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The Denver art world continues to flourish. This month, the Clyfford Still Museum—the Denver art museum dedicated to the work of one of most preeminent abstract expressionists of the 20th century, Clyfford Still—announced Joyce Tsai as its new director.
Tsai joins as only the second director to ever serve at the helm of the 10-year-old institution, replacing founding director Dean Sobel. She boasts a lauded background in research and education as an award-winning scholar and the current chief curator at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, and associate professor of practice at the University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History. Before she jumps into the director’s seat 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.
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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: This was one of those things that really felt like an alignment of all of the stars. I’ve always loved Clyfford Still’s paintings. They’re incredibly rare, and he has such a distinctive style and such beautiful execution, that when you encounter a Clyfford Still painting out in the wild, it’s always an incredibly moving experience. I’ve always loved the kinds of things that [ambitious, abstract paintings] can do for us, but also demand from us, you know? These are big paintings; they demand not just our attention, but our time. They demand our care.
What about Denver? What did you see as an opportunity within this city?
Until I was interviewing for this position, I had actually never been to Denver. It was in the process of getting to know the [Clyfford Still] institution that I discovered how incredibly savvy Denver has been in positioning culture as [something] that makes a city not just nice, but really, as an economic driver—as a resource that knits together the rich, vibrant diversity of the community, that provides access to arts education—that really kind of positions art as a vital part of what makes Denver, Denver. One of the things I’m really excited about doing is making the [Clyfford Still Museum] Research Center serve as a center that knits together a lot of different institutions, from various vantage points. It would be amazing to get researchers who focus on modern and contemporary art. But it would also be amazing to begin a residency program, or a fellowship program, that also encourages the work of living and emerging artists. … There are a lot of museums right now that are asking lots of questions about how we diversify—how we do this. And the Clyfford Still Museum, from my perspective, has been doing a lot of this work before people were talking about it.
What’s been your mindset as you step into this role—in the museum’s 10th anniversary year—as only the second director to serve since Dean Sobel?
It’s a really wonderful opportunity to celebrate what Denver, what the previous director, and what the museum has achieved. I mean it’s a birthday party, sort of. But it’s also a really great way to think ahead to the next 10 years … the ways in which the museum can serve as a catalyst. And I think the Clyfford Still Museum is actually in this amazing position to ask: How do we draw strength from the collection and this museum and this institution that’s embedded within a vibrant city? How do we create a situation where people coming from as many different backgrounds as possible can draw strength from it?
To be a little more pointed, I should say, I’m an immigrant. English is not my first language. I came to this country when I was seven. I grew up in St. Louis, and it’s an amazing city with a lot of cultural institutions. I remember going to the Saint Louis Art Museum, but it wasn’t a space that I necessarily felt comfortable in, you know? It was not like, How do we create a museum [and] programming that get(s) people not just in the door, but get(s) them really excited about treating the museum as an extension of their own interests and needs? So, one of the things I’m really looking forward to is discovering all of the different ways in which Clyfford Still Museum is going to be a museum where people across Denver refer to it as “their museum.” We all have museums where we have this kind of intense fondness. It’s my space; it’s our space. I want to cultivate that sensibility moving forward.
You’d previously mentioned that you were excited to “enable new audiences” to engage with that space. What does that look like?
When we say “new audiences,” it’s oftentimes shorthand. But … it goes back to that sense of belonging that I want a museum to cultivate—that everybody belongs there. No distinction between “us” and “them,” [or] “traditional” and “non-traditional” audiences. But also, at all times, be mindful of the fact that when you come into 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 that as a problem, or we can take that up as a kind of facet that enhances our sense of the possibility of that space.
That’s one of the things that’s great about abstract art. It’s going to make you want to struggle to find the words to express what it is that painting is doing to you and with you. And it’s going to move us to want to talk to others about that experience.
Clyfford Still’s paintings are cherished for how they exude humanity, even through abstract forms—something you know plenty about from your research within this era. What’s your vision for ensuring Denverites experience that human touch when they visit?
[A museum] is a moving and living enterprise that bears the touch of everybody who comes through it. There’s a kind of warmth that is palpable in the museum. That’s something that really struck me about the Clyfford Still Museum, and something that I really want to convey. Even though it’s, you know, poured concrete—and concrete can sometimes come off as not very warm—I think it’s an incredibly warm place. And I’m gonna do everything I can to make it a welcoming place—one where everybody feels like they belong.