Claes' Kid Brother, Dick, May Be the Quiet Oldenburg, but Look How He's Modernized the Modern

updated 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I see the three greatest events of 1984 as: one, the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art; two, the Olympics; and three, the presidential election—in that order." So says Richard Oldenburg, 50, with a wide grin. Oldenburg is the normally low-keyed director of the renowned temple to modern art on Manhattan's West 53rd Street, and bragging is not what he does best. Still, were that his style, Dick Oldenburg would have plenty to crow about.

After three years and $55-million worth of construction and renovations, the 55-year-old MOMA opens this week in its most glorious metamorphosis yet. Beneath greenhouse-like skylights rising in steps, the new MOMA has doubled its previous exhibition space (to 87,000 square feet) to display its unmatched collection in separate galleries devoted to painting and sculpture, films, photography, drawings, prints, architecture and design. More than ever before, MOMA fulfills its pioneering concept, since copied around the world, of showing the interdependence of all modern art forms.

That Oldenburg was chosen to bring MOMA to its present state was something of an accident. "There are actually people like him who are so modest they simply can't be flattered," quips MOMA's current president, Blanchette Rockefeller, widow of John D. Rockefeller Ill. "But then," she adds with a chuckle, "he is a younger brother."

Indeed he is. Older brother (by four and a half years) is sculptor Claes Oldenburg, the wildly imaginative and iconoclastic pop artist. That this gets a big play doesn't surprise Dick. "After all," he says, "who's more interesting to people, a head of an institution or an artist? If President Reagan had a brother who was a rock star, he'd probably experience the same thing."

Sons of a Swedish diplomat, the Oldenburg boys grew up in Chicago (both are now U.S. citizens). Although their mother was a Berlin-trained soprano, neither boy was pointed toward artistic careers. Claes, however, always had a certain flamboyance, including a penchant for dangling his kid brother over balcony railings. Dick professes no resentment, only envy: "He had the free spirit which I longed for, but I was born with an excess of caution."

The little brother, meanwhile, was a classroom star, breezing through Chicago's Latin School (a private institution that Nancy Reagan also attended) and Harvard College. He then put in a year at Harvard Law, with a vague notion of going into a government career, only to discover that he "loathed law school." Dick was much happier with a Barnard date, Lisa Turnure. After they married in 1960, they pursued parallel careers in book publishing. Though Dick rapidly rose to become managing editor of Macmillan's trade-books division in 1964, he self-effacingly says that "Claes was getting quite famous by that time, and I realized I better do something too." At a retrospective of his brother's works at MOMA, Dick was approached—and later agreed—to become the museum's director of publications.

MOMA was then in turmoil, racked by financial troubles and internecine strife. Two directors were ousted within three years. The museum's guiding lights turned to Dick Oldenburg. "Everybody likes him," explains Blanchette Rockefeller. "He's a worrier, and we had plenty of worries." When the then-MOMA President (now board chairman) William S. Paley asked him in 1972 to assume the museum directorship, Oldenburg recalls, "I gulped and said yes." Brother Claes, he says, was "somewhat amused."

In his calmly efficient way, Dick Oldenburg restored a unity of purpose at MOMA. His prime task became planning "Project X"—the rebuilding of MOMA from a plan by the dean of Yale's School of Architecture, Cesar Pelli. It involved such complicated deals as the selling of air rights over the museum to construct a 52-story-tall megaluxury condo (apartment prices: $300,000 to $5 million each). "It's been so much of a drain on his energies for so long, calculating how many fire escapes you need per square foot," commiserates John Szarkowski, director of MOMA's Department of Photography. "What an enormously demanding headache."

Before MOMA reopens to the general public on May 17, Oldenburg and his wife will host no fewer than 20 opening events. But even now his quiet humor remains intact. On his desk is a small modern "sculpture." It is a seven-inch-high model of an aspirin tablet.

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