By Sandra Schulman
Inca gold. Massive movie backdrops. Glass jaguar heads.
These are some of the astonishing art works that have been shown under the stellar direction of Boca Raton Museum of Art’s Irv Lippman, who announced this week he will retire in 2025.
He has built a powerful legacy, transforming the museum literally inside and out to become a world-class institution. Lippman will continue to lead the museum for the next 12 months, culminating in the museum’s 75th anniversary and the highly anticipated opening of the exhibition Baroque Spain.
That exhibition will feature paintings by renowned artists such as El Greco, Velázquez, and Murillo from the Hispanic Society of America collection in New York. The event will coincide with Boca Raton’s centenary, making it a celebration and a good time to bow out.
Under Lippman’s leadership since 2014, the museum has made significant changes to its physical presence. Opening up obscured entrances, creating clear signage and offering more inviting public spaces, such as transforming the loading-dock gate into a 75-foot structure to see the activities of the museum while also seeing one’s own reflection.
He opened the Ohnell Sculpture Garden and removed the west colonnade of the Mizner Park Amphitheater. This created a 360-degree promenade around the museum, with remarkable new art commissions such as a 32-foot high wall mural, Worpswede-changing daytime sky, by the late Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks, which now greets passers-by on Federal Highway.
“Leading the Boca Raton Museum of Art has been a capstone to a career that began in the National Gallery of Art education department in 1975,” Lippman said in a prepared statement. “Over the past 50 years, it has been my pleasure to contribute to the vital cultural resource that museums represent. I commend my colleagues and our dedicated Board of Trustees for their unwavering commitment to the arts.”
Lippman earned his BFA from the University of Denver. Following a year-long tour of Europe, he earned an MA in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. His museum career began in the Education Department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (1975-1983). He held positions as the public affairs manager and assistant director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (1984-1994).
In 1994, he became executive director of the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art. In 2003, he was appointed executive director of the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, retiring in 2012. However, in 2014 he came out of retirement for a short-term, interim position in Boca Raton, which has continued for 10 years. Lippman has been a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors since 1995.
“I’m giving them a whole year to put together the search program and look for someone who’s going to be the director. I think the next decade is very exciting with the realization of the center next door, which will be transformative for this area,” Lippman said, referring to the upcoming Center for Arts and Innovation.
“There are a lot of long-range opportunities that I thought would be good for the next person to be able to stay to fruition. Transforming the space has been great fun,” he said. “I have an incredibly supportive board of trustees in the last seven years. Working with Jodi Grass as the chair has been a wonderful partnership. I could see the place just has huge potential; we were able to realize quite a few structural changes that I think enhance the building.
“I have to say that if you were to take a vote, many visitors would say tearing down the colonnade was major. [The] Machu Picchu and the movie backdrops exhibits, we’ve been fortunate to have both of those. I’m glad we were able to premiere and organize both of those shows. All sorts of things were possible here at the museum. And I think that continues to be true or will continue to be true.”
Lippman is confident that the trajectory is going up and that the search committee is going to find someone who’s well-qualified.
“I’ve no doubt about that. A lot of people in my generation are retiring. So it’s been interesting to get notices every few weeks about some of us who have been in the business for quite a while who are moving on, and a whole other generation will become a museum directors.”
While the job may have become more complex in recent years with social and population changes, Lippman says every place has its own challenges. He says it’s a matter of getting to know your audience, which is more diverse than he says many people expect in Boca Raton.
“I think probably one of the things I am most proud of is our proximity to Pearl City, which is only two blocks away from the museum, and the three exhibitions that we did with the residents of Pearl City in the Reginald Cunningham photographs. And then before that was Charles McGill, who we’ve worked with as well. We talk about diversity and wanting to bring in artwork to a broad audience. The museum has to change with the times and the population, but of course that population was here long before any of us.”
Lippman says he is staying on especially to head up the Baroque Spain exhibit.
“We can look back at our Spanish heritage here in what was called ‘Boca Ratonos’ when it was founded 100 years ago. We are an educational institution. That’s our mission. I think that’s something that I’m very proud to underscore. And part of that educational mission is what we do at the art school, because museums and art schools were often founded side by side.
“Art history is long and, and I think whenever we can show the continuum of art across the decades, I think it’s very important,” he said.
The Board of Trustees has initiated a collaboration with an executive search firm to search for the next director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.