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Its down-to-earth name is the Bellefield Boiler Plant, but the Cloud Factory is what Louise “Lulu” Lippincott sees when she looks out of her large office window in Oakland.
“It’s gorgeous,” proclaims Lippincott, Carnegie Museum of Art’s curator of fine arts.
The steam plant’s towering stack, given its whimsical nickname by Michael Chabon in his novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, has not only served as Lippincott’s constant companion for the past 27 years, she says, but it’s been a constant reminder that beauty can rise from unexpected places.
As Lippincott prepares to step away from her familiar view and longtime post on July 1, she’s reflecting on her career, her adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, and how the two have become inextricably linked.
Lippincott grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, where her mother, Beatrice B. Garvan, worked for decades as the curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “I was a museum kid from the beginning,” she says. “I loved art, but I was a terrible artist, so becoming a curator seemed logical.”
After graduating from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in art history, she, too, worked for several years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Looking to understand art and artists in an historic context, she went on to earn a doctorate in European history from Princeton University. Soon, she landed a job as the associate curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum and was Los Angeles bound.
But ultimately, La La Land’s glitz and glamour didn’t offer the sense of community Lippincott was longing to provide for her son, Phil. When opportunity called in the form of the fine arts position at Carnegie Museum of Art, she immediately bought winter coats and began the trek back east.
“What attracted me,” Lippincott says, “was the Carnegie’s extraordinary tradition, and its real roots and real connections to the southwestern Pennsylvania region.” There was one other factor she took into consideration: the quality of the city’s sports teams. A longtime sports lover, she is now an unabashed Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins fan.
“I tell anybody entering the museum field that the success of a nonprofit organization is in some interesting and weird way tied to the viability of the professional sports teams,” says Lippincott. “I use the teams as a measure of a community’s wealth, power, and civic engagement.”
Although Pittsburgh checked all the right boxes, she still never expected to be here nearly 30 years later. “I couldn’t find anything better,” she says, “and that sounds bad until you think about it.”
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, she stayed. Lippincott has been the collaborative force behind some of the museum’s most memorable and meaningful shows in its century-plus history. Take the 2001 exhibition Light! The Industrial Age, 1750–1900. As then museum director Richard Armstrong tells the story, “She came to me with the idea of collaborating with the Van Gogh Museum, which I must admit I thought was somewhat unlikely and far-fetched.
“Out of that idea—which was the merger of two great minds, hers and the curator of the Van Gogh Museum—came an astonishing exhibition,” says Armstrong, now the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation in New York, who worked with Lippincott at Carnegie Museum of Art for 16 years. “I learned a great deal about her methods and even a great deal about art history by being in her company.”
In 2006, she collaborated with sister museum Carnegie Museum of Natural History to present Fierce Friends: Artists and Animals, 1750–1900. Both shows, Lippincott says, “focused people’s attention on how the Carnegie Museums are uniquely suited to blend art and science in their programs and presentations. Those two exhibitions demonstrated how powerful it can be when you merge collections and ideas.”
But perhaps nothing has been more powerful than Lippincott’s championing of Pittsburgh Courier photojournalist Charles “Teenie” Harris.
Teenie who? Lippincott remembers asking the question when she and Linda Benedict-Jones, who years later would become the art museum’s first curator of photography, started organizing the 1997 exhibition Pittsburgh Revealed: Photographs Since 1850. Since both women were relatively new arrivals to the city, Benedict-Jones says, “We had never heard of Teenie Harris.” They quickly learned that his photographs were essential to not just Pittsburgh but to American history as well.
Lippincott tracked down some of Harris’ negatives but found little if any documentation to go with them. So she tracked down the then 80-plus-year-old Harris himself, and the two began a yearlong series of weekly meetings.
“We would go through the photographs and he’d tell me what they were about, and I would write it all down,” Lippincott says. “He was amazed that anyone was interested in his work.”
“Lulu knew [Teenie Harris’] story was bigger than one wall in this one exhibition. She invested her heart and soul in creating his remarkable archive.” – Collaborator and former curator of photography Linda Benedict-Jones
From 1935 to 1975, Harris chronicled everyday life in the city’s Hill District. “In the black community, Teenie was well-known. His photos showed family, love, and affection,” says Larry Glasco, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and contributor to Pittsburgh Revealed. Harris’ images stood in stark contrast, Glasco adds, to the more typical representations of blacks in newspapers, that of poverty, death, and tragedy.
“The exhibition helped put Pittsburgh—especially black Pittsburgh—on the national cultural map,” Glasco asserts. “The Hill is now associated with Harlem as an iconic urban black community.”
Today, Harris is recognized as a major 20th-century artist. “After Pittsburgh Revealed,” Benedict-Jones says, “Lulu knew his story was bigger than one wall in this one exhibition. She invested her heart and soul in creating his remarkable archive.”
At Lippincott’s urging, in 2001, the museum acquired 80,000 negatives produced by the prolific photojournalist. She and a small team of colleagues have spent nearly two decades overseeing the conservation, cataloging, and digital imaging of what has become the definitive Teenie Harris Archive.
“I think it will be the most important thing I have done as a curator and as a resident of Pittsburgh,” Lippincott says.
Lippincott has also orchestrated the museum’s acquisition of 750 fine arts objects and supervised the cataloging and conservation of the museum’s European art collections—including Old Master prints, paintings, and sculptures—and, to a lesser degree, its Japanese print collections, making them all more widely available to the public.
While leaving behind a remarkable legacy, she’s also looking forward. Lippincott’s short-term plans call for a cross-country trip with lots of museum visits along the way, while her long-term vision includes writing a trashy novel under a pseudonym.
“It’s a test,” she says. “Most of my life has been writing nonfiction, art-historical professional stuff. I don’t know if I can write fiction or not. I’m challenging myself.”
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