Richard Oldenburg, 84; led expansion of Museum of Modern Art

Mr. Oldenburg, the longtime director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in its sculpture garden in 1972.
BILL ALLER/New York Times/ file
Mr. Oldenburg, the longtime director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in its sculpture garden in 1972.

NEW YORK — Richard Oldenburg, who as the longtime director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City oversaw blockbuster exhibitions of Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne and a transformative expansion that doubled its exhibition space in the 1980s, died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.

Mr. Oldenburg — whose older brother is pop art sculptor Claes Oldenburg — was a publishing executive when MoMA hired him to run its publications department in 1969. The job allowed him to work closely with curators and artists on catalogs and books, an experience that proved critical when the board of trustees named him director three years later.

“What I hadn’t realized when I went there was how central the publishing job is,” he told an interviewer in 1999 for the museum’s oral history project, “and that certainly was what led to everything else.”


Publishing has long been crucial to MoMA’s business — not only books about modern art but publications that ensured that its exhibitions reached a wide audience.

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It was a turbulent time. The museum was running deficits. The curatorial staffs were squabbling with one another. Two previous directors had been ousted by the board. Mr. Oldenburg, a quiet, diplomatic executive, was an easy choice.

“Everybody likes him,” Blanchette Rockefeller, the museum’s president, told People magazine in 1984. “He’s a worrier, and we had plenty of worries.”

Mr. Oldenburg turned out to be a reassuring leader with no curatorial agenda of his own. Knowing MoMA’s inner workings, he did not interfere with curatorial decisions, which made him popular. But he required his top curators to meet with him for weekly sandwich-and-wine lunches.

“They were often rowdy,” John Elderfield, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture, said in an e-mail. “Dick was often exasperated, but had the knack of bringing a meeting to a close without promising anything at all and dealing with problems individually behind closed doors — or not. He had the further diplomatic talent of not doing anything at all so that problems went away by themselves — at least, usually.”


As director, Mr. Oldenburg established ties in the Soviet Union to help with loans of artwork from museums there, in particular for the Matisse retrospective, in 1992.

Most important, he shepherded a $55 million expansion that included the sale of MoMA’s air rights to a developer, which built a condominium tower directly over a new museum west wing. The museum’s exhibition space doubled, relieving it of a longstanding space crunch. By one estimate, its previous exhibition space could have fit into the central rotunda of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“People don’t remember, I think, how tiny those gallery spaces were — those old small gallery spaces and the carved-up area where you had one little cubicle for photography, one little cubicle for architecture and design; they were just minute,” Mr. Oldenburg said in the 1999 oral history interview.

Nonetheless, in 1980, the still-cramped museum hosted the immensely popular “Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective” — its last big show before the renovation was completed four years later. Mr. Oldenburg recalled that the museum had erred in placing Picasso’s earliest pictures in the first galleries.

“We had this incredible jam, as people got in and spent an hour in those first galleries rather than going on,” he said. “So we had to rearrange and space out the works. But it was quite a time. You remember, people were hawking the Picasso catalog on the streets.”


About a year after the Picasso show closed, MoMA quietly (for security reasons) sent the show’s mural-size centerpiece — “Guernica,” Picasso’s masterwork about the Spanish Civil War — to the Prado Museum in Madrid. Picasso, who had died seven years earlier, had wanted the painting to be moved to Spain after democracy was restored there.

Mr. Oldenburg, who was born in Sweden, graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree, but left Harvard Law School after a year, finding it both intensely competitive and boring. He became an assistant to the director of financial aid at the university.

After stateside Army service as a battery clerk, he moved to Manhattan, where his brother introduced him to the art world.

“Through him, I met Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Segal, Rosenquist — everyone — because they were all in very close contact,” he said in the MoMA oral history. He added: “It was a very exciting time. It was the whole emergence of the pop art movement.”

But he did not enter the art world, and he recognized how he and his brother differed. “He had the free spirit which I longed for,” he told People, “but I was born with an excess of caution.”

Mr. Oldenburg worked at the book publishers Doubleday and Macmillan until 1969, when he attended the opening of his brother’s exhibition, MoMA’s first major pop art show. While there, he met a former Doubleday colleague who was stepping down as the museum’s director of publications. Despite initial doubts, he interviewed for the job and got it.

In 1993, when Mr. Oldenburg announced his retirement as director, the museum’s annual budget had grown during his tenure to $50 million from $7 million; its endowment had soared to $180 million from $20 million; and its attendance had increased to 1.28 million from 853,996.

Glenn D. Lowry, the museum’s current director, said that Mr. Oldenburg’s careful style paid off.

“In the 1970s, being more cautious than less cautious may have been exactly what the museum needed,” Lowry said in a telephone interview. “When I think of Dick and the gift he gave me and the curators, it was a sense of stability.”