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A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World

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This engrossing memoir brings to vivid life the behind-the-scenes struggles of Marcia Tucker, the first woman to be hired as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Tucker came of age in the 1960s, and this spirited account of her life draws the reader directly into the burgeoning feminist move This engrossing memoir brings to vivid life the behind-the-scenes struggles of Marcia Tucker, the first woman to be hired as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Tucker came of age in the 1960s, and this spirited account of her life draws the reader directly into the burgeoning feminist movement and the excitement of the New York art world during that time. Her own new ways of thinking led her to take principled stands that have changed the way art museums consider contemporary art. As curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney, she organized major exhibitions of the work of Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Tuttle, among others. As founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, she organized and curated groundbreaking exhibitions that often focused on the nexus of art and politics. The book highlights Tucker's commitment to forging a new system when the prevailing one proved too narrow for her expansive vision.


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This engrossing memoir brings to vivid life the behind-the-scenes struggles of Marcia Tucker, the first woman to be hired as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Tucker came of age in the 1960s, and this spirited account of her life draws the reader directly into the burgeoning feminist move This engrossing memoir brings to vivid life the behind-the-scenes struggles of Marcia Tucker, the first woman to be hired as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Tucker came of age in the 1960s, and this spirited account of her life draws the reader directly into the burgeoning feminist movement and the excitement of the New York art world during that time. Her own new ways of thinking led her to take principled stands that have changed the way art museums consider contemporary art. As curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney, she organized major exhibitions of the work of Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Tuttle, among others. As founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, she organized and curated groundbreaking exhibitions that often focused on the nexus of art and politics. The book highlights Tucker's commitment to forging a new system when the prevailing one proved too narrow for her expansive vision.

30 review for A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World

  1. 4 out of 5

    Roberto

    Marcia Tucker was radical, bad-ass and incredibly smart, breaking all kinds of new ground and opening tons of dialogues on the ways art could be presented, the role of the museum and trying to create non-hierarchical structures in the workplace. I really enjoyed this memoir, it was a great insight into her life, the changing times, and just how central she was in providing a space for minority artists and those who challenged outdated ideas of what art should be. I loved the first half especiall Marcia Tucker was radical, bad-ass and incredibly smart, breaking all kinds of new ground and opening tons of dialogues on the ways art could be presented, the role of the museum and trying to create non-hierarchical structures in the workplace. I really enjoyed this memoir, it was a great insight into her life, the changing times, and just how central she was in providing a space for minority artists and those who challenged outdated ideas of what art should be. I loved the first half especially, all about her running away to New York and meeting artists, which felt more finished (Marcia died before completing this) and was full of cute anecdotes, outrage, and wonder. Really inspiring.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Patricia Makatsaria

    I really wish I could give 1/2 stars - I would gives this a 3.5. It took a long time to get thru - it would waver from insightful and fascinating to tedious. But it did give me a new perspective on understanding art and the mechanics behind museums.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Karol

    This is a powerful memoir by Marcia Tucker, who founded the New Museum. Much of the book is about her struggle to promote avant-garde art, but my favorite parts are more personal, particularly the second chapter--a tragic love story between Marcia and a French count, who dies in the Algerian war. Marcia took my memoir writing workshop. It was a joy to read the finished book. She was an inspiration, to me.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Katherine

