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Centennial Celebration: Interview with Ruth Bowman

An interview with Ruth Bowman, a College Art Association member since 1964, kicks off a new regular feature for CAA News. Entitled Centennial Celebration, the series will consist of profiles and interviews with longtime CAA members who have had interesting careers and made an impact on the fields of art and art history. The feature will continue through CAA’s one hundredth anniversary, beginning next year.

An Art-History Roller Coaster

Over the course of a long career, Ruth Bowman, 86, has worked in nearly every part in the art world: curator, educator, writer, collector, even television and radio host—“an art-history roller coaster,” as she calls it. At a time when full-time jobs in academia have become scarce, Bowman serves as a model for a nimble, flexible approach to working in the arts. She says, “The career I had was as much a social career as anything. My personal life pushed me into taking what I was learning about art and sharing it. It just happened very fast.”

Bowman graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1944 and worked on an MA at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in the 1960s, earning the degree in 1971. (Philippe de Montebello was in her classes.) Before then, however, she began carving her own niche in the New York art world. In the early sixties she was hired as a curator for New York University’s Art Collections, which later turned into the Grey Art Gallery. Bowman recalls, “1963 is when I started, and in 1977 I left to go to California. In that period, I was messing around all over this town.”

NYU Art Collections

A. E. Gallatin assembled New York’s first collection of modern art in 1927—predating both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Works of art by European and American artists appeared in the Gallery of Living Art, a specially designed space in the Main Building at New York University (now called the Silver Center for the Arts and Sciences). At the time, the gallery was the only institution in the US that continuously presented new developments in modern art—six days a week—to the students, faculty, and general public. Renamed the Museum of Living Art in 1936, the space remained open until 1943, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired the collection. After fifteen years without a gallery, NYU began collecting again. However, neither was gallery space assigned to the new initiative, nor were purchasing funds allotted.

Five years later, Bowman had heard NYU wanted a part-time curator and registrar. She knew the art critic and historian Irving Sandler, who put in a good word for her. She got the job in 1963, which became full-time a year later. She recalls, “All of a sudden faculty members wanted paintings for their offices. The university people sent a press release to the newspapers about an NYU curator who was placing art around the university. I got a phone call the day after that went out: ‘This is Joseph Cornell. Would you like to come out and see some of my work?’ I nearly died!”

Bowman continues, “That’s what I did for a living. For six thousand dollars a year, I was working to find rich people who wanted to give art. I knew a lot of people socially who were very excited about the idea that NYU was going to have paintings, and the artists themselves gave too. I think Al Held did a painting that was something like six feet high and eight feet wide—a huge one—over some elevators. We were going crazy, and nobody told us no. Artists wanted to be seen at NYU. It was exciting for me.”

“We had exhibitions in the Loeb Student Center [now the Kimmel Center for University Life], and I had something to do with that. I had graduate students working with me, and a lot of those people went on in the art world—one person is a dealer, another is a professor. All I did was mess around and makes sure things were locked up at the end of the day.” Gathering and placing work and staging exhibitions weren’t without hair-raising situations. Bowman recalls, “There were large Kenneth Noland paintings in the student center in the sixties, when they were having all those terrible student uprisings. Since the paintings were of targets, we were all nervous. We had to cover them. It was nuts.”

Bowman used the growing collection—numbering more than 1,500 pieces by 1971—much like Hans Hofmann did with the original NYU gallery, by bringing students in for first-hand experiences with works of art. At the time, the Education Department, where Bowman taught, had students studying to be art teachers in public schools. Her classes included not just topics appropriate for a curator, such as print connoisseurship and the development of school and university art collections, but also courses on, for example, how to make paper. “Every student group went with me to a place where they could make paper—shred things, put in a little glue, and make paper.”

In the early 1970s, Bowman remembers receiving a call from Abby Weed Grey, a cultural diplomat of sorts and a major collector of modern Asian and Middle Eastern art. The voice on the other end of the line asked, “This is Abby Grey in St. Paul, Minnesota. Do you know where that is?” Soon after, Bowman helped her and an NYU professor, Peter Chelkowski, to usher in the school’s second official gallery space, the Grey Art Gallery, which opened in the same building as the old Museum of Living Art in 1974.

Radio and Television Star

“Messing around” in the New York art scene also included Bowman’s work interviewing artists on a radio program called Views on Art, broadcast on WNYC in the mid-1960s. “WNYC had gotten notice that NYU had a curator, and there I was. I interviewed people for the radio program, and everybody wanted to be on it—artists, people who published books about art.”

