Joan Davidson with Phong Bui
From the moment I moved to New York City in the fall of 1986, I’ve associated Joan K. Davidson and the J.M. Kaplan Fund with Westbeth Artists Community—one of the first examples of the adaptive reuse of an industrial space, a complex of thirteen buildings that comprises a full city block bounded by West Street, Bethune Street, Washington Street and Bank Street in the West Village, which were the headquarters of Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1898 to 1966 before they were converted into their current form by the architect Richard Meier between 1968 and 1970. I’ve been to the legendary Westbeth many times over the years, from visiting my former teacher Nicolas Carone at his luminous live-work studio with high ceilings and large steel windows with views of the Hudson River, to attending dance rehearsals by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, to making occasional studio visits with artists like Nancy Goldring, among others, who still live there today. Though I have been a long-time admirer of both Joan’s nephew and brother-in-law—the late painter Bruno Fonseca, and his father, the sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca—it wasn’t until last year that we finally met through our mutual friend Elizabeth Howard at a lunch at the Century Club where we became friends. I’m always delighted to see Joan and hear her amazing stories about her life and work, as well as her insights regarding striking the right balance between social and political philanthropy and support for arts, culture, and book publishing. In anticipation of Joan’s 90th birthday, to be celebrated at Cooper Hewitt on June 26th, 2017, I paid a visit to her elegant yet cozy home in Upper East Side. The following is an edited version of our three-hour conversation for your reading pleasure.
Phong Bui (Rail): The last time Nathlie [Provosty] and I visited you, along with Elizabeth [Howard], Isabel [Fonseca], Martin [Amis], and other interesting guests at your wonderful home in Midwood, right by the Hudson River Valley, you spoke so fondly and admiringly of your father and your mother and their creation of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. Your father did so many astonishing things during his lifetime, especially through the J.M. Kaplan Fund, from helping to save Carnegie Hall with Isaac Stern in 1960 to the invention of Westbeth—artist housing in the West Village—which turned out to be an amazing model for the rehabilitation of industrial buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and cities everywhere since it opened in 1970. His foundation provided the first support for the Greenmarkets and so much more.
Joan Davidson: You’ve peeked at the records!
Rail: Yes I have! But there has been very little written about him, except for his purchase of Welch’s in 1945 and his subsequent expansion of the company.
Davidson: He turned Welch’s into a cooperative so that the farmers who produced the grapes were gradually able to acquire Welch’s. The company they’ve worked to build now belongs to them.
Rail: Which was radical.
Davidson: It was radical then and it is radical still.
Rail: How did Jack Kaplan, your father, become what he became? Where did he come from? What was his family background?
Davidson: He was the last of those self-made tough guys. His rabbi father had come from Bialystok, Poland. But my father was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, a Jewish/Irish working class town. The Jewish kids and Irish kids beat each other up all the time. [Laughter.] There was a big kid named Marky Donnelly who would chase my father home from school every day and beat him up. This went on for years until eighth grade when my father quit school. Many years later, when Jack was a success and Marky Donnelly was down and out, Marky came to Jack and asked for a job. My father gave him a job of course. We four kids, and now the grandchildren, all know the Marky Donnelly story by heart! Like many men of his generation, my father survived by his wits, adventurism, hard work, sense of humor, and his guts.
Rail: Your mother was remarkable in her own way.
Davidson: Indeed she was.
Rail: Right. She left college to marry your father, but years later she went back to finish her studies and earned a master’s degree in art history from Columbia University when she was 63.
Davidson: That was how she developed her incredibly good eye. She could spot brilliance in unknown artists, and buy their work out of the tight budget her husband let her have. She was, for example, one of the first discoverers and collectors of Egon Schiele drawings. Scarcely anyone had heard of Schiele at the time, so his work was affordable.
Rail: I’ve read that she once spotted a neo-classical drawing at a second hand shop on Third Avenue and picked it up for $200 which turned out to be a long lost preliminary study for [Jacque Louis] David’s the Oath of Horatii, which now hangs at the Met.
