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Sam Hunter, curator and museum founder, dies at 91

At Brandeis University, Mr. Hunter was the Rose Art Museum’s founding director. He sat on a sculpture by his friend Larry Rivers at an opening in 1965.

Brandeis University

At Brandeis University, Mr. Hunter was the Rose Art Museum’s founding director. He sat on a sculpture by his friend Larry Rivers at an opening in 1965.

NEW YORK — Over six decades, Sam Hunter could usually be found at the center of some of the most exciting times for art in New York and beyond. He was an art historian (an authority on 20th-century art), a museum director, a curator, an art critic, and an art adviser to museums, corporations, and private collectors.

A loquacious, athletic man who wrote almost as easily as he spoke, he produced, sometimes with collaborators, about 50 books about individual artists as well as textbooks on 20th-century American art that went through multiple editions. He turned out numerous magazine articles and scores of catalog essays for museum and gallery exhibitions and lectured widely.

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Perhaps unique in the annals of arts administration, Mr. Hunter, who died July 27 at 91 in Princeton, N.J., became a founding director of two art institutions in two years. That unfolded at Brandeis University, beginning in 1960, when the university hired him to teach art history and lead the newly founded Poses Institute of Fine Arts. The institute was the university’s first attempt to organize its art collection, which had grown to more than 300 objects in the 12 years since the university was established.

Around the same time, ground was broken for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis, and Mr. Hunter soon changed job titles, becoming its founding director in 1961. The Rose became one of the country’s leading university museums for its collection and exhibitions of avant-garde art. While there, Mr. Hunter, who almost always wore more than one hat, also selected an exhibition of 87 artists for the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.

Samuel Hunter was born in Springfield, Mass., the fourth child of Morris Hunter and Lottie Sherman, immigrants from Russia who arrived in the United States with their three daughters a few years before Sam was born. His father, who sometimes worked in real estate, divorced his mother shortly after he lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash.

After attending public schools in Springfield, Mr. Hunter went to Williams College, renowned for providing the foundation for nationally noted art curators and historians, on a full scholarship. He majored in fine arts and graduated magna cum laude in 1943. He was the first recipient of a Hubbard Hutchinson Fellowship, a three-year grant given by Williams for postgraduate studies.

Mr. Hunter served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946 and then settled in New York, where he studied painting at a school run by artist Hans Hoffmann. Mr. Hunter soon realized he was not an artist. So, evidently, did artist Larry Rivers, a fellow student with whom Mr. Hunter formed a lifelong friendship. Rivers was reported to have said, “Of course you’re not an artist, you wear bow ties to class.”

Mr. Hunter went on to work for The New York Times as an art critic and assistant arts editor from 1947 until 1949, when he decided to put his Hutchinson fellowship to use. He spent the next three years in Europe studying Italian Renaissance art at the University of Florence and the American Academy in Rome.

Returning to New York in 1952, he took a job as an associate editor at Harry N. Abrams Inc., the art-book publisher, beginning a long association with it. Abrams published his first two books, on Raoul Dufy and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, in 1954. He also wrote books about Rivers (twice), Isamu Noguchi and Francis Bacon, among many others.

Mr. Hunter’s first museum job was as an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he organized an exhibition of work by Jackson Pollock (1956) and a retrospective of the sculptor David Smith (1957). He also helped select another Pollock exhibition, organized by the Modern, that represented the United States at the 1957 São Paulo biennial.

In 1958, Mr. Hunter became chief curator and acting director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. While there, he served as the US commissioner to the 1959 São Paulo biennial, assembling a show of such contemporary artists as Joan Mitchell, Michael Goldberg, Alfred Leslie, and Robert Rauschenberg.

In establishing the Rose museum at Brandeis, he was aided by a gift of $50,000 from the New York collector Leon Mnuchin and his wife, Harriet Gervitz-Mnuchin. The gift, which would be worth more than $400,000 today, made possible the acquisition of works by Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Morris Louis, and others.

“His prescient purchases propelled the museum into the consciousness of the art world just a few years after its founding,” Brandeis president Frederick M. Lawrence said in a statement. “The way in which he built the early collection, a discrete number of outstanding acquisitions, none for more than $5,000, is one of the iconic stories of the early years of Brandeis University. His impact on the Rose in particular and the university in general continues to this day.”

In 1965 Mr. Hunter succeeded Alan Solomon as director of the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, hoping to maintain his predecessor’s focus on new art. Solomon had mounted the first museum shows of Johns and Rauschenberg there.

Under Mr. Hunter the museum presented “Primary Structures,” a landmark survey of minimalist art, and he organized exhibitions of the work of Ad Reinhardt and Philip Guston. But he resigned in October 1967 after the trustees decided that the museum should concentrate more specifically on Jewish culture.

In 1969, Mr. Hunter became professor of art and archeology at Princeton and faculty curator for modern art at the Princeton University Art Museum. He retired in 1991. While at Princeton and afterward, he continued to write catalog essays, organize exhibitions, and advise collectors and museums.

Mr. Hunter leaves his wife, Maïa N. Hunter, who confirmed his death; their son, Harry; two daughters, Emmy and Alexa, from an earlier marriage, to Edys Merrill; and one granddaughter.

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