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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Lisa Dennison

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-11-21

Lisa Dennison competes with her father, Saul.

Is that so?

"Well, yes, actually," Ms. Dennison said. "Here I am, the new director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - and there he is, president of the board of trustees of the New Museum for Contemporary Art. Traditional philanthropy isn't supporting museums in the same manner it did in years gone by. So New York's cultural institutions must now compete even more fiercely for support from individuals, foundations and corporations."

Daughter and father face a question that Ms. Dennison, one of three children of Saul and Ellyn Dennison, both aficionados of the arts, posed as follows:

"How do you distinguish yourself when everybody is seeking the same support?"

There's no ambiguity in Ms. Dennison's answer with regards to the 46-year-old museum, whose iconic circular gallery ramps were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

"In my first 100 days on the job, I want to be different right out of the starting gates," she said.

Because she succeeded a highly visible, albeit controversial director, Thomas Krens (who remains Director of the Guggenheim Foundation), Ms. Dennison's priority is, as she put it, "to establish my presence."

That, of course, shouldn't be too much of a problem. Any director of the Guggenheim is guaranteed public recognition, not the least because the job requires a presence at the conferences, parties and soirees that matter in Manhattan.

Establishing her presence should also not be a problem for Ms. Dennison because she already enjoys an almost ubiquitous presence. For the last nine years, she was the museum's chief curator, and organized numerous special exhibitions of modern art and contemporary art. She also particularly focused on exhibiting some of the 10,000 items of art in the Guggenheim's permanent collection, including works by Picasso, Leger, Kandinsky, Klee, Brancusi, Mondrian, Miro, Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, and Matthew Barney.

Another priority for Ms. Dennison is to continue to expand this collection in size and scope. The museum's acquisition funds are only in the $1 million to $2 million range currently. Expansion of its collection means significantly increasing the Guggenheim's current annual budget of $51 million (which includes both the museum and foundation). And that, in turn, means leading a new fundraising campaign.

"Fundraising involves strengthening our development staff," she said, adding that she plans to hire a new director of development, as well as about eight other development positions, to work on a capital campaign, as well on individual, corporate, and foundation fundraising.

The question of hiring new staff isn't confined to this area.

"I want a curatorial staff that aligns with the diversity of our program." Ms. Dennison said. 'And I want that staff to get more recognition."

She also wants a more energetic communications effort, with wider outreach to New Yorkers.

"We need to broaden and diversify our audience," she said. "We still need to re-affirm ourselves as a major New York institution."

That seemed to be an allusion to periodic criticism that the Guggenheim created an international - and expensive - presence under the directorship of Mr. Krens, while neglecting its New York facility. In addition to its Fifth Avenue landmark building, the Guggenheim has museums in Venice, Bilbao, Berlin, and Las Vegas. Some 900,000 of the Guggenheim's global 2.5 million visitors come to the New York facility, and Ms. Dennison wants more visitors to Fifth Avenue.

She seems self-confident about her task. After all, she practically grew up at the Guggenheim, joining it 27 years ago as curatorial assistant, and rapidly rising up the ramp under the mentorship of former director Thomas Messer. For the last several years, she served as deputy director to Mr. Krens, who had succeeded Mr. Messer in 1988. She's among the most senior employees at the museum, and perhaps the only one who's worked in virtually every sector of the curatorial department.

Another explanation for her self-confidence may lie in her early years in West Orange, N.J. Ms. Dennison's father enjoyed art as a hobby, and her mother is active in several New Jersey museums. The daughter was always at the top of her class in the local public school.

"In fact, I even felt under-challenged," Ms. Dennison said.

Ellyn Dennison had a prescription to deal with her daughter's fretting.

"For my mother, it was Wellesley College - nowhere else but Wellesley," Ms. Dennison said.

At Wellesley she majored in French and art history, spending summers as an intern at the Guggenheim, Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She went on to obtain a master's degree in art history at Brown University.

She also got married to a Wall Street trader, moving with him to New York.

The young couple started life at the top - in a Park Avenue apartment.

While her husband was minting money, Ms. Dennison was applying for jobs at various museums.

"It was a hard time to get museum jobs," she said, "but I wound up with a job at the Guggenheim, at $8,000 annually. I was enjoying immensely."
Less fulfilling was her marriage, which ended not afterward.

Ms. Dennison met a man named Rod Waywell at the United States Open, and soon they were married.

"He became the best mother that our two sons, Brad and Tyler Waywell, could possibly have," Ms. Dennison said. "I was traveling all over the country, discovering new artists and planning exhibitions. I wanted to come up with tomorrow's stars. From all those trips, I came away with a new sensibility about what art says about the times we live in."

That sensibility is essentially still her predicate. Ms. Dennison had also learned well from Mr. Messer, and then Mr. Krens, about museum administration. On several occasions, she was tempted by job offers, and at one point recently came very close to leaving, but decided that she was far too loyal to the Guggenheim.

The Guggenheim board did not want to lose her, and they gave her the director's job.

"I thought about that day when I walked into the Guggenheim as a very young woman - and now I was in charge," Ms. Dennison said. "In my mind, I've achieved the three big goals of my life - a good marriage, motherhood, and being at the best cultural institution in the world. I've been good at all of them, and at one point or another I've excelled at one. But I also know how difficult it is to keep one's balance and perspective in life."

So what's her perspective on the competition with her father?

"My parents are proud of me," Ms. Dennison said, tactfully. "But they also know how badly I want to succeed at everything I do."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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