Davidson: It was at the same shop where she found other treasures, including a Renaissance cassone which she got for nickels because it was a wreck. But she recognized what it was, had it restored, and it became a glorious piece of furniture in our house all those years.
Rail: And then your family moved from Croton on Hudson to New York City, and you went to the Lincoln School and then to Cornell. What did you study in college?
Davidson: I studied English Literature and government and later trained as a teacher at Bank Street College. Then I taught fourth grade for years—in between jobs as a salesgirl at Macy’s and an advertising copywriter—in schools in New York City, the Adirondacks, and Washington DC. And I learned Russian, though I’m not sure why exactly! After those years with fourth graders, I went down to Washington to take an offered job in the State Department to translate Life magazine into Russian. As a college left-winger, however, they were holding up my appointment indefinitely—this was the dark, hysterical, anti-communist time of Senator McCarthy—but I lucked out instead into a job in the Senate with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson who was then running the world from his eminence there. I was hired for something called the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Metals. My subcommittee wrote the world’s most unread reports on strategic minerals like molybdenum and cinnabar, etc. LBJ would sail into our office and make the rounds saying “How ya doin’ honey!” I got married in Washington. We loved the sleepy old Southern town it was then. Hot, no air conditioning. My husband and I used to swim in the Potomac after work, gazing across at endless farmland. Now it’s all office glass, office parks, and high-rises. Those cool Georgetown gardens in the evening! It was heaven. On a lucky day you could observe Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Secretary of State Dean Acheson strolling down P Street.
Rail: What was your husband’s name, and what did he do?
Davidson: C. Girard [Jebby] Davidson. He was handsome, charming, very Southern, from Lafayette, Louisiana and Yale. He had a high position in the Department of the Interior in the 1950s and was close to President Truman, in his unofficial kitchen cabinet. Truman wanted Jebby to establish a Columbia Valley Authority [CVA], which was inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority [TVA], a model for governmental efforts to modernize the region’s economy and society. Truman wanted Jebby to organize the same for the Columbia River. The enterprise was underway but when President Eisenhower was elected the great project sort of faded away. All the democrats then resigned grandly. Newly married, we headed out to the Northwest, where Jebby and a Washington pal founded a law firm in Portland, Oregon. All my four children were born and went to school in Oregon. Years later we moved our young family up to Wrangell, in southeast Alaska, where Jebby had a contract with the Forest Service in Washington to get a sawmill built in the Tongass National Forest. This would be unheard of today. (Well, maybe the new Trump team would hear of it.) So Jebby was trying to manage the project from Portland which didn’t work. The men would go out on a Saturday night and kill somebody or kill themselves and the mill kept sinking into the mud. So we decided to pick up the whole young family and move to Wrangell—a small fishing/lumbering town—for a couple of months, we thought. It turned out to be for almost three years.
Rail: It sounds like a Hollywood movie. It must have been hard for the children.
Davidson: Paradise for them! [Laughter.] We upgraded from a small ratty house to a trailer! Wow, that was a great day. Things work in a trailer. The heating works, the toilet works. And the children went to a fabulous public school where everyone learned to read in a matter of weeks. Our kids would hike to school in the morning when it was pitch dark, the moon and stars were out. They would come home for lunch at noon in the bright sun. And by 3 or 3:30 it was dark again, nighttime. Then in the summer, the sunshine seemed eternal. It never got dark. They could roam the land, run down to the pier and get all the Dungeness crab they fancied, free. There was a nice little bakery in town, so we had excellent fresh bread too. And a movie! But that, and halibut, was it. Otherwise, we had to wait for the boat to come up from Seattle every two weeks with greens, milk, oranges, and so on. All one had to worry about was bears and the occasional eagle swooping down, or fishing a child out of the water.
Rail: What happened next?
Davidson: The Alaska mill got built. Jebby had more and more legal business in Washington so we bought a house in Brooklyn Heights and lived in a hotel for the whole school year while the house was being renovated. Which meant cooking on a hotplate and doing laundry in that tiny hotel sink. My daughter went to school at Packer, which was all girls then, and the boys went to Woodward in Bedstuy. Then, alas, the second floor of the house on Pierrepont Street collapsed! Happily we were able to sell the house as it was and then move back to the old haunt, the Upper East Side, Manhattan, where I still am today.
