Cultural Quarterly
Fall 2008
Volume XXI, Number 4
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Committee Member Profile
Irvin Lippman
photo courtesy of Sun-Sentinel

Irvin Lippman Sees Art
as an Experience

to be Explored by the Community
By Leon M. Rubin

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In the midst of a seemingly ubiquitous presidential election, it’s a relief to know that when Irvin Lippman characterizes museums as being “among the most democratic of places,” he is not talking about politics. 

Instead, he is using the term in its broadest sense.  “Art is available to anyone,” says Lippman, executive director of the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, Nova Southeastern University since 2003.  “This is a great counterpoint to any argument about the arts being elitist.  I believe that everyone can find at least one work of art that they can call their own.  How great it is to have at least one thing you can go to – whether it’s a Monet water lily or a Jackson Pollock - that invites you to explore.”

Lippman’s choice of words – the notion of “exploring” works of art rather than simply looking at them – is central to his philosophy about the role of museums as well as the purpose of public art.  As a long-time museum director and a member of the Broward Cultural Council’s Public Art and Design Committee, he is unusually well-situated to put his beliefs into action in a highly visible way.

“It’s not enough just to put artwork on a wall,” he explains.  “We have to be able to talk about it.  That’s part of our role.”  He views art as “an invitation to reflection,” he continues.  “That’s how you gain self-knowledge.”

Public art presents similar opportunities, he observes.  “How do you make an art experience part of human nature?  What better way of doing that than through public art?  We’re not putting art on the walls just for ourselves, and the same is true of art in a public space.”  He calls Broward County’s Public Art and Design Program, which is now in its fourth decade, a “terrific program; well-respected.  But one always needs to build the prestige of the program.  A great public art program is a way of identifying a city as someplace special.”  He has helped to advance this goal by serving on a number of selection panels for the Public Art and Design Committee.

Given his views about the egalitarian nature of art, it’s not surprising that Lippman is excited about the evolution of public art to the point where “we are thinking about spaces as works of art.”  He mentions plans for a new cruise ship terminal at Port Everglades, where the color palette of the walls and the design of the terrazzo floor will combine to envelop visitors. 

“You’re walking into an installation; into a very special place,” Lippman says enthusiastically.  “You’re stepping into a work of art from your everyday world.” 

Although he is surrounded by art today, Lippman didn’t set out to be an arts administrator.  In fact, as a self-described “child of the Sixties,” he had no clear path in mind when he earned a liberal arts degree from the University of Denver in 1970.  He spent a year working for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), the domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps, and then set off to backpack through Europe for a year.

It was there that he became enthralled with the great works of art found in museums and churches around the continent.  Inspired to learn more, he returned to his home state and earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of Texas.  Afterwards, while visiting friends in Washington, D.C., he took a job in the education department at the National Gallery of Art.  He soon became a staff lecturer - and the die was cast. 

Lippman moved on to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, where his 11-year tenure included six years as assistant director.  He then led the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio as executive director from 1994 to 2002.  Feeling the need for a break, he went to Berlin on a sabbatical.  He was there when the Fort Lauderdale opportunity beckoned.

“I came here to visit, and I could see there were issues to be solved for the museum, but there was also great potential,” he notes.  Taking a friend’s advice - “there are no easy jobs, so take the job with the greatest potential in a place you want to live” – he decided to make the move. 

Since arriving at the Museum of Art, he has overseen several major exhibitions – including the acclaimed Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs in 2005-2006 – and the establishment of highly regarded Artist in Residence and Studio Arts programs.  Most recently, as the Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary, he shepherded the organization through a merger with Nova Southeastern University that he believes will ensure its success for generations to come.  (Please see ArtNews for additional details.)

“A community needs the arts and a great natural wonder in order to thrive as a destination,” he says.  With the pristine waters of the Atlantic at one end of Las Olas Boulevard and the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale at the other, it’s a safe bet that Irvin Lippman has found a destination where he will be happy to stay for a very long time.