It’s Not an Art Collection. It’s Her Life.

Posted June 14, 2018 7:25 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “I am not a collector,” Claudia Gould, director of the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, said adamantly, sitting in her corner office overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park. An entire wall — hung densely, floor to ceiling, with works she’s accumulated by Louise Bourgeois, Shirin Neshat and Sol LeWitt, among many others — might suggest otherwise.

“This is my work,” said Gould, who typically acquires pieces directly from artists she knows rather than by way of galleries or auctions. “It’s all a visual history of my career. Every piece has a story. This is my life.”

One acquisition was a 1967 Robert Rauschenberg print inherited from an uncle. She was introduced to that artist’s work at the Yale University Art Gallery as a teenager who took the bus into New Haven, Connecticut, from the suburbs to go to museums or the theater. “I started reading about Rauschenberg,” she recalled. “He said there’s no separation between art and life. It was so inspiring to me as a high school student.”

As an intern at Artists Space in Manhattan in 1981, Gould worked alongside Ann Philbin, now director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (the two curated their first show together while still interns for the venue Art Galaxy), and photographer Cindy Sherman, who was then answering phones. Gould also befriended artists showing there, including Haim Steinbach and Laurie Simmons. One of Simmons’ large photos is on a wall of Gould’s small apartment on 12th Street, hung salon style.

After getting a job as a curator in Buffalo at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center with a recommendation from Sherman, Gould became friends with Kiki Smith who was part of an exhibition about the artists collective Colab. Multiple works by Smith populate the director’s office wall.

Gould returned to Artists Space in the 1990s as director. She purchased prints commissioned for fundraising benefits by artists she exhibited there, including Jim Hodges and Nan Goldin. An Ann Hamilton print was Gould’s goodbye gift when she left to take the helm of Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. She continued the practice of buying benefit prints commissioned from artists such as Maira Kalman, Karen Kilimnik, Barry Le Va and Lisa Yuskavage.

When she moved to the Jewish Museum six years ago, Gould was keen to display art in the lobby. During a lunch she had with Mel Bochner, whose word paintings were going to be shown at the museum, he wrote on a slip of lined paper “KVETCH KVETCH KVETCH KVETCH” multiple times across his sketch of the front desk — a drawing now framed on Gould’s wall. Ultimately, he used “BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH” for the lobby wall, Gould explained, “because people were going to think everyone complains here.”

These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Q: Do you have any particular favorites on your wall?

A: I love that Lisa Yuskavage painting, especially the [woman’s striped] tights. I always wear patterned tights. Lisa gave me that for one of my big birthdays. Also the Sheila Hicks, who had this incredible show at the ICA. It was a change-maker for Sheila, who went from the craft world to the art world. When I first took the job at the Jewish Museum, she dropped by and dumped all this yarn on my couch and said, “What colors do you like?” I just figured she wanted my ideas. A year later she showed up with this [small weaving]. I think that’s the most surprising gift I ever got.

Q: Have you had other unexpected gifts?

A: The photographer Seton Smith, Kiki’s sister, one summer stayed in my apartment while I was traveling. When I left that apartment on 11th Street to buy an apartment on 12th Street, she gave me a suite of photographs she had taken from my window on 11th Street.

Q: What do you like about salon-style hanging?

A: What do you do with all this art? I live in 600 square feet. It’s in my bedroom. It’s just a nice way to wake up. I like the salon style. There’s no separation between art and life. It’s the same thing. My friends are the art world and people I work with. They expand and I expand with them.