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Martin Sullivan, 70, Dies: Museum Director of Integrity, Grace Under Pressure (with video)


Photo: Smithsonian Institution


My path crossed Martin Sullivan‘s three times. On each occasion, this consummate museum director, who died on Tuesday at 70, revealed himself as a man of conscience and integrity, with powers of persuasion and empathy that helped him navigate deftly through tangled controversies.

The first time I encountered him, he spoke on a cultural-property panel where, as director of the Heard Museum, he argued strongly and feelingly for museums’ adherence to the letter and spirit of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), for which he was a prominent advocate before its passage in 1990, at a time when givebacks of sacred and funerary objects to Native Americans were not as widely accepted among museums as they are today.

In its posthumous appreciation of Sullivan, the Heard Museum noted:

Under his leadership the museum fully developed its emphasis on what Mr. Sullivan called the “first-person experience not a third-person explanation.” He emphasized the importance of making a statement about the contemporary world of Indian people.

My second and third encounters were related to the Hide/Seek controversy at the National Portrait Gallery, which exploded under his directorship. By pure chance, he sat down next to me in the audience at the New York Public Library, where the gay-themed exhibition was being discussed by its two curators.

As we chatted before the beginning of the program, Sullivan made it clear to me that if he had it to do over again, he still would have mounted the show in its entirety, including the David Wojnarowicz video that was controversially removed by order of the Smithsonian’s secretary, Wayne Clough. But he was also sympathetic to the argument that “the protests over a small part of the exhibition would potentially drown out the voices of the many other artists in this carefully curated show.”

The third and last time I saw Sullivan was when we served together on a panel at Rutgers University entitled “Hide/Seek: Museums, Ethics and the Press.” I was struck by his transformation from the strained, haggard director-under-siege who had sat next to me in New York to the relaxed, feisty survivor who, four months later, spoke cogently and candidly on the six-member panel about the ordeal and lessons learned. (If you’ve got an hour and 40 minutes to spare, you can view the entire discussion in the video at the end of this post.)

For now, take three and a half minutes for the late Sullivan’s master class in how to handle a tough crowd—his impromptu response (which I videoed at close range) to a hostile questioner at the New York Public Library event, where he ended with a plea for “the positive energy that we’ve all got to reclaim in this tough time”:

an ArtsJournal blog