Richard Erik Oldenburg

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Richard Erik Oldenburg

Also Known As: "Dick"
Birthplace: Stockholm, Stockholm County, Sweden
Death: April 17, 2018 (84)
Manhattan, New York, New York County, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Gosta Oldenburg and Sigrid Elisabet Oldenburg
Husband of Private and Harriett 'Lisa' Elizabeth Oldenburg (Turnure)
Brother of Claes Thure Oldenburg

Occupation: MoMA Director, attorney and writer
Managed by: Torgrim Oldenburg
Last Updated:

About Richard Erik Oldenburg

Richard Erik Oldenberg

Oldenburg was the long term director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from 1972 to 1995.

He was born in Stockholm, brother of Pop Art sculptor artist Claes Oldenburg. The family moved to the United States when he was a child, as his father was in the Swedish diplomatic service. His mother, Sigrid Lindforss, was an opera singer in Sweden and an abstract artist.


Oldenburg received a B.A. from Harvard University and attended one year of Harvard Law School before becoming an assistant director of financial aid at Harvard.


Early Career

He served in the United States Army from 1956 to 1958. After the military he was a manager at Doubleday and in 1963 he joined Macmillan Company where became managing director of the trade division.

Museum of Modern Art

In 1969 Oldenburg joined MoMA and was responsible for what MoMA said was the largest publishing program of any museum in the world.

In 1972 he was named acting director of the museum in January following the resignation of John B. Hightower. In June 1972 he was named the official director of the museum. During his tenure, Oldenburg oversaw the $55 million expansion of the museum building to more than double its size, increased both the museum's endowment and its attendance and helped organize several blockbuster exhibitions, including the Matisse retrospective in 1992. Other important shows during Oldenburg's tenure included "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism" in 1989; "Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture & Design" in 1986; "Primitivism in 20th-Century Art" in 1984; "Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective" in 1980, and "Cezanne: The Late Work" in 1978. Under his direction, the museum attendance grew from 853,996 in 1972 to 1.28 million in 1992.

While at MoMA, Oldenburg served as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors in 1987 and 1988. Referring to then Governor Mario Cuomo's proposal for a cut of 56 percent in the budget for the New York State Council on the Arts in 1991, Oldenburg called it "extremely disproportionate, a sign of the low priority Governor Cuomo puts on arts and cultural programs in general." When he retired in 1995, he became the museum's director emeritus and served as an honorary member of the institution's board of trustees.


Oldenburg became Chairman of Sotheby's North and South America operations from 1995 to 2000 and later was named Sotheby's Honorary Chairman. While at Sotheby's, he did not conduct sales but focussed on obtaining works of art for sale and conferring with museums on appraisals, acquisitions and sales. He also advised Sotheby's on its educational programs. However, Time art critic Robert Hughes, commented: "I'm sad he's being sucked into the totally pernicious cultural influence of Sotheby's and the auction system."

He served as president of the Harvard Board of Overseers from 2001 to 2002.


Oldenburg died at the age of 84 at his home in Manhattan due to heart failure. He was survived by his brother and his second wife Mary Ellen Meehan. After his death, a selection of pieces from his art collection were sold at auction, including 20th century works by Mimmo Rotella, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, and Claes Oldenburg.


  • 1998: Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (2 Volume Set), The Museum of Modern Art, ISBN 9780870705342
  • 2002: A Century Of Artists Books, The Museum of Modern Art, ISBN 9780870701511
  • 2002: Kandinsky Compositions, The Museum of Modern Art, ISBN 9780870704055
  • 2010: How the Quail Earned His Topknot, Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency, LLC, ISBN 9781609116682
  • 2012: The Musical Dragon: The Dragon That Wanted to Join the Band, Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency, LLC, ISBN 9781618973351
  • 2012: A Curator's Quest: Building the Museum of Modern Art's Painting and Sculpture Collection, 1967-1988, Harry N. Abrams, ISBN 9781590201176
  • 2013: The Three Little Green Pigs, LLC: A Recycling Pig Tale, Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency, LLC, ISBN 9781625167538

NOTE: Oldenberg's first wife, Harriet Elizabeth 'Lisa' Oldenburg (Turnure), was the paternal granddaughter of Arthur Baldwin Turnure, the founder of Vogue Magazine. Vogue is the organizer and co-producer, with MoMA, of the annual Met Gala.
Richard Oldenburg, who as the longtime director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City oversaw blockbuster exhibitions of Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne and a transformative expansion that doubled its exhibition space in the 1980s, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.

His wife, Mary Ellen, confirmed the death but said she did not know the cause.

Mr. Oldenburg — whose older brother is the Pop Art sculptor Claes Oldenburg — was a publishing executive when MoMA hired him to run its publications department in 1969. The job allowed him to work closely with curators and artists on catalogs and books, an experience that proved critical when the board of trustees named him director three years later.

