As the Whitney Biennial launches this week to the usual hyperbolic chorus of yays and nays, behind the scenes at the museum, a major change is happening. There was a new face at the Whitney’s board meeting last week. A new familiar face: Peter Norton, the software magnate, contemporary-art collector and accomplished board hopper, who has re-joined the Whitney board nearly six years after leaving it.
Mr. Norton has served on the board of the Museum of Modern Art since June 1999, and his return to the Whitney Museum of American Art casts him in the unprecedented role of serving on both boards at once. Last year, Mr. Norton became the chairman of the board of P.S. 1, MoMA’s hipper Queens affiliate, which he joined in 1999. He also serves on the executive committee of the Guggenheim Museum’s International Directors’ Council, that museum’s primary acquisition committee, and on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
But Mr. Norton’s return to the Whitney involves some complex social acrobatics. It also places him at the heart of any overlap in the two institutions’ missions. In recent years, the Whitney, founded as a showcase for American art, has featured more international art, putting it in more direct competition with MoMA. Mr. Norton now serves on committees at both museums. What happens if both are bidding on the same acquisitions at the same galleries, or vying to get the same exhibitions?
In the social order of generations past, it would have been unheard of to serve on the Whitney and MoMA boards at once. For one thing, the MoMA board has always been considered far more prestigious, far more difficult to join, and its annual dues are said to be higher-not including contributions to its $800 million capital campaign. The Whitney, meanwhile, has often been considered more of a consolation prize, playing the role of willful, mercurial teenager to MoMA’s more polished grown-up-arguably more nimble and inventive, but also more cash-strapped.
But if anyone can get away with two-timing elite museums, it’s Peter Norton, a former computer programmer from California who is known in the art world as an unpredictable, outspoken personality. Mr. Norton made a fortune with his Norton Utilities in the 90’s, amassed one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary art-it now contains 2,400 works-and has established himself as one of the most important arts philanthropists in New York.
“I’m really excited that he’s involved again at that level at the Whitney,” said Kris Kuramitsu, a curator of Mr. Norton’s private collection and director of arts programming for the Peter Norton Family Foundation. “He’s incredibly enthusiastic about the arts in New York. It’s a pretty great testament to his interest and his commitment.”
Ms. Kuramitsu said that Mr. Norton planned to remain on the MoMA and P.S. 1 boards even now that he was back at the Whitney. She declined to elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Mr. Norton’s return to the Whitney, and said Mr. Norton was traveling on the Amazon River and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Although museums are nonprofit institutions whose boards-and tax returns-are public information, they tend to shroud their boards in secrecy. Yet even by New York museum standards, the Whitney seems to be going far out of its way to downplay Mr. Norton’s return to the board.
After nearly a month of not returning calls and e-mails regarding Mr. Norton, on March 8 the Whitney’s acting director of communications, Stephen Soba, said only that Mr. Norton had rejoined the board “recently.” (Mr. Norton appears on a Whitney board list dated December 2003 and posted on the Whitney Web site.)
Mr. Soba declined to comment further. “I don’t have time at the moment to go into your questions.”
Nor were the Whitney’s new director, Adam Weinberg, or the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, Leonard Lauder, interested in discussing Mr. Norton’s return. “Mr. Lauder is away and not available for comment. Adam is not able to take the time, and neither am I,” Mr. Soba said.
The Whitney will certainly be glad of Mr. Norton’s largesse, having lost some board members in the turn-of-the-century financial scandals: L. Dennis Kozlowski, who joined the board in 2001 when he was still chief executive of Tyco International, and left in 2002 after he was indicted on charges including tax evasion; and Jean-Marie Messier, who joined the board in 2001, when he was the chief executive of Vivendi Universal, and left in 2003 after the company tanked.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for MoMA, Ruth Kaplan, said the museum had no comment on sharing Mr. Norton with the Whitney.
Mr. Norton has a somewhat stormy history on museum boards. He joined the Whitney board in April 1994 under then-director David Ross. Mr. Norton had already been affiliated with the Whitney and underwrote a significant part of its 1994 Black Male show, curated by Thelma Golden. In November 1994, he stepped down from the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, after four years as a trustee, reportedly to protest the museum’s decision not to take the Black Male exhibit.
Indeed, when Mr. Norton left the Whitney board in 1998, under Maxwell Anderson’s directorship, it was widely perceived as a move protesting the resignation that year of Ms. Golden and another up-and-coming curator, Elizabeth Sussman, after Mr. Anderson narrowed their mandates. Yet others familiar with the situation said that Mr. Norton had stepped down from the Whitney board before Ms. Golden and Ms. Sussman resigned-and likely did so in order to join the MoMA board.
Some museum watchers speculated that Mr. Norton’s return to the Whitney might win him more attention at MoMA, whose board has traditionally had baroque internal hierarchies. In 2000, Mr. Norton is said to have asked another MoMA board member, Douglas Cramer, whether he could audit the museum’s powerful painting and sculpture committee meetings. He is said to have framed Mr. Cramer’s response-a no-and hung it on his wall, as if it were a work of art. “It was something he hung on the wall in his apartment. I don’t know if it’s still there or not,” Ms. Kuramitsu, the Norton collection curator, said. “He’s got a pretty good sense of humor about things.”
Another Whitney insider said that trustees generally don’t meddle with curatorial appointments, but that Mr. Norton’s return could be seen as part of Mr. Weinberg’s mission to bring some of the Whitney’s estranged family back into the fold. Whitney sources said that Mr. Weinberg had extended an olive branch to Flora Miller Biddle, a member of the museum’s founding family and honorary trustee, who had scaled back her involvement during Mr. Anderson’s tenure.
The Whitney board has traditionally been dominated by Mr. Lauder, its powerful chairman. The arrival of Mr. Norton means another strong voice to the board-one who’s able to put his money where his mouth is, and who could potentially become the strongest counterweight to Mr. Lauder. Mr. Norton is devoted to contemporary art; Mr. Lauder’s interests lie more in Modernism.
Through his Norton Family Foundation, meanwhile, Mr. Norton has been supporting arts groups across the city. In 2002, the last year for which the Norton Family Foundation’s tax returns were available, of the nearly $3 million in overall gifts, the foundation gave $85,000 to the Museum of Modern Art. It also gave $100,000 to P.S. 1. The foundation also gave about $140,000 to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Mr. Norton used to serve on the board, and where his ex-wife, Eileen Norton, is still a board member.
Yet the man who has become one of New York’s most important arts philanthropists has always had a somewhat fraught rapport with the art world’s power structure. “I have spent a lot of my life standing just outside a circle,” Mr. Norton said in a 1995 New Yorker profile, referring in that case to his marriage to Ms. Norton, who is African-American. “My most common posture in life is to be just outside two related but opposing circles.” He has now officially secured his place as the consummate outsider’s insider.