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Get to know Joyce Tsai, innovative leader of the Clyfford Still Museum

Joyce Tsai at the Clyfford Still Museum
Joyce Tsai seated in a gallery of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado.

Less than one year ago, Joyce Tsai took the helm of the Clyfford Still Museum from its founding director. She is an award-winning educator and scholar whose research received support with fellowships from, among others, the Fulbright Foundation, Dedalus Foundation, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, and the Phillips Collection. She has published extensively in the field of technical art history with conservators and conservation scientists at the National Gallery of Art, Harvard Art Museums, Guggenheim, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. Additionally, Tsai is an experienced curator recognized for her innovation and ability to build strategic partnerships across professional, disciplinary, social, and cultural domains.

Q & A with Joyce Tsai, Ph.D.

Tell us about your journey to become the next director for the Clyfford Still Museum. How did your background, education, and experience lead you there?

Joyce Tsai: The opportunity to lead CSM was one that was simply too extraordinary to pass up, especially as a teacher and scholar long drawn to ambitious abstract painting. I had the privilege of finishing my Ph.D. in residence at the National Gallery of Art at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts in Washington, D.C. During my lunch breaks, I explored the museum but often found myself standing in front of the Stills in the collection. Paintings have a way of unfolding over time, something I sought to convey to my students when I taught modern art as faculty at the University of Florida and the University of Iowa. I found myself devoting entire sessions to a handful of paintings in order to invite students to see what the artists sought to convey in conversation with what history relays. It’s something I’ve also explored in my role as chief curator of the Stanley Museum of Art at the University of Iowa, home to an extraordinary collection of abstract expressionist and color field painting. Becoming the director of the Clyfford Still Museum at this particular moment is thrilling, and integrates my interests and experience.

What was your first impression of the Museum and Denver?

Joyce Tsai: I squealed with joy when I first stepped foot into the Museum, especially when I saw the care with which the architects designed with the artist in mind. The galleries are beautifully calibrated not only to the large-format paintings but also to Still’s more intimate works on paper. And the fact that storage and conservation spaces are visible attests to the visionary approach that the first director, Dean Sobel, the staff, and board took to creating a museum that celebrates Clyfford Still’s achievements as well as the behind-the-scenes work it takes to care for the collection. The existence and excellence of this museum is due not only to the dedicated individuals who invested in the enterprise, but also to the work the City and County of Denver did to secure the collection. The exceptionalism of this Museum embodies the exceptionalism of this city—it invests in daring ideas for the public good.

What is your vision for the Clyfford Still Museum as it approaches its ten-year anniversary (and beyond)?

Joyce Tsai: It is rare in this line of work to inherit an organization that couples daring vision with sound footing, thoughtful planning, and meticulous execution. The Clyfford Still Museum celebrates the achievement of its namesake while also stretching the very definition of what we think museums can do. Its outreach, education, conservation, and placemaking efforts are exemplary, and I am thrilled to continue advancing this work and creating an environment that is welcoming to all. In the near future, I’m also looking forward to establishing a research center that supports modern art history, theory, and practice by providing scholars, students, and artists access to the CSM collections and archives while knitting the vibrant fabric of the creative and research resources available in Denver and beyond.