Photo: Joshua Franzos
Lynn Zelevansky calls herself “a classic late bloomer.” If that’s true, her career sure seems to have bloomed at just the right times in all the right places—most recently at Carnegie Museum of Art as its new Henry J. Heinz II Director.
After turning a photography degree into an early career teaching and writing about art, mostly photography, Zelevansky returned to school to earn a masters in art history at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where one of her professors just happened to be the legendary William Rubin, longtime head of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA’s) department of painting and sculpture. With degree in hand, she soon secured a coveted spot on MoMA’s curatorial staff under Rubin, where she spent seven unforgettable years creating, traveling, and developing her own curatorial point of view. In 1995, the native New Yorker moved cross-country to join the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), becoming the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art just three years later and eventually the head of its contemporary art department. After 14 years in a city and a museum she had come to love, Zelevansky says she wasn’t looking to leave when she got the call about a director’s post in Pittsburgh, where she’d spent two years at Carnegie Mellon University as an undergraduate. But it was once again her time—time to bring her appealing combination of dogged-but-understated determination, sincere love of art and artists, and genuine enthusiasm for interesting challenges to a new place. And this time, in the top spot.
Was your original plan to be a college teacher?
I didn’t have a plan. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and then at some point I was teaching at three different schools and I had about seven publication deadlines a month and two little kids at home and I was making no money—and I thought what I really need is a full-time job. To do that, I needed to go to graduate school.
Your first curatorial position was at MoMA. Was that intimidating?
I think it was in a certain way. But it was also very exciting. I felt like I was at the center of the universe, which is not really true, but it felt that way. A whole world opened up to me going there. It’s always exciting when that happens.
What stands out to you from that experience?
I had so many important experiences. First of all, working with William Rubin was very important. He was a difficult man, and a lot of people didn’t like working with him. But he was brilliant, and he would share. You couldn’t threaten him in any way, which is different from a lot of people who you work for. If you wanted to learn, he was enormously valuable. I learned a huge amount from him.
I also got to do a lot of traveling—to Europe, Japan, South America. I went to Brazil for the first time in 1989 and I’ve been back 15 times since then. I love it there. I’ve done a lot of work with South American artists.
What do you love about Brazil?
Brazil is a wonderful culture. When I went there for the first time in ’89 it was an unpleasant time in the New York art world—the time of the movie Wall Street— and the most talked-about art was enormous and over-produced. I was a junior curator at MoMA, and couldn’t get anything past the Projects Committee that didn’t have the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from some trendy gallery. I was so bored with it all. The São Paulo Bienal was on, and I’d been reading about it in The New York Times. When I got to go, I found a scene that was not commercialized, with remarkable artists—sort of like coming to New York in 1950 and meeting the abstract expressionists.
How was it leaving New York to live and work in Los Angeles?
It was a big deal. LA is a tough city for people. It’s so massive, without a definable center. But I had been going to LA since ’88 to see art, so I knew that there was a lot of exciting stuff happening. At the time, though, the fact that Los Angeles was an internationally important arts center was still a fairly well-kept secret.
You’ve said that you weren’t interested in heading a museum. What changed your mind?
At LACMA, my colleagues and I were try-ing very hard to make something big happen in terms of contemporary art— and we would feel like we were making progress, and then it would just stop because it wasn’t the directors’ priority or something else came up that grabbed their attention. This position frees me of those constraints.
I also was attracted to this job because I felt that as part of four museums I could really engage with the intellectual life of the museum and shape it in a way that a lot of my director colleagues can’t because they are so busy fundraising. And I’m a team player—that’s my nature and I enjoy it. I like working with other people and sharing ideas.
What in your opinion is the difference between a good art museum and a great art museum?
Definitely a great collection, and this museum already has the makings of that. Every time I see the breadth of the collection here, particularly from 1980 to the present, I’m amazed. You need a strong staff, too, which we also have.
What I want to do is create an exciting exhibitions program. We need to make more partnerships with other institutions, and that comes from the curators themselves, because they know their colleagues and who they can work with. We also very much need a program in postwar art that extends beyond the International. Currently, we are fundraising for the Richard Armstrong Curatorship, which will allow us to hire someone to develop that program.
All of the makings of a great museum are here. Our work just has to be out there more in a variety of ways—with our shows, with our publications. The Web site is a major priority for me, as well. I want us to publish seriously on the Web, and for our collection to be on the Web site in an intelligent way. The Web is our other front door, and it should be used by everybody from K through 12 students to scholars. A lot of people don’t know about us. We need to let them know.