Making MAD

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Barbara Tober doesn’t just break the mold of every role she takes on. She pulverizes it, gathers the rubble, and has the pieces made into tasteful decorative artwork for her mantle. Her quick wit, sharp determination, and expressive joie de vivre have served her well in life, whether running a magazine or a museum—in this case, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). As its chairman for 15 years, she saw the museum through changes of both name and address, and convinced people that they should look closer at unexpected places for art. Over a glass of iced tea, she revealed all she experienced in that time:

LILY HOAGLAND: After being editor-in-chief of Brides for 30 years, how did you become chairman of the museum?

BARBARA TOBER: In the early 1980s, I joined-—for $100—their Associates Committee. I liked what I was seeing, what I was learning about, and I kept my eye on the ball. In 1993, someone said to me, “You should be chairman.” I thought that sounded kind of terrific. So I went to Si [Newhouse] and said, “I love you, I love Condé Nast, but I love the art world and I’m going to be chairman of this museum.” My going-away party was at the museum, which at that time was on 53rd Street—the whole thing was mostly a staircase. It was ridiculous.

LH: What was your first objective?

BT: Nobody knew of it. People would ask me what kind of museum it was. I thought, “Well, I’ve got a job to do here: make sure people know about it.” So I badgered everybody that I knew, constantly, telling them all about the museum, what was going on there, and inviting them to various things. It’s never been huge, especially when it was the American Craft Museum.

LH: What prompted the name change?

BT: It was obvious we had to change our name, but it took five years. People were betting on the fact that we would never do it. The word “American” didn’t work because we had artists from all over the world. On my first day, I walked into an exhibit of Icelandic art and design, and there was the president of Iceland. We were, in fact, really international and I wanted to nurture that. Then the word “Craft”—this is a very snobby city. People don’t like the word “Craft.” You can get away with “Craft” in Chicago, Minneapolis, Houston—not here. David McFadden, who was the chief curator, came up with the idea of the Museum of Arts and Design, and we thought we could have a little fun with it. Call it the MAD museum!

LH: You also had a long wait before MAD’s move to 2 Columbus Circle, when the proposed renovation of the building touched off a heated battle over its landmark status and preservation.

BT: City council members and community heads had told us, ‘‘You’re accessible, you’re affordable, you’re understandable, you’re everything we want in that building.” So we got it. Then we had to wait. Everybody had to work hard to keep this place, but it was our building and we were going to make it ours. Three years went by. Finally, the place was ready…in 2008, in the middle of the worst recession. It was such a sign of trust in the future that we just went ahead.

LH: Do you feel like you still need to convince people that craftsmanship is art?

BT: Yes. But look at Sondra Gilman, who’s on the board of the Whitney [Museum of American Art]. She asked them for years to collect photography, and they kept saying, “Photography’s not art.” Today, who would argue that photography’s not art? Art is changing, and we must change with it. The kind of artists we are dealing with now come from a full range of work in various materials and process, and craftsmanship is terribly important. We need to show how it is made: there is a great deal of romance in how something is constructed. If you are really very good at what you do, you are a craftsperson. You are an artist.

LH: What did you learn in your 15 years as chairman?

BT: To me, this is a world of discovery, a world of invention, a world of really exciting, rewarding delight. I have a philosophy about things: Every day you’re going to have a triumph and a tragedy. When we were going through all the lawsuits [to renovate 2 Columbus Circle], we would get some bad news and I’d start laughing. People would ask me, “How can you be laughing at a time like this?” I’d say, “Because it is so ludicrous, so nonsensical!” First you laugh, then you solve the problem.