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Marcia Tucker’s memoir reveals the experience, strength, and hope of one of the art world’s most influential trailblazers. Tucker, founder of the New Museum of Art, worked her way from secretarial work for art world honchos to a position as the first woman curator for the Whitney Museum. The work begins with Tuckers’ recreation of her childhood and adolescence in Montclair, New Jersey and other locations. I felt a special affinity with Tucker as I, too grew up in Montclair. Her early life was in Marcia Tucker’s memoir reveals the experience, strength, and hope of one of the art world’s most influential trailblazers. Tucker, founder of the New Museum of Art, worked her way from secretarial work for art world honchos to a position as the first woman curator for the Whitney Museum. The work begins with Tuckers’ recreation of her childhood and adolescence in Montclair, New Jersey and other locations. I felt a special affinity with Tucker as I, too grew up in Montclair. Her early life was incredibly difficult; her mother died of breast cancer in her teens and her father in early adulthood; she was in a devastating motorcycle accident with her first husband, breaking her leg in five places; her first love Henri, a young man she met in France, died in Algeria as a member of the French foreign legion; and she lost her hearing in one ear in her early twenties due to a kidney infection. Despite tragic circumstances, Tucker was propelled by her innate love of the arts, as well as an uncanny gift for being in the right place at the right time. Her first job in the museum world began in July 1961 as the secretary for William Lieberman, head of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art; Tucker was 21. Her second job in the art world was as the secretary for Norma and William Copley, an eccentric and well-connected artist couple. They took her under their wing, and gave her the title “Curator of the Copley Collection.” The Copleys would help Tucker in her various endeavors for many years, proving an invaluable source of support when she was attempting to do new work in the art world. Through the Copleys, she met Margaret Scolari Barr, legendary wife of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art. It was while working for Barr that Jack Baur hired Tucker to work as a curator for the Whitney Museum. Tucker was the first woman curator at the Whitney. She loved her work, but chafed at the restrictions of the institution. Tucker’s first show was called Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials. The reception by the art world was mixed, but Tucker was ecstatic about the opportunity to explore new ways of making and exhibiting art. However, when her boss Jack Baur retired, and Tom Armstrong was hired in his place, the atmosphere changed. Growing out of her position, and eager to pursue different work, Tucker was offered an interview for the job of Dean at the School of Art and Design at the California Institute for the Arts. Armstrong told her to remain, promising her a job change from Curator of Painting and Sculpture to Curator of Contemporary Art. Three months later, he fired her. Tucker, fed up with the politics and intolerance for contemporary art of the traditional museum world, decided to begin her own institution. Tucker used her severance pay from the Whitney to rent a space, and the New Museum of Art was born. Tucker notes that she referred to the New Museum at first as “The Museum in the Sky,” because it seemed like an impossible task to create the museum she visualized. Tucker wanted to avoid hierarchies of all kinds – vertical power structures, inverted-pyramid salary distributions, race, gender, and class segregation. Tucker used revolutionary methods to achieve these goals. Each staff member at the New Museum was paid the same salary, and the staff utilized democratic methods to make decisions collectively. From the beginning, the New Museum was unusual. Tucker came up with the idea of the “Semi-Permanent Collection” in line with the museum’s mission to show contemporary art. The museum would keep artworks in its collection for at least ten years, and no more than twenty years. For Tucker, the idea of the Semi-Permanent Collection ensured “It would be a contemporary collection that stayed contemporary” (134). The memoir is organized chronologically, with each chapter representing a five-year span in Tucker’s life. Her personal life is woven with her work life; anecdotes about her lovers, illnesses, family life, and emotional growth alternate with accounts of where she was working, how the museum developed, and the exhibitions she put on. The most tangible structure of the work is found in its discussion of Tucker’s (and the New Museum’s) most significant exhibitions. These exhibitions represent Tucker’s core values and goals. The most significant of these are the following: Early Works by Five Contemporary Artists (1978), Bad Painting (1978), Minority Dialogues (1980), Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art (1982), Art and Ideology (1984), SILENCE = DEATH (1988), The Decade Show (1990), Bad Girls (1994), Visiting Hours: An Installation by Bob Flanagan in Collaboration with Sheree Rose (1994), and Temporarily Possessed: The Semi-Permanent Collection (1995). Some of the main themes Tucker engaged in her work include the following: What is “good” art? What is the place of the museum in the larger culture? How can art and the museum engage with politics and activism? How do art museums create taste and culture? How can museums create and facilitate social change? Tucker’s untimely death at sixty-six was a tragedy in the art world. However, her pioneering efforts, as well as the family she started late in life, show that her short life was filled with love, invention, and an incredible energy for change. Her work advanced the cause of women and those seeking a more innovative and just world, not just in the art world, but everywhere in popular culture.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Janna Simone

    This was such a captivating read - I could not put it down! Marcia Tucker's voice is engaging, honest, and refreshingly raw. She confronts the biases present at every level in the art world. Despite constant criticism and backlash she never backs down. This was inspiring and tragic memoir. I cannot recommend it enough. This was such a captivating read - I could not put it down! Marcia Tucker's voice is engaging, honest, and refreshingly raw. She confronts the biases present at every level in the art world. Despite constant criticism and backlash she never backs down. This was inspiring and tragic memoir. I cannot recommend it enough.

