To Whit

When the Whitney Museum announced last week that Maxwell Anderson would be its new director, New York’s art cognoscenti tried to decode the new data. It wasn’t easy. “Am I the only one who said, Who?” wondered A. M. Homes, the art critic and novelist.

She wasn’t. “I’ve never heard of him,” said Klaus Kertess, the curator of the museum’s 1995 Biennial. Neither had Nan Goldin, who had a retrospective at the Whitney two years ago. Karen Finley, still fragile from the museum’s cancellation of a show featuring her work, could only say, “I don’t want to go there.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” said gallery owner Paula Cooper when asked about Anderson. “Did he die or what?”

It seems that the 42-year-old New York native, who has spent the last three years as director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, isn’t yet a household name around town. And that might not be an accident.

“He has no enemies that I know of, and he has no friends,” said Holly Solomon, the SoHo gallery owner. “In other words, he’s got the freedom and the power to make his mark without any rancor or prejudgment.”

Such freedom is of special concern at an institution like the Whitney, which was the object of a great deal of rancor under the tenure of Anderson’s predecessor, David Ross. Some critics rejected its curatorial agenda – which emphasized identity politics and newer media. “The museum under Ross has been a disaster area,” said Robert Hughes. “I’ve been very discouraged by its nitwitted opportunistic trendiness.”

Though controversial shows like the Biennial and 1994’s “Black Male” generated headlines for the museum, the board’s dissatisfaction with Ross was a subject of almost constant art-world gossip. “He made a lot of promises about acquisitions, shows, programs,” said one former trustee, “and he didn’t keep any of them.”

Anderson’s background only fueled chatter that he was brought in to change the museum’s direction. “What does ‘scholarly’ mean?” asked Kertess, referring to Anderson’s widely cited qualification. “Does it mean ‘safer’? Is it a euphemism?”

“Anderson’s as different from Ross as could be,” gallery owner Barbara Gladstone agreed. “Anderson’s solidity must be what the trustees decided would suit the museum.”

Joel Ehrenkranz, the president of the museum’s board, said there’s nothing to all the speculation: “We’ll be just as active in contemporary art, but we hope to contextualize it better.” Furthermore, he insisted, “Anderson knows the contemporary art scene. He brought the Keith Haring show to Toronto.”

To the gossips of SoHo, Chelsea, and East 57th Street, the Keith Haring show hardly ranks as cutting-edge, but Anderson is credited with running the Ontario museum well, and with showing a keen understanding of information technology. And to some of the Whitney’s observers, management skills are the ones most in need. “It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a huge reputation in contemporary art,” said Jack Bankowsky, editor of Artforum. “The important thing is somebody who can step back from the operation and look at it objectively.”

Many have noted that both Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, and Anderson came to major New York institutions from the Art Gallery of Ontario. But they have something else in common: They were friends during their graduate studies at Harvard, where another colleague in the Art History department was Nancy Nichols of Heidrick & Struggles, the executive-search firm that brought both curators to their New York posts. “It’s an elaborate plot,” Anderson admitted. Regarding all the gossip that he’s already inspired, he said, “There will be a healthy skepticism. The museum is about American art, and as this was a country born out of an identity crisis, which it still suffers from, it’s fitting to have a museum that reflects that crisis.”

To Whit