Another weekly art program developed on the same network, One on One, which aired from 1968 to 1974. Bowman recalls, “I interviewed all sorts of people, but Janson was the one. When H. W. Janson’s millionth book was sold, I invited him down to the station for an interview. He was really excited and came down, and we had a fabulous time. He later asked me to teach a class on twentieth-century American art on the CBS Network at 6:30 in the morning, which I did.” She used Barbara Rose’s recently published book, American Art since 1900 (1967) as a model for her forty-nine weekly half-hour shows for the Sunrise Semester program. An early form of distance learning, these television “classes” were coproduced by NYU and shown on television in New York and in community colleges across the United States. Sunrise Semester programs could be taken for academic credit, and Bowman herself wrote the midterm and final exam for her art-history series.

For the first time, Bowman had a secretary, whose main job was to borrow slides for the program. “I would just talk,” she says, “and there was no script. I had a list of slides, and I talked! And I did that for a whole semester and had such fun. It was quite an experience for me, and Janson was quite happy. But to imagine that he ask me to do it, with all those PhDs around. Apparently they didn’t want to get up at four o’clock in the morning!”

Other Activities

After moving to the West Coast with her husband, R. Wallace Bowman, in 1977, she became director of education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for several years. She also returned to radio, hosting a weekly radio show on the art scene in LA for the public-radio station KUSC. Bowman earned a Rockefeller Foundation Senior Fellowship to help spread distance learning through television, and in the late 1970s she led the team that found two lost murals painted by Arshile Gorky in the 1930s at the Newark Airport Administration Building in New Jersey, created for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. A traveling exhibition and catalogue, Murals without Walls: Arshile Gorky’s Aviation Murals Rediscovered, resulted.

Bowman has served on numerous boards, including those at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, the Textile Museum in Washington, DC, and the MIT List Visual Art Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, among others, and those for two national organizations, the American Federation of Arts and the Archives of American Art. Her diplomatic secret? “When I’m on a board or a committee, I don’t ever tell anyone what I think they should do. I just ask about something I’m curious about, and about the way the meeting is going: ‘How are we doing?’” In fact, when Rutgers University held a party in her honor, Judith Brodsky told her, “The reason you’re being honored is because you ask good questions.”

A career in the university, or even as a critic, was never an option for Bowman. She says, “I am incapable of thinking that I could be someone who walked around to galleries, and then visited artists, and then wrote about them in books or sent articles to magazines. I could not do that. I would like to spend my life putting art somewhere, and making sure what the artist would have liked, while considering the kind of people that would come and see it. I always want to share because I like to find out what other people see. It gives me enormous pleasure to be with somebody and ask them questions.”

Art Collector

Bowman partnered with Harry Kahn in the 1980s to begin collecting prints and drawings of self-portraits by modern and contemporary American artists. (An economist and stockbroker, Kahn had previously collected Asian art before meeting her.) After nearly fifteen years of collecting, in 2002 they donated 187 works by 146 artists to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC—the city in which she was raised as a child. Last year the museum staged an exhibition, Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century, drawn mostly from Kahn and Bowman’s gift. The show, which was on view April 10–August 16, 2009, featured early drawings by Edward Hopper and Joseph Stella from the turn of the twentieth century; images of a young and old Raphael Soyer; and works by other classic American artists such as Childe Hassam, Louise Nevelson, Jim Dine, Elaine de Kooning, Bruce Nauman, and Philip Pearlstein.

Bowman says, “Self-portraiture is the first place to go, as an artist. No one has to sit for you, and you can find things about yourself, or you can add to yourself.” In her essay for the catalogue, the curator Wendy Wick Reaves agrees: “Self-portraiture became a struggle to integrate changing or multiple identities, bridging the ruptures between competing selves or the real versus the imagined ideal.” That kind of drama sounds a lot like Bowman’s acrobatic career in the art world.

CAA Involvement

Bowman has been a longtime member of CAA, contributing in many ways to the field, including her important article, “Nature, the Photograph, and Thomas Anshutz,” which was published in Art Journal in Autumn 1973. “The College Art Association was very important in my life,” she says. “I remember George Segal and I, in 1964, were sitting in a bar in Philadelphia, at a CAA meeting—the first one I’d ever been to. How did I end up there? Because I was at NYU—right at the beginning of my career there—and I wanted to be where everybody was.”

Bowman says, “When I go to a CAA meeting, I’m out in the hall, all the time. I meet people. It’s also in the book and trade fair where I get all hooked up, talking to people. There are so many people I admire in the art world that are doing generous and energetic things in the field. I look at what I get in the mail from CAA, and I pay my dues. But it’s the people that I really admire and enjoy being with, and at the conference I am out in the halls. I wear flat shoes—I don’t wear heels.”

Originally published in CAA News in January 2010.