“There are many ways of arriving at the place where you need to be.”
Brett Littman is a museum director, writer, and curator based in New York City. He is currently the Director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. Littman has worked for a number of prominent New York art nonprofits, including as the Executive Director of The Drawing Center from 2007-2018; the Deputy Director of MOMA PS1 from 2003-2007; the Co-Director of Dieu Donné Papermill from 2001-2003; and the Associate Director of UrbanGlass from 1996-2001. He has also curated over 20 exhibitions in the past decade and contributed to a wide range of international art and design news publications and museum and gallery catalogs.
In this interview, Brett Littman shares his experience making films in San Antonio, how he started writing about art, and what jobs in New York led to him becoming the director of the Noguchi Museum.
TGL: How was your childhood?
BL: I grew up in Brooklyn Heights, New York. My parents were both public school teachers. My father was interested in photography when I was growing up, so we had a dark room. He named me after the famous American photographer Edward Weston's son, Brett Weston. Brett was a photographer as well. I went to a lot of museums with my dad. Although he didn't pursue art as a career, it was very present.
Between the ages of about 10 and 15, I did a lot of acting. I thought about pursuing it professionally. I was in several films, TV commercials, and school plays. I went to Stuyvesant High School though, which is a math and science high school, so I veered more towards the sciences and went to UC San Diego to be a doctor. I studied medicine for two years and decided after my sophomore year that I did not want to be a doctor, and I ended up getting my degree in philosophy and poetry.
TGL: What led you to switching your major?
BL: I realized that being a doctor really wasn't my dream, it was my parents' dream. Although I liked science, growing up in New York in the eighties, my friends and I were pretty free. We saw a lot of shows, a lot of music, a lot of art films. In college I was always drawn to and liked being around creative people. I was hanging out with poets, musicians, actors, filmmakers, and philosophers, who, to be frank, were more interesting than the med students. It was a more comfortable place for me to be.
TGL: How did you engage with art while studying philosophy and poetry?
BL: The philosophy department that I was in was founded by Herbert Marcuse in 1968, so it was a radical department. I was in the department 1988 through 1991. It was an interesting time because a lot of people were coming through UCSD and California; Jacques Derrida was lecturing at UC Irvine, and Jean Baudrillard came through because he was writing America. Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagleton were lecturing in the literary criticism department. I was interested in that 30,000 foot view of thinking, history and aesthetics.
I ended up in the poetry department as well, because as much as I liked writing philosophy papers, I was more interested in the idea of language and ontology. The people I was attracted to, like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, were like poet philosophers. I wanted to take all of this postmodern philosophy and apply it through language in a creative way. The poetry department at UCSD was also radical. There were a lot of Language Poets there, and some important artists and writers like Jerome Rothenberg, Rae Armantrout, Allen Kaprow, and David Antin and Eleanor Antin. Through the film department I was able to audit classes with JP Gorin, the filmmaker and cinematographer for Godard, and Babette Mangold. My roommate was a jazz drummer so I also got to know the musicians and composition students on campus. In 1988 some friends and I started a magazine, called 39( and we did a lot of performances around San Diego. San Diego was a conservative city, so we were on the outer fringe of what was going on, but the professors were very encouraging of what we were doing. In the end, my unique UCSD experience really laid the groundwork for me to be a person who really valued cross-disciplinary activity. I liked that I could hang out with filmmakers one day and musicians the next and actors the next, and it didn't really matter. We were all part of a community of people that wanted to make things.
TGL: What did you do after college?
BL: I moved to Texas for two years. I had a girlfriend named Lizzie Martinez in college from San Antonio, so we flipped a coin, heads we go to New York and tails we go to Texas, and it was tails. She was in the film department, so we went there with the idea that we would make movies together. We showed up in San Antonio when Rick Linklater had just come out with Slacker so film was in the air and we were lucky to find a lot of UT Austin film grads who wanted to also make films.
TGL: What movie did you make?
