museum director Andrew Wulf
PERSON TO PERSON
Paul Weideman talks to Andrew Wulf, who takes the helm at the New Mexico History Museum/ Palace of the Governors
Vintage motorcycles, Abraham Lincoln, baseball, the paintings of Nikolai Getman, and treasures from the Walt Disney Archives at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum were among the exhibition subjects Andrew Wulf staged during his five years as curator at the National Archives. A proudly proclaimed man of many interests, Wulf is the new director of the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors. He succeeds longtime director Frances Levine, who is now president of the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis, and interim director Jon Hunner, professor of history at New Mexico State University.
Before his time at the National Archives, during which he also supervised a $12 million renovation of the Ronald Reagan Library, he was curator of special collections at the University of Southern California for six years. His educational credentials include bachelor’s degrees in international relations and French and a master’s in art history, all from the University of Southern California, and a PhD in museum studies from the University of Leicester, England. Wulf also studied philology at the Sorbonne and medieval architecture at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. He is a recent graduate of the Getty Leadership Institute for Museum Executives. His book, U.S. International Exhibitions During the Cold War: Winning Hearts and Minds Through Cultural Diplomacy, was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.
Pasatiempo: Where were you raised?
Andrew Wulf: I grew up on the west side of Los Angeles, which was just quiet suburbia back then.
Pasa: Did you have early inklings that you would work in museums and curating?
Wulf: I knew in my heart of hearts as a child that I wanted to be in the museum game. That was because my parents, who are a psychologist and an aerospace engineer, put all their family resources into travel, and it was often to places that had outstanding museums. The exhibition that made the greatest impression on me was the King Tut exhibition, which I saw at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Later on I found some of those same pieces at the national museum in Cairo, which I saw as a teenager. Pasa: Was Egypt a special interest? Wulf: Not necessarily. I’m very much a generalist. My first job was working in education and membership at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. At USC I did about 30 exhibitions on an array of subjects. Most of that was as a curator, and the lion’s share dealt with socially relevant history such as the Armenian genocide, the Hungarian revolution, and the history of book burning, as well as lighter subjects, including The Curious World of Lewis Carroll, visionary car designs in the space age, the story of Don Quixote, and The Art of the Album Cover.
Pasa: How much do you think that eclecticism came from your parents?
Wulf: One of the luxuries of being a curator is that you can become a devotee and a miniexpert on each subject, so I found that I was quite nimble at learning and compartmentalizing histories and balancing that with the larger focus of museum work. But, yeah, my parents are pretty different from each other. They are both self-made people from humble backgrounds; they’re a perfect example of the American dream. They gave my brother and me a tremendous amount, across the board. Pasa: Tell us about your book. Wulf: At one point I was talked out of pursuing a PhD in art history, but I kept my ideas open for other PhD programs because I knew I wanted to write a book. At USC I became a fellow at the Center on Public Diplomacy because I had written about propaganda in U.S. foreign policy. As time went on I became acquainted with people who had been involved in U.S. international exhibitions during the Cold War.
Pasa: Did you write about the U.S. exhibition in Moscow in 1959?
Wulf: I did. I have a chapter on it, discussing the debate between Nixon and Khrushchev. [The exhibition was nicknamed] Splitnik because there was a U.S. home that was cut in half so Russians could walk through it and see how much better life was in the U.S. In the book, I also look at trade fairs in the 1950s, thematic exhibitions and world’s fair pavilions in the 1960s, and the Charles and Ray Eames exhibition The World of Franklin and Jefferson.
The fellow who gave me the most information was Jack Masey. He got his start in design as part of Patton’s ghost army in World War II, and he shared his foxhole with Ellsworth Kelly, Art Kane, and Bill Blass, if you can imagine that kind of grouping of creativity.
This all ties together with my world of museum jobs, because I’m a student of museums and design and history.
Pasa: The main exhibition at the History Museum is long-term — Telling New Mexico: Stories From Then
and Now. What about changing shows?
Wulf: We have several changing exhibition spaces. Two of the exhibitions,
Poetics of Light and Painting the Divine, will come down next year. We’re making way for a counterculture exhibition and a lowrider exhibition.
The core exhibit is very traditional but dazzling. It takes a strict chronological approach to New Mexico history, but I like to think that we have a subtle mix of the very prescribed — this is New Mexico history from soup to nuts — and something looser. I’m really urging our admission clerks to ask people coming in what they’re most interested in learning, whether it’s the Manhattan Project or the Pueblo Revolt or whatever they most want to see. This is just a phenomenal museum, and meeting the staff back in my first interview was a major selling point.
Pasa: Last year Jon Hunner talked about the work needed on the courtyard walls of the Palace of the Governors. That depends on a special session of legislature passing a capital construction bill, and it looks like that will not happen.
Wulf: Indeed. And the Palace is an immense responsibility. There’s nothing more important to us than protecting that history. A lot of the issues are most apparent in the courtyard, but there is other exterior work to be done and interior improvements needed as well. Pasa: Is anything at the Palace in dire need of addressing? Wulf: No. What we’re dealing with is mainly cosmetic. The Palace of the Governors is just something that we are blessed to be the stewards of, and it will always need some TLC. And if the legislature doesn’t step up now, we’re hopeful they will next time. When we have the funding, we are ready to leap into action.
Santa Fe is so special; it is a global destination, but my allegiance really is to New Mexico. Every weekend I’m driving to a different destination in the state, and I want to partner with every county and also team with the public libraries around New Mexico. I would like to do not only mini exhibits in the libraries but also offer to do oral histories with people from all corners of the state.
Pasa: How do you fund those library exhibitions and oral histories and the new exhibitions here at the museum? What’s your grand financial plan for the History Museum?
Wulf: Our number-one partner is the New Mexico Museum Foundation. We work with them to raise funds for all of our programming. The one thing they can’t help us with is bricks and mortar.
In terms of a grand financial plan, I want to make as many friends as I can and work as closely as possible with the foundation, because a lot of our outreach for funding comes through working with generous philanthropic individuals and grant writing, and the foundation helps us on all fronts. Pasa: Of course, there is competition among the museums for funds. Wulf: There is, but my mentors in the field taught me that collaboration can get you much further. I’m all about collaboration and sometimes trying the unorthodox. My biggest concern, in addition to pushing the really innovative ideas of my curators, is that I think it’s OK to take creative risks in this field.
I’d like to do an exhibition on Breaking Bad and bring to light more of the social problems that exist in this state. Believe you me, I already call this state home. I love living here. I look forward to being a longtime New Mexico resident. But nothing’s taboo. We already told the very traditional story very effectively. Pasa: Are you going to curate? Wulf: No. Our four curators — Meredith [Davidson], Josef [Díaz], Daniel [Kosharek], and Tom [Leech] — are brilliant, and they do plenty of good work on their own. We’ll riff on ideas, but I won’t foist or force things on them.