  6. 5 out of 5

    A

    We need more Marcia Tuckers in this world. She had a beautiful vision and was able to see it through with The New Museum. She is my heroine. And what an odd thing to read after hearing about synesthesia in Bitter in the Mouth, that Marcia had it as well.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Gabby Johnson

    I cried during the part where she gives birth to her daughter. Though Marcia Tucker's words can be a bit cringy, it took a lot of bravery to start the New Museum. Her life is really fun to read about when she remembers her 20s where she was adventurous and broke. I cried during the part where she gives birth to her daughter. Though Marcia Tucker's words can be a bit cringy, it took a lot of bravery to start the New Museum. Her life is really fun to read about when she remembers her 20s where she was adventurous and broke.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Robyn

    Read this for our arts book club, and wasn't sure what to expect. I thoroughly enjoyed it. p. 57: after unknowingly chatting up a famous artist // "But I learned something: a truly great person has a profound curiosity about the world and the people in it, an interest that encompasses everything and everyone. Real curiosity, I now know, doesn't leave much room for judgment." 62: "...I sat alone, virtually friendless, about to be jobless, empty, and at peace for the first time in a long while." 83: Read this for our arts book club, and wasn't sure what to expect. I thoroughly enjoyed it. p. 57: after unknowingly chatting up a famous artist // "But I learned something: a truly great person has a profound curiosity about the world and the people in it, an interest that encompasses everything and everyone. Real curiosity, I now know, doesn't leave much room for judgment." 62: "...I sat alone, virtually friendless, about to be jobless, empty, and at peace for the first time in a long while." 83: Is a boulder art? // "The most important works of art raise more questions than they answer." 100: cult of busy // "While being frantically busy is something many of my colleagues in the museum field pride themselves on, I now see it as a chance to make sure you never get to think about, experience, or feel anything deeply at all." 103: "It's one thing to want to create something, another to spend your life interpreting what someone else has made. At that moment, I understood why I had become a curator." 128: "bad" painting -- did it exist? who set the standards? 132: synesthesia -- numbers look like colors for her 135: new paradigm -- semi permanent collection; changing org structure, extending beyond egalitarian ideals 148: "...create an organizational climate that was highly productive and efficient but was also fair, compassionate, and human." 160: well-read; wanted to learn about the world [beyond art] 161: "...if you really look [...] and pay close attention to the ways the images resonate with your own life, then the world of your experience and the world of the artist's experience have a chance to connect." 163: "For twenty-five years, I had tried to understand others -- in the case of artists, to interpret through their eyes -- and suddenly it struck me that that made twenty-five years of avoiding the painful process of looking into myself, and calling that avoidance 'work'." 169: [sigh] // "How stupid we are to assume that minor gains in the endless battle for women's rights are permanent advances." 192: show about age and aging // "...for most of our adult lives, we're valued for what we do; with age, we can move toward being valued (and valuing ourselves) for who we are."

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kimmy

    Loved every page of this book. A great read for those who enjoyed Ninth Street Women. Fierce and adventurous, funny, self-aware and smart. Marcia Tucker was a woman who paved the way for more women, BIPOC and marginalized artists to be shown in the art world. She was the dream curator who believes in the spirit of curiosity and seeking to understand the message of others rather than prioritizing her judgement from the start.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Monica

    What an inspiration Marcia Tucker was- a complete bad ass feminist who envisioned an alternative to the typical museum that is constrained by the conventions of an institution. I could do relate to her experiences and frustrations!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Liz

    A memoir worth reading if you have an interest in the contemporary art world. Marcia Tucker is an interesting ,inspiring woman who accomplished so much in her life--and tells us about it in a witty, breezy and succinct 200 pages. Love her.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ciara

    This book was inspirational, what a profound life she had. Her approach to contemporary art, to breaking down institutional malaise and pushing boundaries is exceptional. A very enjoyable page turner and will need a memorable story and life to take inspiration from always.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Alejandra