“What I hadn’t realized when I went there was how central the publishing job is,” he told an interviewer in 1999 for the museum’s oral history project, “and that certainly was what led to everything else.” Publishing has long been crucial to MoMA’s business — not only books about modern art but publications that assured that its exhibitions reached a wide audience.

It was a turbulent time. The museum was running deficits. The curatorial staffs were squabbling with one another. Two previous directors had been ousted by the board. Mr. Oldenburg, a quiet, diplomatic executive, was an easy choice.

“Everybody likes him,” Blanchette Rockefeller, the museum’s president, told People magazine in 1984. “He’s a worrier, and we had plenty of worries.”

Mr. Oldenburg turned out to be a reassuring leader with no curatorial agenda of his own. Knowing MoMA’s inner workings, he did not interfere with curatorial decisions, which made him popular. But he required his top curators to meet with him for weekly sandwich-and-wine lunches.

“They were often rowdy,” John Elderfield, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture, said in an email. “Dick was often exasperated but had the knack of bringing a meeting to a close without promising anything at all and dealing with problems individually behind closed doors — or not. He had the further diplomatic talent of not doing anything at all so that problems went away by themselves — at least, usually.”

As director, Mr. Oldenburg dealt with strikes by members of the museum staff and established ties in the Soviet Union to help with loans of artwork from museums there, in particular for the Matisse retrospective, in 1992. Most important, he shepherded a $55 million expansion that included the sale of MoMA’s air rights to a developer, which built a condominium tower directly over a new museum west wing. The museum’s exhibition space doubled, relieving it of a longstanding space crunch. By one estimate, its previous exhibition space could have fit into the central rotunda of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“People don’t remember, I think, how tiny those gallery spaces were — those old small gallery spaces and the carved-up area where you had one little cubicle for photography, one little cubicle for architecture and design; they were just minute,” Mr. Oldenburg said in the 1999 oral history interview.

Nonetheless, in 1980, the still-cramped museum hosted the immensely popular “Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective” — its last big show before the renovation was completed four years later.

Mr. Oldenburg recalled that the museum had erred in placing Picasso’s earliest pictures in the first galleries. “We had this incredible jam as people got in and spent an hour in those first galleries rather than going on,” he said. “So we had to rearrange and space out the works. But it was quite a time. You remember, people were hawking the Picasso catalog on the streets.”

About a year after the Picasso show closed, MoMA quietly (for security reasons) sent the show’s mural-size centerpiece — “Guernica,” Picasso’s masterwork about the Spanish Civil War — to the Prado Museum in Madrid. Picasso, who had died seven years earlier, had wanted the painting to be moved to Spain after democracy was restored there.

Richard Erik Oldenburg was born in Stockholm on Sept. 21, 1933. His father, Gosta, was a diplomat and his mother, the former Sigrid Lindforss, was an opera singer in Sweden and later an abstract artist. The family moved to Chicago in 1936, where the elder Mr. Oldenburg served as the Swedish consul general.

Richard graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree, but left Harvard Law School after a year, finding it both intensely competitive and boring. He became an assistant to the director of financial aid at the university.

After stateside Army service as a battery clerk, he moved to Manhattan, where his brother introduced him to the art world.

“Through him, I met Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Segal, Rosenquist — everyone — because they were all in very close contact,” he said in the MoMA oral history. He added: “It was a very exciting time. It was the whole emergence of the Pop Art movement.”

But he did not enter the art world, and he recognized how he and his brother differed. “He had the free spirit which I longed for,” he told People, “but I was born with an excess of caution.”

Mr. Oldenburg worked at the book publishers Doubleday and Macmillan until 1969, when he attended the opening of his brother’s exhibition, MoMA’s first major Pop Art show. While there, he met a former Doubleday colleague who was stepping down as the museum’s director of publications. Despite initial doubts, he interviewed for the job and got it.

In 1993, when Mr. Oldenburg announced his retirement as director, the museum’s annual budget had grown during his tenure to $50 million from $7 million; its endowment had soared to $180 million from $20 million; and its attendance had increased to 1.28 million from 853,996.

After leaving the museum, Mr. Oldenburg was the chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America for five years. He is survived by his wife, the former Mary Ellen Meehan, who is known as Mel, and his brother. His first wife, Lisa Turnure, died in 1998.

Glenn D. Lowry, the museum’s current director, said that Mr. Oldenburg’s careful style had paid off.

“In the 1970s, being more cautious than less cautious may have been exactly what the museum needed,” Mr. Lowry, who succeeded Mr. Oldenburg, said in a telephone interview. “When I think of Dick and the gift he gave me and the curators, it was a sense of stability.”

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Richard Erik Oldenburg's Timeline

September 21, 1933
Stockholm, Stockholm County, Sweden
April 17, 2018
Age 84
Manhattan, New York, New York County, New York, United States
Age 84