Hope Alswang, 77, who transformed Florida's largest art museum, dies
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Hope Alswang, 77, who transformed Florida's largest art museum, dies
A photo provided by Lila Photo, via The Norton Museum of Art shows Hope Alswang in 2010, the year she was named executive director and chief executive of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. Alswang, a veteran arts administrator who oversaw a major transformation of the Norton Museum of Art, the largest art museum in Florida and the last of four she ran, died on June 11, 2024, in hospice care in Providence, R.I. She was 77. (Lila Photo, via The Norton Museum of Art via The New York Times)

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Hope Alswang, a veteran arts administrator who oversaw a major transformation of the Norton Museum of Art, the largest art museum in Florida and the last of four she ran, died on June 11 in hospice care in Providence, Rhode Island. She was 77.

Her husband, Henry Joyce, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Alswang was the president and CEO of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont in 2004 when she first visited the Norton, in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“I remember it was a fantastic collection, and I thought at the time it was a lot less museum than they deserved,” she told Florida Weekly in 2018. She added: “By 2004, you would think, ‘What are the aspirations of this place?’ I would think, ‘They don’t have their sights right.’”

More than a decade later, she got her chance to influence the future of Norton when she became its executive director and CEO and worked with British architect Norman Foster and his firm, Foster + Partners, on a $107 million expansion.

When it was completed in 2019, it featured a new building that added 12,000 square feet of gallery space; a sculpture garden, with works by artists like Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer, built on a former parking lot; a new auditorium; more classrooms; a new front entrance that can be seen from the heavily traveled South Dixie Highway, and six renovated cottages to house an artist-in-residence program.

“From my perspective, great art deserves great architecture,” Alswang told Architectural Digest in 2019. “If you want to show important artists, and you want to work with artists, you owe them the opportunity to show their work in the most beautiful surroundings possible.”

Alswang worked with the board of trustees to recognize that the Norton needed to raise its regional and national profile, which, in turn, would attract more visitors and new collections of art.

“The vision that she brought to rally the board of trustees and this community to make this happen was a once in a lifetime experience to watch,” Abby Ashley, the museum’s chief development and external affairs officer, said in an interview. Through Alswang’s collaboration with Foster, the winner of the 1999 Pritzker Architecture Prize, and other architects from his firm, “I can see her influence in every part of the building,” Ashley said.

Bruce Gendelman, chair of the Norton board, said of Alswang, “She was a real force, which is exactly the type of personality that we at the Norton needed at the time.”

Hope Alswang was born on May 4, 1947, in the New York City borough of Manhattan. Her mother, Betty (Taylor) Alswang, was an interior decorator. Her father, Ralph Alswang, designed sets for dozens of Broadway shows and also designed theaters around the country.

Hope was 4 when her mother took her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the first time.

“Hope led the way through the American Wing’s period rooms, stopping only when they reached the interiors from 17th-century New England,” her brother, Ralph Alswang Jr., wrote in an email. “She turned to her mother and asked if they could move in. In effect she did. Art museums became her abiding passion, and she spent the better half of the next 70 years in museum exhibition spaces and offices.”

She entered Goddard College, in Plainfield, Vermont, in 1967 and earned a bachelor’s degree in American history. In 1974, as a graduate student in museum studies at the University of Vermont, she was awarded a fellowship to work as an intern at the Shelburne.

The next year, she was hired as a curatorial assistant in the decorative arts department at the Brooklyn Museum. She also began a year of studies at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

After five years at the Brooklyn Museum, she joined the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, in Setauket, New York, as a curator.

Joyce, her husband, said that Alswang’s early ambition to be a curator grew into a desire for a more influential role. “She wanted to be a curator to do exhibitions,” he said, “but if you want to do the exhibitions you want to do, you have to be a director.”

In addition to her husband and brother, she is survived by her son, Horatio Joyce; her daughter, Augusta Joyce; her sister, Frances Alswang; and two grandsons.

Hope Alswang left the antiquities job in 1983 to become a program analyst with the New York State Council on the Arts. She later directed a council program to advance the interests of museums and historical societies statewide.

She got her first museum leadership role in 1992 as executive director of the New Jersey Historical Society. Five years later, she took over at the Shelburne, which is known for its collections of American furniture, textiles and folk art.

In 2005, she was named director of the RISD Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence, where she helped complete a fundraising campaign that covered the cost of building an expansion, the Chace Center. Attendance rose to a record 150,000 in 2008.

She publicly resigned in 2009 after clashing with John Maeda, the school’s president. But The Boston Globe reported that he had fired her, accusing her in a letter of being “a temperamental leader whose tirades demoralized her staff” and of responding to his criticism by being “angry and physically hostile.” She did not comment in the Globe article, but Joyce said, “He was very unkind, and she suffered.”

Alswang was hired by the Norton in 2010. The museum was founded in 1941 by Ralph Hubbard Norton, a steel company executive, and his wife, Elizabeth, and designed by Marion Sims Wyeth.

During Alswang’s nine years at the museum, she diversified its collection with more contemporary art and photography; acquired nearly 1,600 works; focused on generating more original exhibitions, rather than relying too much on traveling shows; and championed women and minority artists.

In 2011, the museum introduced Recognition of Art by Women, an annual series of solo exhibitions that has showcased, among others, painters Jenny Saville and Sylvia Plimack Mangold and visual artists Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Phyllida Barlow.

Alswang retired in 2019, soon after the renovated Norton was completed.

“You can’t build a building like this and keep the same old practices,” she told The Palm Beach Post in 2018. “We had to up our game considerably.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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