Stephen Weil; Museum Scholar at Smithsonian

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 14, 2005

Stephen E. Weil, scholar emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Education and Museum Studies and longtime deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, died of liver failure Aug. 9 at the Washington Home Hospice. He was 77.

Mr. Weil, a noted museum and art law expert who said the ultimate goal of a museum was to improve people's lives, began his career as an administrator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1967. He joined the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn in 1974 and retired in 1995.

He taught, lectured and published widely concerning museums, art and law and, since retiring, had completed academic residences at Ionian University in Greece, Columbia University's Teachers College and Bates College in Maine.

Over the years, he offered his expertise on a number of topics regarding changes and controversies in the museum and art worlds.

"Art does not set out to be acceptable," he said in 1989, when a coalition of artists protested the Corcoran Gallery of Art's cancellation of a provocative Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition.

"It often deals with the extremes of the human condition," he told the New York Times then. "It is not to be expected that, when it does that, everyone is going to be pleased or happy with it. Particularly museum art which people are free to come to see, or not see. Many museums show things that are not palatable to everybody. It is really important to understand that art often bites. It can really touch raw nerves."

Mr. Weil spoke about the sometimes mercurial relationship between artistic expression and the law, saying at one point that "art and the law both deal with ways in which you combine order and disorder in some kind of fruitful tension."

In 1998, when museum officials faced challenges for displaying artwork looted by the Nazis in wartime, he joined top art museum directors in calling for new methods of resolving ownership disagreements. At a congressional hearing, he testified and urged "the establishment of some alternative mechanism -- an imaginative mechanism that is both just and fair and one that will permit claims for the return of such art to be resolved in some simpler, swifter, less costly and more satisfactory manner than is now the case."

Mr. Weil's lengthy career encompassed many major changes in museums, including the advancement of political agendas. Museums "used to be primarily about things and defined by objects," he told the Times in 2002. "Now they're often about processes, including historical processes.

"The boundaries defining a museum have become very loose these days," he said. "Polemical museums can certainly be very much a part of the mix. Museums are instruments or tools to carry out particular goals. People have agendas, and a museum is one way to advance an agenda. A privately funded museum doesn't have to give equal time."

A native and true New Yorker, he graduated from Brown University in 1949 and received a law degree from Columbia University in 1956. He was an associate at Rosenman Colin Freund Lewis & Cohen in New York from 1956 to 1963. He also served in the Army in Korea.

He joined the Marlborough gallery in New York as vice president and general manager and worked there four years before moving to the Whitney.

Mr. Weil wrote authoritatively and was the author and editor of numerous publications, including "Making Museums Matter" (2002), "A Cabinet of Curiosities: Inquiries Into Museums and Their Prospects" (1995), "Rethinking the Museum and Other Meditations" (1990) and "Beauty and the Beasts: On Museums, Art, the Law and the Market" (1983). A book he co-wrote, "Art Law: Rights and Liabilities of Creators and Collectors" (1986), received the 1987 Scribes Book Award for best lawbook.

From 1995 to 2000, he was a presidential appointee on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee of the Department of State. He served in several capacities with the American Association of Museums, including as a member of the executive committee, and was founding chairman of the International Committee on Management for the International Council of Museums.

He received numerous awards, among them the Distinguished Service Award in 1995 from the American Association of Museums.

Mr. Weil, a Washington resident, learned to drive a car at age 76.

His marriages to Rose Weil and Liz Weil ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 15 years, Wendy Luke of Washington; three children from his first marriage, David Weil of Providence, R.I., Michael Weil of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Rachel Weil of Ithaca, N.Y.; and four grandchildren.

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