Rail: Was that when you became involved in local politics?
Davidson: Yes. By then I was active in the fund, on boards, etc., and in 1974 I became the democratic candidate for the so-called Silk Stocking District. I ran against a moderate Republican—the kind they don’t make any more—named Roy Goodman. A very nice guy, if a bit of a stuffed shirt, frankly. Our daughters were best friends! In the respectably Republican Upper East Side, Roy was an institution. I came close, but lost the election. But what an experience! As a candidate, you learn your city in a way you never otherwise would.
Rail: Was it then that you became the chairman of NYSCA [New York State Council of the Arts]?
Davidson: Yes. Democratic Governor Hugh Carey appointed me, in part, I suppose, for my having taken on a formidable Republican in the campaign.
Rail: And for three years [from 1974 to 1977] you were the second chairman of NYSCA, following Seymour Knox II, the banker and heir of the [F. W.] Woolworth Company.
Davidson: Who founded NYSCA. Wonderful man. The Albright Art Gallery became the Albright-Knox Art Gallery when Seymour gave his amazing collection and contribution in 1962. He was also very close to Nelson Rockefeller. And New York State had the most important arts council. Probably still does even though it has somewhat shrunk since the prosperous early days. But it seemed marvelous then. So many creative people were connected to the council in all of New York’s 62 counties. Yes, I so profoundly believe in the power of public funding of the arts. It can inspire a sense of quality in all fields, courage, experimentation, happiness.
Rail: As the socialist systems have done in most countries in Europe.
Davidson: Well, in Europe governments just pay institutions or artists straight out. Here, we generally support the arts through our tax system, saving on taxes when you give to cultural institutions. It was President Kennedy who started the idea that the government could support the arts directly, no longer having to depend only on the choices of individual patrons.
Rail: Were you sad to leave that post when your father asked you to run his fund, which you did from 1977 to 1993?
Davidson: Yes and no.
Rail: Did you run the Kaplan Fund differently from your father? Or did you similarly support causes without a formal mandate?
Davidson: Well I followed his lead a lot—use your imagination, take chances, support the person you trust in whatever! But I changed the way the fund works in, I think, important ways over my 17 years as president. And then in 1993 Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo appointed me Commissioner of New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
Rail: That meant you had to live in Albany!
Davidson: Well it happened that Midwood, my Hudson Valley place, was close enough to Albany, about a 40 minute drive. So I made that pretty painless trip every day. And that was a wonderful job too. The Empire State has one of the country’s greatest park systems: mountains! lakes! rivers! glorious beaches! the Great Lakes and the sea and historic sites and houses! We’ve got it all. The Commissioner’s job is to maintain all that—with never enough money!—to protect the budget, and keep the public happy.
Rail: What a journey of endless coming and going! And the next chapter?
Davidson: By the time I came back to New York City, my four and my sister’s three children were running the fund, and very well indeed. We had brought in an outside director for the first time. So everything was going along at a nice clip! So, in 1995, on behalf of the fund, I launched Furthermore with its headquarters to be in Hudson, NY. Before too long after that, my husband died.
Rail: What prompted you to create Furthermore grants in publishing, as an independent program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund?
Davidson: The fund per se had always made grants for books specifically connected with grant programs—about parks, environmental issues, social welfare, civil liberties, and legal matters, the arts, and so on. The idea of Furthermore was to redirect the interest in books as mainly conveyers of program information to an interest in the book itself—its character, its quality, its intrinsic value. We decided to stick to non-fiction and wanted to figure out how to help publication in resourceful ways—with very limited grants, mostly. Anyway, so far the program has assisted some 1,000 books for over $5 million and is going strong. Five years ago, Furthermore inaugurated its $25,000 award for a distinguished illustrated book, the Alice.
