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Bravo De Salvo! Unpacking Donna’s Sudden Exit from the Whitney Museum’s Deputy Directorship

With less than two weeks’ notice, the Whitney Museum has announced that Donna De Salvo “has decided to leave” the museum where she served with great distinction for the past 15 years, in order to “pursue other interests.”

Adding to the mystery of why this news was sprung on us so precipitously, Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, enigmatically commented: “We wish her the best as she embarks on the next phase of her career.”

Adam Weinberg & Donna De Salvo at press preview for 2014 Whitney Biennial
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What that “next phase” might be is anyone’s guess…maybe even De Salvo’s. What I most admired about her Whitney “phase” was her masterful orchestration of America Is Hard to See, the massive inaugural installation of the permanent collection in the Whitney’s new downtown facilities, which I reviewed favorably here for the Wall Street Journal.

You can get a better sense of her insights and intelligence in this CultureGrrl post, which chronicles the tour she gave me of a new take on American art as presented through the Whitney’s reimagined installations.

De Salvo was replaced as the Whitney’s chief curator in 2015 (the year when “American Is Hard to See” opened) by Scott Rothkopf. She then assumed a new position—deputy director for international initiatives—a title invented for her. Before coming to the Whitney, Donna was senior curator at the Tate Modern, London.

Her swansong at the Whitney was the Warhol retrospective, which closed on Mar. 31 and is now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (to Sept. 2). It next travels to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Warhol Portraits Gallery at the Whitney’s retrospective
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I discussed here, I found two aspects of the Warhol show problematic: its reliance on the commercially self-interested financial support of dealer Larry Gagosian; and its failure to come to grips with Warhol’s disturbing dark side—his penchant for observing, if not facilitating, the downward slide of acolytes with already damaged psyches (i.e., Edie Sedgwick).

In response to my question about the surprisingly small window between today’s announcement and De Salvo’s departure, a Whitney spokesperson told me: “This announcement is being made now as she wished, following the recent success of Warhol.”

In addition to being a consummate curator, Donna has been unfailingly helpful in answering journalists’ pesky queries over the years (including mine).

If I learn more, you’ll learn more. Meanwhile, here’s to many very happy, productive years ahead!

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