John Hightower, Besieged Art Museum Director, Dies at 80
Jan Van Raay
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: July 13, 2013
John Hightower took charge of the New York State Council on the Arts in 1964 and transformed a wisp of a government agency into a cultural force in theater, music and dance. It was the first of its kind, and a model for government support of the arts throughout the country.
In the late 1970s, he revived a moribund development project at the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, converting a shabby remnant of New York’s waterfront into one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.
But Mr. Hightower, who died on July 6 in Newport News, Va., at 80, was probably best known for a less triumphant episode in his career. Named as the director of the Museum of Modern Art in May 1970, he was fired after 19 months of turbulence that made him a battle-weary symbol of fame’s fleeting; or, in his case, the fleeting of wunderkind success. He was then 37.
After his dismissal, partisans for and against him agreed that, whatever else had bedeviled Mr. Hightower, one of his biggest problems as director of the museum had been the confrontational spirit of the period in which he served.
On the evening in May 1970 when he was being welcomed to his new job with a reception in the museum’s sculpture garden, a group of activist artists — stirred to action by the start of American bombing in Cambodia and the death of four demonstrators at Kent State a few days before — crashed his party, heckled the guests and splashed about in the reflecting pool, demanding an end to the war in Southeast Asia.
Soon after, demonstrators protesting the exclusion of new artists from exhibitions began blocking the museum’s entrance, demanding the divestiture of all artwork more than 30 years old from its collection.
With Mr. Hightower on the job only a few months, an aide to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller called to complain about a piece on exhibit, a ballot box with an inscription saying: “Does Nelson Rockefeller’s refusing to denounce the war in Vietnam affect your willingness to vote for him in the coming election?” Governor Rockefeller had been Mr. Hightower’s boss at the arts council and his main advocate for the museum job, but the exhibit stayed.
The museum staff unionized, mainly in anticipation of layoffs planned to offset the museum’s deficit. When layoffs occurred, the staff went on the strike — the museum’s first — picketing side by side with dissident artists’ groups.
In a 1996 interview for the museum’s oral history archive, Mr. Hightower recalled that time with a self-deprecating humor that made the words “boyish charm” part of almost every article written about him back then. “So with all of my 30-something hubris, lack of experience and naïveté, I walked into the director’s office,” he said. With a laugh, he added, “It was really a nightmare.”
John Brantley Hightower was born on May 23, 1933, in Atlanta, the son of Edward and Margaret Hightower, and grew up on Long Island. He graduated from Yale in 1955 with a degree in English. (He never studied art.) After serving in the Marines for two years, he worked a series of jobs in banking and business before being hired in 1963 as an assistant to the director of the fledging state arts council. He was named to lead the agency the following year.
He is survived by his wife, Marty; a son, Matthew; a daughter, Amanda Redling; and four grandchildren.
While he was executive director of the state council on the arts from 1964 to 1970 — with a budget of $500,000 in his first year and $22 million in his last — Mr. Hightower championed a grass-roots approach to the arts.
Besides supporting emerging institutions like the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the Lake George Opera, the council gave money to a host of community theater companies, art outreach projects for poor neighborhoods and troupes touring rural areas. Those approaches became templates for state councils nationwide.
Mr. Hightower brought his populist philosophy to the Modern. At public meetings with the dissident artists, he said he agreed that the museum board should include artists “as well as rich people.” Selling off the bulk of the museum’s collection would be unwise, he said, but its many warehoused treasures should “definitely be dispersed” — lent out to other museums — so that newer artists could be shown.
Mr. Hightower realized too late that his comments were upsetting his trustees, he said in the 1996 interview. He was summoned by Governor Rockefeller shortly before being fired. “The trustees don’t think you like them,” the governor said.
“I still think I can do the job,” he recalled replying.
The governor said, “They’re not going to let you.”
Mr. Hightower became the leader of the South Street Seaport Museum in 1977, and later helped create the Norwalk, Conn., Maritime Center, now known as the Maritime Aquarium, before heading the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, from 1993 to 2007.
Looking back at his time at the Modern, Mr. Hightower recalled being neither surprised nor disappointed when he was fired.
“I was so relieved it was unbelievable,” he said. On his last day he was asked by a photographer to pose with his interim successor, Richard Oldenburg (who stayed until 1995). Mr. Hightower cheerfully agreed, adding impishly: “Why don’t you get the two of us in a revolving door — he going in and me on the way out?”