BL: Lizzie and I got a commission from Deep Dish, an activist television station that started in the sixties that had its roots at UCSD. They commissioned people to make films that would show on public access channels and PBS. You got a $300 budget to make a 26 minute documentary. We also met Jimmy Mendiola when we moved to San Antonio and he ended up a being a co-director with us on Deep Dish film, called, Puro Party: Celebrating a Genocide. We worked on that film for eight months and I did the final edits through my TV, VHS to VHS.
TGL: What was Puro Party about?
BL: Puro Party was a critique of Fiesta, which is the equivalent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Lizzie was half Mexican and Jimmy was of Mexican heritage. Fiesta is the celebration of the Battle of the Alamo. That year was also the celebration of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, so there were all of these Chicanos dressed up as Christopher Columbus, who of course killed many Mexicans, celebrating the Battle of the Alamo which also killed Mexicans. I put on my suit and tie and as a white person, I started interviewing people. I asked questions like, "Why are you dressing up as Christopher Columbus when you know Christopher Columbus killed brown people?" And people would respond, "San Antonio is a party town. We don't really care." Lizzie also knew many girls who were the debutantes and were having cotillion parties. San Antonio was a poor city, but you had these women spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on their dresses. They were all Lizzie's friends from high school, so they let us film things that we never should have been allowed to see, all these secret society things. They thought our documentary about Fiesta was going to be positive. When we put the film out, it won quite a few awards and traveled all over the world, but locally, people were really upset by the movie.
TGL: After this documentary, what was your next project?
BL: Lizzie and I started a film festival called the Other America's Film Festival for Esperanza Center. In 1991, we invited John Sayles, who was one of our heroes and a great filmmaker, and he accepted. He ended up living with us for two weeks. We drove him around in my old Ford Falcon and he kept asking us questions like, "What is it like to be in this relationship, Lizzie's half Mexican, you're white..." We didn’t understand why he was asking us so many questions, but it turned out the reason why John wanted to come to San Antonio was that he was working on Lonestar. Lizzie was actually in that movie, and she ended up being his casting director for many years. It was a crazy time in San Antonio, and we were lucky that we were young and ambitious, so we were able to get a lot done.
TGL: Did you make any other movies while you were in San Antonio?
BL: The other movie I co-produced was also with Jimmy Mendiola. It was called Pretty Vacant and was about the Sex Pistols concert at Randy's Rodeo in San Antonio. Randy's Rodeo is a country music venue, but the Sex Pistols played there in 1978, right before their San Francisco show when Sid Vicious died. It was the second to last show they ever played and all the Austin punks came to San Antonio. There were fights in the audience, it was a total riot. We made that film with, again, with a very small budget. That movie still shows, but we never got the rights to any of the music, so it's a very underground film.
TGL: When did you come back to New York?
BL: I came back to New York in 1993 after making those two movies. I wanted to work in a place like the Brooklyn Academy of Music or St. Ann's. I was interested in performing arts, music, and theater, but I couldn't find a job. I had to do other things until I could figure out how to get started in the nonprofit world.
TGL: What was your first experience in New York?
BL: For a year, I worked for an SAT tutoring company. Because salaries are so low in the art world and my parents were not going to support me I had to make it on my own in the art world. I actually kept tutoring for about 10 years while building my career.
The first nonprofit job I got in New York was at Brooklyn College, working at the Brooklyn Center, the on-campus theatre. It was not an avant-garde theater, but it was very multicultural. My job was to do fundraising, which I'd actually done in Texas for the Esperanza Center.
TGL: How did you start writing about art?
BL: In 1995, I got a job at Urban Glass. It's a nonprofit glassblowing school and studio. My great mentor in my life John Perreault was the director there. John had taught poetry at UCSD many years before, so when I met him in my interview, he said, "You went to UCSD and you studied poetry? You're hired."
I knew nothing about glass blowing, and I had no idea who he was. Turns out, John was a very important art critic, writer, curator, and thinker. I worked with him for six years, my job there started in development but I moved up the ladder quickly and by the age of 26 I was the deputy director.
