Marilyn Zeitlin is retiring as director of the ASU Art Museum, ending a 15-year career attracting million-dollar donations, national recognition and, occasionally, investigations.
During her tenure, the Arizona State University museum built one of the world’s largest ceramic collections. And Art in America, a respected arts magazine, named it Arizona’s most impressive contemporary art venue.
“She came in with a great vision for connecting a university art museum to the community at large, and she brought very one-of-a-kind types of exhibits,” said Shelley Cohn, former executive director of thwe Arizona Commission on the Arts.
Zeitlin, 66, will leave the museum at year’s end but will continue to work for ASU through 2008 while on leave to do research. She has been director and curator her entire time at the museum, crafting the exhibits and making the museum’s business decisions.
Zeitlin said she chose to retire now because Kwang-Wu Kim, the new dean of the Herberger College of the Arts, wants the museum run differently.
“I think the job is going to become much more strictly administrative rather than to have the curatorial aspect to it. That is where my greatest strength lies and, certainly, my greatest interests,” she said.
Kim has said he would decide whether to separate the director and curator jobs as he works to replace Zeitlin.
ASU’s museum gained attention in 1998 with its collection “Contemporary Art From Cuba,” which introduced audiences in the United States to many Cuban artists.
Zeitlin said she visited the island about 20 times over two years to meet artists and persuade them to give ASU their work.
Art overcoming oppression has been the theme for a number of the museum’s exhibits.
“We’re an institution within a university. And so big issues, big questions, are more important than just entertainment,” Zeitlin said.
In 2004, as ASU hosted the final presidential debate, the museum exhibited “Democracy in America,” a collection of art that aggressively mocked the candidates.
Zeitlin built a reputation for edgy, politically charged shows. But it was her administrative work that caused controversy.
An investigation by the state Auditor General in 1998 found that Zeitlin misused $275,000 in museum funds.
The auditor accused Zeitlin of inappropriate spending, including about $80 to send flowers to Stephane Janssen, a Scottsdale art collector, in the hospital.
“I was dying,” Janssen said, explaining the flowers. “I had a staph infection in my spine.”
An internal ASU investigation, however, found no wrongdoing.
This year, a university auditor questioned Zeitlin’s dealings with Janssen.
Janssen donated about $450,000 to the museum with the condition that Zeitlin would use the money to purchase works from his business, Art Start.
The donations provided Janssen with a tax deduction. ASU ended the practice after the auditor uncovered it.
ASU’s museum has received more scrutiny from auditors than other parts of the university because it deals in large dollar amounts, Zeitlin said. “There’s a lot of wealth that goes in and out of these doors.”
Janssen is the museum’s largest donor; he gave $4 million worth of ceramic artwork in 2004 alone.
Zeitlin said she began lobbying Janssen for contributions after her first tour of the museum in 1992. Her two favorite pieces were on loan from Janssen.
“This is a person who’s given in excess of $6 million in art and money to this institution,” Zeitlin said. “It’s not as if he gave some leftovers from his library.”
Aside from expanding its collection, the museum regularly featured Arizona artists.
“She has a very strong background in art history and was able to see talent in a lot of young and emerging artists,” Cohn said.
Zeitlin has given nearly all her time to the museum, she said. She plans to use retirement for writing and freelance curating.
The museum is poised to continue growing.
“The leadership in the museum will stay on without me,” she said, “and institutions are more than one person.”