IN MEMORIAM: Thomas N. Armstrong III

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Thomas N. Armstrong III in 1985 with a model of the proposed addition to the Whitney museum by Michael Graves. ~ Photo by: Chester Higgins, Jr., The New York Times
Thomas N. Armstrong III in 1985 with a model of the proposed addition to the Whitney museum by Michael Graves. ~ Photo by: Chester Higgins, Jr., The New York Times

Thomas N. Armstrong III, Museum Chief Who Once Led the Whitney, Dies at 78

Published: June 22, 2011
Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times

Thomas N. Armstrong III in 1985 with a model of the proposed addition to the Whitney museum by Michael Graves.

Thomas N. Armstrong III, who greatly expanded the Whitney Museum of American Art’s holdings when he was its director in the 1970s and ’80s but whose ambitious plans for a museum addition aroused a firestorm of opposition that led to his dismissal, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 78. The cause was cardiac arrest, his daughter Amory Armstrong Spizzirri said.

Mr. Armstrong was the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts when he succeeded John I. H. Baur as the director of the Whitney in 1974. A patrician figure with a fondness for bow ties and colorful stunts, Mr. Armstrong set about strengthening the museum’s permanent collection, buying Frank Stella’s 1959 black painting “Die Fahne Hoch!” for $75,000 in 1977 and Jasper Johns’s “Three Flags” for $1 million, a price that seemed extravagant in 1980 and a steal today.

In a whirlwind fund-raising drive in 1982, he raised more than $1.25 million to buy Alexander Calder’s “Circus” (1926-31), an assemblage of more than 50 miniature performers and animals. It had been on loan to the museum but looked as though it might be sold in Europe to help settle the Calder estate’s tax debt.

“These works are pillars of the Whitney’s collection and of American art,” said Adam D. Weinberg, the current director of the Whitney, who once worked under Mr. Armstrong. “He was brilliant at bringing together coalitions of people to acquire artworks, for which we had a minimal acquisition budget. We still have works coming in that he negotiated as gifts years ago.”

“Art in Place,” a 1989 show highlighting the museum’s acquisitions of the previous 15 years, underlined the growth of the permanent collection to 8,500 works from 2,000.

Under Mr. Armstrong’s directorship, the museum had a number of important shows, including a Jasper Johns retrospective in 1978 and large exhibitions of Mark di Suvero, Cy Twombly, Marsden Hartley and Calder.

Desperate to secure additional space for the museum’s collections, he developed plans for a 10-story, $37.5-million addition to the Whitney’s main building.

The proposed addition, designed by Michael Graves and announced in 1985, drew immediate opposition. Neighborhood residents feared a behemoth, and many architects believed it would destroy the integrity of the existing Marcel Breuer building. After Mr. Armstrong gradually lost the support of many of the museum’s trustees, the plans were dropped in 1989, and the next year he was dismissed.

A champion of Andy Warhol’s work — he had organized an exhibition of Warhol portraits at the Whitney in 1979 — Mr. Armstrong became the first director of the Andy Warhol Museum, which opened in Pittsburgh in May 1994.

Nine months later he resigned. It was reported that he was unhappy at how difficult it was to raise money for the museum and that he and Ellsworth M. Brown, the president of the Carnegie Institute, which managed the museum and provided it with financing, could not agree about the museum’s direction.

Thomas Newton Armstrong III was born on July 30, 1932, in Portsmouth, Va., and grew up in Summit, N.J. He painted in high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from Cornell in 1954.

After serving in the Army, he worked for Stone & Webster, an engineering and securities firm, in Manhattan. But determined to make a career in the arts, he began studying museum administration at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts in 1967. A study project at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection in Williamsburg, Va., led to his appointment as a curator at the collection.

In 1971 he was named director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he put into motion the renovation of the main building, a project completed in 1976.

Mr. Armstrong seemed a conservative choice for the Whitney, and on his appointment he expressed a certain diffidence about his credentials as a promoter of recent American art. “I’m not exactly the kind of person who can now be considered as an active participant on the contemporary scene,” he told The New York Times. “But I go to galleries all the time and I used to be a painter myself.”

It was odd, therefore, that he was often criticized as being overly trendy, especially in his mid-career retrospectives of artists like Terry Winters, Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Eric Fischl, and in the Whitney Biennials.

With-it or not, he fostered the careers of several young curators who went on to assume important positions at other museums or, in the case of Mr. Weinberg and the curator Barbara Haskell, at the Whitney. These included Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum in Manhattan; Richard Armstrong (no relation), the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and Jennifer Russell, the associate director for exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the same time, he clashed with the curator Marcia Tucker, a vociferous and ambitious voice for new art at the Whitney. In 1977, after she organized a widely criticized show devoted to the postminimalist Richard Tuttle, Mr. Armstrong fired her. She went on to found the New Museum of Contemporary Art (now called the New Museum) in Manhattan.

Some trustees, especially the newer generation of business leaders Mr. Armstrong brought into the museum, found his personal style and sense of fun perplexing: he grew tomatoes on the terrace outside his fifth-floor office and sold them at a produce stand on the sidewalk; he liked to distribute wind-up toys at Whitney dinners.

David M. Solinger once arrived at a Christmastime Whitney board meeting, held to discuss Mr. Armstrong’s future, and said, “Yesterday I met on the street somebody who had furry hoofs and antlers coming out of his head, and it was Tom Armstrong!”

Mr. Armstrong, who created a three-acre garden at his country home at Fishers Island, N.Y., became chairman of the Garden Conservancy in 2007.

In addition to his daughter Amory, of Greenwich, Conn., Mr. Armstrong is survived by his wife, Bunty; another daughter, Eliot Armstrong Foote of Vero Beach, Fla.; two sons, Thomas Newton Armstrong IV of Baltimore and Whitney Brewster Armstrong of Manhattan; a sister, Susan Armstrong Watts of Summit; and seven grandchildren.

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