John encouraged me to start writing for magazines, so I started writing about craft: glass, ceramics, textile, and metalworking. My friends at places like the Whitney or MoMA said, "You're going to destroy your career writing about these things," but to be honest, I was the only person in my age group writing about it, so I got a lot of jobs. I started writing for places like Wallpaper and Surface Magazine because I could write about craft and design. There was one year where I wrote 40 articles, literally an article a week. It was a huge opportunity.
I wrote a lot between 1996 and 2001. Mostly for magazines, but I did start writing for museum show catalogs towards the end. I also started to lecture all over the world because I became an expert on craft. My take on craft was more radical and deeply philosophical than other people's take. I wasn't interested in beauty, I was interested in things that were broken or craft that was ugly. I ended up becoming a theorist of an alternative way of looking at craft.
TGL: When did you start curating?
BL: The first shows I did were around 2000 and 2001. I'd gotten a lot of grants to travel around in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, because there were really good craft traditions, companies and communities. The first big shows I did were working with Scandinavian industrial designers and artists, and I did one in Los Angeles and I did one in New York.
TGL: Where did you work after Urban Glass in New York?
BL: I worked at Dieu Donné, a paper mill in SoHo. It was a small nonprofit with a paper-making facility that worked with contemporary artists. That really put me in the art world. My job there was as co-director, so I still worked on the administrative side. But because I wrote, I was able to balance the two sides. I didn't have too many opportunities to curate. I sometimes curated outside of the institutions I worked in. Dieu Donné was great because we would work with artists like Kiki Smith, Mel Edwards, Michelle Stuart, Jane Hammond, Roxy Paine, William Kentridge, Glenn Ligon, and Richard Tuttle there. We made editioned or one-of-a-kind works with these artists, and then we sold them.
TGL: Did you work at The Drawing Center next?
BL: There was one other job before I went to The Drawing Center, I was the deputy director at MoMA PS1 for four years: from 2003 to 2007. That's when Alanna Heiss and Klaus Biesenbach were there, so it was right after MoMA had affiliated with PS1. It was a complicated time for PS1 because that affiliation was still new and not many people understood how it worked. As deputy director, it was clear to me that I would never curate in the building. So I continued to write; I wrote for lots of magazines, museum catalogs, and some shows that we did.
I got to The Drawing Center in 2007, and that's really when I began curating exhibitions. Although I was hired to be an administrator, historically the director also acted as the chief curator. I'd put together shows for many years and wrote enough about art that I understood how shows worked and didn't feel uncomfortable about making exhibitions. The first big exhibition I did at The Drawing Center was in 2008, and over the 11 years I was there, I curated about 17 shows. Sometimes I would curate two or three shows a year, it was intense. On top of that, I had to do all the administrative work and fundraising as well.
TGL: Did your interest in curating lead you to The Drawing Center?
BL: I was interested in The Drawing Center, because I believe that drawing is for everyone, it is universal. Musicians draw, architects draw, engineers draw, scientists draw, illustrators draw. I could create a program that was multidisciplinary at the Drawing Center. My experience curating at The Drawing Center is surely the best job I'm ever going to have, because I was able to do things there that I will never be able to do anywhere else, unless I start my own nonprofit that allows me to do exactly that.
TGL: How did you balance your administrative and curatorial responsibilities?
BL: I like doing a lot of different things, I get bored if I only have to do one thing. Over the years, I've juggled a lot of different jobs, part time jobs, writing gigs and outside curatorial projects. I've built a life where I seem to be able to balance all of those things. I can't tell you exactly how I do it, but I always make my deadlines.
TGL: Why did you leave The Drawing Center to work at the Noguchi Museum?
