If I hadn’t been working here and if I hadn’t known Flavin and Ryman and Lippard and some other people, it may not have clicked. You never know; it may have or it may not. But it did. So that was crucial. The policy that they had of employing artists as guards and as people doing lesser jobs was, I think, a very good policy.”

Note: There are surely many other now-famous personalities who have anecdotes to tell about their years at the Museum. The Archives has confirmed that the following individuals were also employed in various positions at MoMA: artists Ronald Bladen, Al Held, Robert Indiana, Howardena Pindell, and Robert Storr; fashion designer Joan Vass; art historian and critic Roberta Smith; architecture critic and writer Ada Louise Huxtable; Judge Miriam Cedarbaum; and (as freelancers) photographers Ansel Adams, Rudy Burckhardt, Eliot Elisofon, George Platt Lynes, and Brett Weston. In the course of our day-to-day work in the Museum Archives, we are constantly making new discoveries, so we do not consider this list final and complete. If you know of anyone who should be added, please do share!