Whitney Museum Launches Laurie Tisch Education Center
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
Once asked what she has learned more than anything else over her years as an innovative philanthropist, Laurie M. Tisch says without a moment’s hesitation and with an understanding laugh “patience.” You wait long enough and have confidence in what you’re trying to do, and your work will get known. “You think it will take forever,” but then things take hold. She recalls a taxi ride not too long ago when she gave the driver an address uptown and he automatically responded, “Oh, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.” She was “thrilled.” That took only ten years! No doubt, it will take far fewer for the newly reopened Whitney Museum of American Art and its unique third-floor Laurie M. Tisch Education Center to become the go-to downtown art place for all ages. On July 1, 2015, Laurie M. Tisch took up the position as elected co-chair of The Whitney Board of Trustees, along with Neil G. Bluhm, and with Richard M. DeMartini president.
As the president of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund she started in 2007 with The Whitney particularly in mind, she can take great pride (and she does) in how fast schools, community organizations and outreach institutions have already caught on. As she has often said, “art should be a right, not a privilege,” especially so for disadvantaged youngsters and adults, immigrants, and the physically and mentally challenged, many of whom “thought a museum was not for them.” Each month, for example, blind and visually impaired visitors can go on touch tours, led by special docents, where they learn how to visualize sculpture. It’s just one of several initiatives Laurie Tisch says she felt would “blow out” and “illuminate” art for the general public.
On occasion, she’s been referred to by others as a bit of a “maverick philanthropist,” a woman in a well-known family of male philanthropists who takes a serious and sustaining interest in funding projects for nonprofits that would promote social change by way of education, art, health care and health awareness and public service. She knows that plans must often be modified and evaluated, but “not everything succumbs to metrics.” Still, that “doesn’t mean we can’t measure in some way what we do, even if only anecdotally, see if we’ve moved the needle.”
The founding chair of the Children’s Museum and the Center for Arts Education (she is on the board of Lincoln Center and The Aspen Institute), she continues to want to ”spark opportunity,” which led to the name The Laurie M. Tisch “Illumination” Fund.” She always knew that The Whitney on whose board she has served for many years would be successful downtown because it already had a reputation uptown for outreach and education programs. She remembers a trip she made to a primarily African American school in Brooklyn where she watched a fourth-grade class drawing. “Who’s your favorite artist? she asked, and the kids called out, “Jacob Lawrence!” They knew about him from Whitney talks they had attended and knew that his work was at the Museum. Today, The Whitney is going further in broadening the presence of black artists – incubating new talent, and showing more established work. Indeed, the opening exhibit at the Museum featured the Harlem Renaissance modernist Archibald Motley, and the place was packed, looks and voices full of admiration.
Now with a dedicated education space, The Laurie M. Tisch Education Center, students from K through high school and college can participate in a variety of interactive programs designed by age and needs, thanks especially to Kathryn Potts, the Helena Rubinstein Chair of Education, who for three years went into the community, asking people what they wanted.
Laurie Tisch notes a recent glorious Saturday this past summer, “when you’d think kids would be outdoors,” but there they were, the teens, inside, watching a performance. Just this past month, a new policy was enacted that opens The Whitney to all students at CUNY – for free. Yes, the new Whitney is a fabulous place, says, but a great museum has to be seriously involved with its constituent communities. “It is a great honor to be co-chair, and I look forward to making the Whitney an even more important presence in New York and beyond.”#
This is the second in a series on the new Whitney. A piece focused specifically on education programs will run in the early Spring.