Books | Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker

The New York curator's thinking on feminism, power and museums still resonates after almost 50 years, says Verity Smith
Verity Smith
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Marcia Tucker (centre) with New Museum staff, September 1977
Marcia Tucker (centre) with New Museum staff, September 1977

 “I always feel that the margins tell you more than the centre of the page ever could,” wrote the US art historian, art critic and curator Marcia Tucker. 

Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker shows how the founding director of the New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, who died in 2006, had a lifelong commitment to pushing the boundaries of curatorial practice and writing while rethinking inherited structures of power within and outside the museum. Tucker’s interest in the margins, in the alternative, overlooked and disregarded in art and culture at large, defined her work and life. 

The book says that Tucker communicated with the public in two key ways: curating and writing. She used the latter of these to reach a wider audience. As a feminist, thinker and activist, she saw her practice as an opportunity to challenge herself and to communicate to others her belief that art could be a mechanism for change.  

Edited by Lisa Phillips, Johanna Burton and Alicia Ritson, with Kate Wiener, £30 ISBN 978-1-60606-596-9

Publishing this collection of texts had been an idea of Tucker’s since 1993. It has been realised more than 25 years later through a collaborative effort by the Getty Research Institute and staff at the New Museum. This book is split into three chapters; Visionaries, Expanding the Canon, and Institutional Change.  

I focused on the latter of these, specifically Tucker’s unpublished lecture Women in Museums, written in 1972. The explored the difficulties women face in the workplace, specifically the American museum sector. Tucker highlights at that time that “over 50% of all museum staffs are women” yet “there is at present not a single woman who is the director of a major art museum in America”. She also points out that “few women are paid the same salaries as men in the same or similar positions; women have less opportunity for advancement; few have policy or decision-making power”.  

Salary inequality is just one of many problems Tucker draws attention to – others include having to assist with projects rather than working independently on them, not receiving credit for work done, and not holding senior positions within an organisation.  

Fast-forward almost 50 years and, while much has changed on both sides of the pond, there is still room for improvement.  

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Marcia Tucker's 1994 exhibition Bad Girls took a humorous and transgressive look at feminist issues

As a curator in the UK’s female-dominated museum sector, I feel very frustrated that more progress hasn’t been made over such a long period of time. In the UK in 2018, only a third of the members of the National Museum Directors' Council were women, highlighting that female directors of museums and galleries are still in the minority.  

Even 50 years after Tucker’s lecture, three major institutions that consistently feature at the top of lists of the world’s best museums and galleries have never had a female director – London’s British Museum, the Louvre in Paris, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

For me, therefore, the question still remains – can museums that claim to champion women in the workplace and a gender balance among their workforce really be considered as genuine reflections of social values if they don’t put women in the most senior positions of responsibility?  

Tucker highlights the notion that, “women are not expected to be capable of… the diplomatic fashion necessary for museum directorships” going on to say, “we are considered too emotional, too irrational, too distractible to handle positions of major importance”. 

Unfortunately, this perception still exists today, and perhaps it is one that always will to some extent.  

Her lecture is a reminder of the struggles women still face, despite the progress that has been made thanks to the courage of individuals, including Tucker, who had the determination to take on what challenged them most. It provides an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come as a society and the direction in which we are and should be heading in relation to the issues highlighted in this text.   

Overall, Out of Bounds resonated with me because of two of Tucker’s major strengths – curating and writing. This provided encouragement in my professional practice. I hope it enables other readers to “discover both her dedication to radical ideas and her belief that to remain radical, one must never stop questioning everything, including oneself”. 

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Verity Smith is a freelance curator, consultant and writer. She is also a trustee and the current chair of the Social History Curators Group 

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