Rail: Joan, in one interview, you said something about the virtues of print, which was sweet music to my ears. It was something like, “We all live in the modern world. … We want efficiency, we want to do things fast. On the other hand, we want the real experience, we want the pleasure. [… So] it’s the efficient against the pleasurable, and the abstract against the tangible.” I also can identify with your comparison of 18th century drawings never being obsolete to books. As you say, “We love them as much now as they did then.” There’s no difference really. To me the printed book is to the pleasure of reading what handmade paintings or drawings are to the pleasure of seeing or looking. Both offer real stimulus to our sensory neurons or receptors, or perhaps all of our senses. Actually, I once did an experiment in a graduate seminar I taught several years ago. I asked my students to memorize a poem they liked, and to recite it first thing during the next class. Half were asked to memorize the poems from the internet which took three to four times longer, and by the time they came to class, they couldn’t remember the whole poem, whereas those who memorized the poems from books took less time and took great pleasure in reciting them with ease in class. Absolutely. It’s the difference between buying a color reproduction of Botticelli’s Primavera at the Uffizi only to remind yourself of the experience of seeing it in the flesh and having the color reproduction as a substitution for the real thing—and hoping to one day see the real thing in person.
Davidson: With a good ol’ book you can turn the page, take a pause, get a drink, and look out the window to digest what you have just read. I’m not so sure you can turn your back on the screen!
Rail: I agree. On another note, how did the idea of a rotating jury for the Alice Award come about?
Davidson: The professionals in the fields we care about are so talented, so delightful, that we wanted to involve them all of course! Publishers, museum directors, designers, gallery folks, writers. The jury system we’ve set up is rather informal, but efficient, and fair. And we so appreciate all those successful, busy jurors giving Furthermore their time—and love of books.
Rail: Just to change the subject a little, the first time we met was about two years ago through Elizabeth [Howard] at the Century Club. It was a lovely lunch and I still remember you asked me about my feelings on Westbeth.
Davidson: That’s right.
Rail: And my answer was that at its best it provided an individual artist an ideal live/work community so they would feel less of the pressure of keeping up with rent and the costs of living. There were great artists who worked and lived there: Diane Arbus, my old professor Nicolas Carone who taught at the New York Studio School, Robert Beauchamp, Robert De Niro Sr., the poet Joe Oppenheimer, the composer David Del Tredici, and of course the immortal Merce Cunningham, among others. But on the other hand, stability and comfort can lessen one’s drive to push beyond one’s current ability.
Davidson: I don’t know. I thought you were going to say that many people are there who aren’t artists anymore. Well, it’s a puzzling, difficult question: how does Westbeth remain a vital place for real artists? Federal restrictions mandated that initially, and those are far looser now if they exist at all. All those great artists you mentioned were in the first round of tenants, and had been meticulously selected by a small, qualified committee. They were the originals. Now we have a couple of generations since, and people have inherited apartments, so it may be a bit different now.
Rail: At what point were you no longer part of the decision making process?
Davidson: Maybe twenty to twenty-five years ago. No family member or Kaplan Fund person has had anything to do with Westbeth since then.
Rail: The other thing I’d like to add in regards to the invention of Westbeth is that I think it has more or less become a model for projects like Chelsea Market, the High Line, or even Industry City in Sunset Park, where the Rail headquarters is, or Mana Contemporary which is a huge undertaking in Jersey City, despite the obvious difference in the balances between arts and commerce.
Davidson: Yes, that’s so. We sure have to support artists and the creative life in these tempestuous times!
Rail: One more question: you have a love for nature and the environment, just as you have a love for culture, how are you able to get involved in the Hudson River projects while keeping up with the demands of the Furthermore, the Alice Award, and whatnot?
Davidson: I think it’s because I’m getting used to the back and forth life! I adore my Hudson Valley place, but I’d never give up Manhattan. So it’s up and down every week for me—sometimes by car, mostly train. The City is the City; to me, indispensible. But Midwood has assumed a heroic role too. It’s the base camp for what I care about most: family (keeping the lively, sprawling outposts connected), work (Furthermore and the Alice Award), the Great World (the lordly Hudson, the magnificent Empire State, the Constitution). Excelsior!
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.