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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Holly Hotchner

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-20

Holly Hotchner is a Renaissance Woman who believes that acquiring knowledge obligates action.

She learned about classical art in Europe. She learned to restore 16th century Italian paintings from the master, John Brealey. She learned to ride horses at a French circus training school in Normandy. She learned about the history of the church during travels across Europe. She learned art history at Trinity College in Connecticut. She learned about business when she and her sister Tracy Hotchner opened a hot dog stand when they were children.

She learned about Hemingway's literary technique from the great writer himself - her father, A. E. Hotchner, was his friend and biographer, and he sometimes took his daughters to meet the Nobel laureate.

She learned about museum administration while working for the legendary Thomas Hoving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

She learned about pentimento when she climbed the scaffoldings at the Sistine Chapel to study the restoration Michelangelo's masterpieces. She practiced conservation of painting at London's venerable Tate Gallery.

She learned about preservation of old documents and then helped archive five million of them at the New-York Historical Society.

Then she learned about consulting when she started her own business.

"I then discovered that I needed to do something else," Ms. Hotchner said. "I like tough challenges, and I like problem solving."

In 1996, she became director of the Museum of Arts and Design. She soon learned about the viciousness of New York City politics when Ms. Hotchner encountered tough opposition to the museum's purchase of Two Columbus Avenue, a landmark building that she wanted to transform into a center for the arts.

"The challenge at the museum was whether it was providing what people really wanted," Ms. Hotchner said.

But before she could address that large question, she had to attend to minor details such as meeting the payroll.

"For 15 weeks the museum couldn't even make the payroll," Ms. Hotchner said. "The staff was totally demoralized. The museum had no plan."

There had been an acrimonious divorce from the American Craft Council, which ran the entity known as the American Craft Museum (which would become the Museum of Art and Design).

"I wanted the museum to become an energetic center for the arts for the
Upper West side - a meeting place for all who are interested in contemporary life and the multiple expressions of craft and design today," Ms. Hotchner said. "I saw the museum as a global crossroads in New York for the meaning of objects worldwide.

"As a born New Yorker - who had been given so much by this city - I saw it as a life dream to be able to create an institution that would endure and pass to new generations the power to enrich lives through the appreciation of objects. I wanted the museum to be a unique institution representing thousands of artists around the globe who, through their vision and skills, transform materials and enhance lives."

The museum's board president, Nan Laitman, endorsed Ms. Hotchner's vision and, indeed, put up the initial money for the new museum. The board chair, Barbara Tober, was similarly supportive. And the philanthropist and former chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Incorporated, Jerry Chazen, offered to run the fundraising campaign.

"The building became the poster child for issues such as how contemporary architecture can be dealt within the system," Ms. Hotchner said. "It became a center of controversy. I now know more about real-estate law than I ever want to know! And to think that I went into this as an art historian! The lawsuits delayed the project by three to five years. And even though we won all those lawsuits, the funders became worried."

The worry had to do mostly with the escalating cost of rehabilitating and renovating the building - the original budget of $50 million climbed to $85 million, of which the purchase price was $17 million. Ms. Hotchner said that about $20 million still needed to be raised. The new facility is expected to be ready in early 2008.

Designed by Edward Durell Stone in 1964, Two Columbus Circle originally housed the former Huntington Hartford Gallery of Contemporary Art. Fairleigh Dickinson University operated the New York Cultural Center in the building from 1969-1975.

In 1976, Gulf & Western Industries purchased the building and gave it to the city to serve as a visitor center and headquarters for the Cultural Affairs Department. The agency moved out in 1998 and the building remained vacant since then, according to the literature.

Many critics have said that the building looks like a mausoleum. And opponents of the museum's move to Two Columbus Circle said that they were concerned by plans to sheath the building in glass (a proposal that has been dropped).

Ms. Hotchner said that when the museum moves to Columbus Circle, its space will more than triple to 54,000 square feet in the new space from 17,000 square feet in its present location at 40 East 53rd street. For the first time since its founding in 1956, the museum will be able to present and expand its permanent collection of over 1,700 art objects, including ceramics, fiber, glass, metal, paper, wood, mixed media, and design, which Ms. Hotchner characterized as "one of the most distinguished collections of its kind in the world."

"The museum celebrates materials and processes that are today embraced by practitioners in the fields of craft, art and design, as well as architecture, fashion, interior design, technology, performing arts, and art and design-driven industries.

"I truly believe that culture enriches people's minds," Ms. Hotchner said. "What we're doing at the museum is demystifying contemporary art and design by showing how it's made. We're showing how technology interfaces with hand work. Accessibility and approachability are important to us. I feel that we are expanding the very meaning of a museum.

"And one of the reasons that I see this as such an exciting moment is that this generation is so involved with lifestyle - lifestyle that has so much to do with contemporary and arts and design."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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