BL: I left The Drawing Center and went to the Noguchi Museum, because I view Noguchi as one of the great 20th century polymaths. He worked in every discipline: he worked with architects, dancers, scientists. He had also trained to be a doctor, so I felt an affinity for him. If you want to understand the history of the 20th century from an intellectual or cultural standpoint, Noguchi is a very interesting person to study. I appreciate his work, his aesthetic, and the East / West interchange. He really represents the conversation and the uneasiness between the East and West. He was born in America but his father was Japanese, so he was considered an Oriental in the United States and an aggressive American in Japan. His whole body of work is about finding his own identity.
TGL: What is your role as the Director of the Noguchi Museum?
BL: The museum has gone through a lot of growing pains over the last 20 years. It started as a private museum by Noguchi. It became an institution that actually could raise money in the traditional sense only about 10 years ago. I believe that these private artist foundations might be the cutting edge of the nonprofit world. Noguchi was very smart in the way he set the museum up. From time to time, the museum has been able to sell works as part of the mission. We also own the whole design business, so I run Akari, the lamp business. I also oversee all the designs like the Noguchi table and the relationships with Vitra, Herman Miller, and Knoll. We also have relationships with galleries.
There's an incredible entrepreneurial side to this job. People say to me, "Someone should give you an honorary PhD in art history." And I'm like, "No, someone should give me an MBA, because I've been running businesses for a long time." That's really what I have been doing in the nonprofit world. The Noguchi Museum is the first time in my career where I can be unabashedly entrepreneurial. Selling things is part of my job. It's exciting to be in a place where there is an endowment that supports the museum's activities, which doesn't mean I don't have to fundraise, but there is less pressure. It's the first time in my career where I don't have to worry about making payroll every day, and I can dream a little bit more.
TGL: What is your vision for the Noguchi Museum?
BL: I've been there a year and a half, and I have some ideas about where the institution can go. It probably will take about three years for me to understand how we're going to maneuver towards these ideas, which might be more about looking at Noguchi's values rather than his aesthetics. By that, I mean really celebrating the idea of multiculturalism or hybrid identity, mindfulness, a holistic relationship between our nature, Buddhist philosophy in the West, creating an environment in which it's about the quality of the experience over the quantity of the people. The metrics of success for me are not whether I double or triple the attendance, but whether I deepen the experience that people have about Noguchi. It's a luxury to do that.
TGL: How do you perceive the new challenges that museums are facing regarding COVID-19 safety protocols?
BL: To be honest I don’t think anyone knows how to run a museum in a pandemic. The Noguchi Museum reacted quickly to the Covid-19 situation in New York. We closed the museum on March 14th, 2020 and remained closed for about six months. My mantra last year was “people over program,” and we made the decision immediately to pay all staff, part and full time, during the closure. For those six months, we met regularly with all staff, our gallery attendants and our shop associates to hear what they were thinking, share information about what safety protocols other museums were putting into place, and how our museum could function and keep everyone safe. We reopened in September 2020, closed again in February 2021 due to the spike in cases and cold weather (we are keeping windows and doors open), and reopened again in March 2021 at about 25% capacity. We have had no public programs for about a year and didn’t change over our shows until now. We did however, increase our digital footprint and outreach and found ways to engage virtual audiences, which in my opinion has been one of the silver linings for the museum during these times. With vaccination levels in New York rising, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel so I have changed my mantra for 2021 to “safety and sanity.”
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
BL: One writer that I keep coming back to is Julio Cortázar. He is an Argentinian writer who wrote Hopscotch. I don't know why, but I read that book almost every year kind of religiously. I've read every story that he's ever written.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
BL: Given my own career path, I would say that one doesn't have a career, one has a careen, meaning that you bounce from things to things. If you think that the world is linear or the way that your trajectory is going to work out is just a straight line, it's never that way. I talk to younger people about pursuing a career in the arts a lot, and I try to explain to them that to be a curator, you may not even have to go to school. You may not have to go and get a PhD in art history. I never went back to school to get a PhD in art history, I just started writing about art and I did all the administrative work. I became a curator when I was 37 years old. There are many ways of arriving at the place where you need to be.