At 80, Populist Arts Advocate John Hightower Passes Away, Leaving New York with a Funding Legacy

by Julia Wolkoff on July 16, 2013 Obituary

John Hightower via Daily Press

John Hightower passed away on July 6th, at the age of 80. He will be remembered as a tough-as-nails, populist administrator who changed the course of state funding for the arts, served as MoMA’s director during a time of social upheaval, and invigorated the South Seaport Museum.

Born in Atlanta, Hightower grew up on Long Island. He never studied art, graduating with an English degree from Yale University in 1955. Despite this, Hightower proved to be a brilliant fundraiser and arts advocate.

Hightower worked his way up to become  director of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), one of the first state-wide art funding organizations of its kind. From his appointment in 1964 to his departure in 1970, he increased the organization’s budget from $500,000 to $22 million. Under Hightower’s guidance, the council expanded its New York City-centered focus to art outreach programs for poor neighborhoods and rural areas that rarely, if ever, hosted art events. These populist approaches became templates for state councils nationwide.

Hightower also holds the record for youngest director of MoMA. Appointed in May 1970, at age 37, Hightower was fired a mere 19 months later following antiwar protests at the museum and a unionized museum staff strike, which Hightower supported. Most notably,  Hightower was responsible for keeping Hans Haacke’s controversial MoMA Poll project on view, despite threats from Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

It seems Hightower could not hold his tongue when it came to letting MoMA’s board know he was on the side of artists. The Times suggests that Hightower believed the museum board should include artists “as well as rich people” and that the warehoused collections could be loaned out to other museums in order for artists could be shown did not sit well with the trustees. I would imagine not.

In 1977, Hightower became the director of the South Street Seaport Museum, and elevated the low-traffic maritime museum to a popular tourist destination. He took over the museum at a time of financial tumult and administrative dalliance, becoming their first long-term director. He stayed for 16 years, before taking on a directorship at the Mariner Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

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