    An amazing ride. Feel like it was a tiny bit incomplete, though.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Fascinating life lived in an interesting time but i did not appreciate her memoir writing style. She dropped many famous names but none of them came alive for me.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Wren

    Marcia Tucker writes: As a novice academician, I was assigned to the introductory classes, but I felt that I had leeway to be inventive, since the department head wasn’t paying much attention to the basic courses. My favorite was art appreciation, the class no one really wanted to teach because, unlike, say, “Sixteenth-Century Folio Editions in the Flemish Lowlands,” it did little for a résumé. I threw everything I knew, and much I didn’t, into the mix, hoping my students – many of them only a fe Marcia Tucker writes: As a novice academician, I was assigned to the introductory classes, but I felt that I had leeway to be inventive, since the department head wasn’t paying much attention to the basic courses. My favorite was art appreciation, the class no one really wanted to teach because, unlike, say, “Sixteenth-Century Folio Editions in the Flemish Lowlands,” it did little for a résumé. I threw everything I knew, and much I didn’t, into the mix, hoping my students – many of them only a few years younger than I was – could understand that art was important. I wanted them to experience what it was like to make something that wasn’t “useful,” and to come to respect it. Many were from rural and working-class families where art was considered extraneous, a put-on, a waste of time. I didn’t ask them to actually make artworks because it was an art appreciation course, not a studio class. Instead, I used games and exercises to try to help them discover their potential to live a creative life. One exercise I gave required that the students do something they had never done before – something that seriously scared and challenged them and that would take an entire semester to accomplish. A student who had never cooked a single thing in her entire life produced a soup. Another of my students, an older man, taught himself to tap dance, and he demonstrated for us – he wasn’t very good at it, but it was just beautiful. One of my students taught herself to ride a motorcycle, and she got her license the day of our final class. Another taught herself to fix her car. On the last day of class, she dragged in a car engine and proceeded to take it apart and put it back together in front of us. Our jaws were on the ground. Some projects were very personal: one man explained that he had been estranged from his father his whole life and spent the semester reconnecting with him.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sian Lile-Pastore

    I really loved this. I loved the easy, personable style which effortlessly mixed memoir with life as a curator and an academic. You can't beat a story which ends up with 'and it turned out I was talking to Duchamp... or Warhol or Auden'! adorable!! Also this covers really serious points about sexism in art and in museums and galleries, Tucker was the first female curator at the Whitney, and douches like Clement Greenberg would go up to her and tell her that she had done a good job 'helping out' w I really loved this. I loved the easy, personable style which effortlessly mixed memoir with life as a curator and an academic. You can't beat a story which ends up with 'and it turned out I was talking to Duchamp... or Warhol or Auden'! adorable!! Also this covers really serious points about sexism in art and in museums and galleries, Tucker was the first female curator at the Whitney, and douches like Clement Greenberg would go up to her and tell her that she had done a good job 'helping out' when she had actually organised and curated the whole exhibition! Tucker is honest about her successes and failures and I was interested in her thoughts on what is professional and what isn't - is crying when you sack someone professional? is it wrong to show that you care? While reading this book I kept thinking of the character of Bette Porter in the L Word, there are many similarities I think! Anyway, this book - which was published posthumously - is a wonderful and inspiring book and can be enjoyed just as a memoir, but I think would be particularly appealing to anyone working in the arts and in museums.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Audacia Ray

    I'm not a person who does beach reads. Case in point: the other reading I brought on vacation with me was about female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. Yeah, I know how to party. So, a book about feminism and the art world from the sixties until the early aughties, told in a punchy way, is about as close as I get to a real beach read. Marcia Tucker's story was well told, lively, and thoroughly engaging. Well worth a read if you're interested in contemporary art, feminism and art, and the N I'm not a person who does beach reads. Case in point: the other reading I brought on vacation with me was about female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. Yeah, I know how to party. So, a book about feminism and the art world from the sixties until the early aughties, told in a punchy way, is about as close as I get to a real beach read. Marcia Tucker's story was well told, lively, and thoroughly engaging. Well worth a read if you're interested in contemporary art, feminism and art, and the New York art scene in the past 40 plus years. Though she does get a little name-droppy, if you don't know the names (I only knew some of them), it doesn't mar the story or make you feel like you're missing out at all.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Robert Boyd

