Denver’s art world continues to thrive. This month, the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver’s art museum dedicated to the work of one of the 20th century’s most prominent abstract expressionists, Clyfford Still, announced that Joyce Tsai will be its new director.
Tsai joins us as the second director to ever serve as the head of the 10-year-old institution, replacing founding director Dean Sobel. She has a proven track record in research and education as an award-winning scholar and current chief curator of the Stanley University of Iowa Museum of Art, and an associate professor of practice at the School of Art and Art History of the University of Iowa. Before she hopped into the director’s seat on August 1, we spoke with Tsai about the power of abstract art, Denver’s creative ecosystem, and how she intends to create a more welcoming museum experience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Tell me about your journey here – how this role at the Clyfford Still Museum clicked as a next step for you.
Joyce Tsai: It was one of those things that really looked like an alignment of all the stars. I have always loved the paintings of Clyfford Still. They’re incredibly rare, and it has such a distinctive style and beautiful execution that when you meet a Clyfford Still painting in the wild, it’s always an incredibly moving experience. I always liked the kind of things that [ambitious, abstract paintings] can do for us, but also demand from us, you know? They are large paintings; they demand not only our attention, but our time. They demand our care.
What about Denver? What did you see as an opportunity within this city?
Until I interviewed for this position, I had never actually been to Denver. It was getting to know [Clyfford Still] institution that I discovered how incredibly savvy Denver has been in positioning culture as [something] which makes a city not only enjoyable, but truly, as an economic engine – as a resource that unites the rich and vibrant diversity of the community, which provides access to arts education – which truly positions art as an element essential to what makes Denver, Denver. One of the things that really excites me is doing the [Clyfford Still Museum] The research center serves as a center that brings together many different institutions, from various points of view. It would be amazing to have researchers who focus on modern and contemporary art. But it would also be amazing to start a residency program, or a scholarship program, which also encourages the work of living and emerging artists. … There are a lot of museums right now that ask a lot of questions about how we diversify, how we do it. And the Clyfford Still Museum, from my perspective, did a lot of this work before people talked about it.
In what state of mind did you take on this role – on the occasion of the museum’s 10th anniversary – as the second director to serve since Dean Sobel?
It’s a great time to celebrate what Denver, the former director, and what the museum has accomplished. I mean, it’s a birthday party, sort of. But it’s also a great way to look at the next 10 years… the ways in which the museum can act as a catalyst. And I think the Clyfford Still Museum is actually in this amazing position to ask: how do you draw strength from the collection, from this museum and from this institution that is anchored in a vibrant city? How do you create a situation where people from as many different backgrounds can draw strength from it?
To be a little more specific, I should say, I am an immigrant. English is not my mother tongue. I came to this country when I was seven years old. I grew up in St. Louis, and it’s an amazing city with a lot of cultural institutions. I remember going to the St. Louis Art Museum, but it wasn’t a space I necessarily felt comfortable in, you know? It wasn’t like, How do you create a museum [and] programming that not only draws people to the door, but makes them genuinely excited to treat the museum as an extension of their own interests and needs? So one of the things that I’m really looking forward to is discovering all the different ways the Clyfford Still Museum is going to be a museum where the people of Denver call it “their museum”. We all have museums where we have this kind of intense affection. This is my space; it is our space. I want to cultivate this sensitivity to move forward.
You previously mentioned that you were excited about “allowing new audiences” to engage in this space. What does it look like?
When we say “new audiences” it’s often a shortcut. But… it goes back to that sense of belonging that I want a museum to cultivate – for everyone to belong. No distinction between “us” and “them”, [or] “traditional” and “non-traditional” audiences. But also, at all times, keep in mind that when you enter a museum, you don’t necessarily speak the language; it’s gonna be a different experience. And when you don’t speak the cultural language, it’s gonna be a different experience. Museums could [either] treat this as a problem, or we can see it as some kind of facet that enhances our sense of the possibility of this space.
This is one of the qualities of abstract art. It will make you want to struggle to find the words to express what the painting does to and with you. And that will make us want to tell others about this experience.
Clyfford Still’s paintings are beloved for the way they breathe humanity, even through abstract forms, something you know a lot about from your research during this time. What is your vision for ensuring the Denverites experience this human touch when they visit?
[A museum] is a moving and lively company that touches the touch of all those who cross it. There is a kind of warmth that is palpable in the museum. This is something that really struck me about the Clyfford Still Museum, and something that I really want to pass on. Even though it’s, you know, poured concrete — and concrete can feel not too hot sometimes — I think it’s an unbelievably hot place. And I’m going to do whatever I can to make it a welcoming place, a place where everyone feels they belong.