    Good, but it could have used a thorough edit. Unfortunately, Tucker died while writing it. Tucker is one of the first female art historians who reached important management level in the museum world in the late 60s. But even after becoming one of the curators at the Whitney, her approach and tastes were a little too radical for that institution. She was fired but instantly founded her own museum, The New Museum. Perhaps the best part of the book is her describing her strategy in founding the mus Good, but it could have used a thorough edit. Unfortunately, Tucker died while writing it. Tucker is one of the first female art historians who reached important management level in the museum world in the late 60s. But even after becoming one of the curators at the Whitney, her approach and tastes were a little too radical for that institution. She was fired but instantly founded her own museum, The New Museum. Perhaps the best part of the book is her describing her strategy in founding the museum. Her step-by-step description should be used as a case study for those getting non-profit MBAs. It's completely logical, starting small with a scalable enterprise. She died in 2006, but the New Museum continues and thrives.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Rujeko

    perhaps a 'niche' read (i.e. if you're not super interested in the minutaie of the life and history of a museum curator, maybe it's not for you), but this is certainly a very satisfying and reasonably well-written autobiography. the inside scoop on the nyc art world 1960s onward at the whitney and the new museum! perhaps a 'niche' read (i.e. if you're not super interested in the minutaie of the life and history of a museum curator, maybe it's not for you), but this is certainly a very satisfying and reasonably well-written autobiography. the inside scoop on the nyc art world 1960s onward at the whitney and the new museum!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mark B.

    Marcia Tucker was the founder of the New Museum in NYC. This autobiography takes you through the shaky times and the near-radical brilliance of her life. At times gossipy, bitchy and blunt, her anecdotes paint a not-too-pretty picture of life in the NYC museum world back in the day, but put in perspective a lot of what we do and see in museums today.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Francisco Reivax

    Marcia Tucker life's memoir is a wild and enjoyable ride of a book! This too short but energitic and entertaining memoir written by the late Marcia Tucker (1940-2006) chronicles her highly creative life as the founder / director of The New Museum of Contemporary Arts in New York City. It is a provocative wild ride and worth all the curves of her journey !!! Marcia Tucker life's memoir is a wild and enjoyable ride of a book! This too short but energitic and entertaining memoir written by the late Marcia Tucker (1940-2006) chronicles her highly creative life as the founder / director of The New Museum of Contemporary Arts in New York City. It is a provocative wild ride and worth all the curves of her journey !!!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    I'm not done yet and I refuse to look up anything else about her until I finish but I got to say this is probably one of the better books I've ever read. Coming from a recent BFA graduate she is truly an inspiring person and such a go getter, if only everyone had the motivation that she had.. I'm not done yet and I refuse to look up anything else about her until I finish but I got to say this is probably one of the better books I've ever read. Coming from a recent BFA graduate she is truly an inspiring person and such a go getter, if only everyone had the motivation that she had..

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Watch Marcia Tucker kick an art world's ass. Watch Marcia Tucker kick an art world's ass.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    Best. Book. Ever. Marcia Tuker gave me courage and inspiration to continue on. What an inspriational life!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    if you are interested in working in the museum world, especially in contemporary art or in nyc you MUST read this book. and revel in what a bad ass human being & curator marcia tucker was.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jerry

    Depressingly tough life story, but also an admirable story in how she founded the New Museum of Contemporary Art

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

    A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World by Marcia Tucker (2008)

  28. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Katz

    I met Marcia Tucker aka Miss Mannerist during or just after grad school and I knew she was amazing but this book reminded me how much she rocked! Amazing woman, great read, new hero!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Yasemin

    I have such respect for this lady and her accomplishments in/ for the art world, what an engagingly portrayed memoir.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    One of the best books I've ever read, I wish I could have met this incredible woman. She was a force, and changed the lives of so many artists. One of the best books I've ever read, I wish I could have met this incredible woman. She was a force, and changed the lives of so many artists.

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