Baptism by Fire: A Cup of Tea with Suzanne Delehanty

Suzanne Delehanty was a graduate student studying ancient art at Penn when she happened to run into her college art history professor, Stephen Prokopoff, and his wife. This was in the late 1960s. Prokopoff had just taken over as director of the four-year-old ICA. At the end of their chat, Prokopoff’s wife turned to Delehanty and said, “Suzanne, Steve’s going to need some help.”


The next thing she knew, Delehanty found herself employed as one of a scant handful of staff at ICA—typing, researching, supervising student volunteers. Doing whatever needed to be done. A few years later, when Prokopoff left for a job in Chicago, the board, chaired by the legendary Lallie Lloyd, asked her to become director. “It was amazing!” she says. “I had no experience. It was baptism by fire! But we were very lucky. I was interested in doing shows of artists like Agnes Martin and Cy Twombly, and people were interested in supporting those shows.”

Delehanty recalled those days recently over a cup of tea on ICA’s mezzanine, looking around with some astonishment at how many of us there are now: about twenty, though we still think of ourselves as a small staff. It was a sunny afternoon in the middle of ICA’s 50th anniversary year. Tea and cookies were spread out across a red-checked cloth, and we were eager to listen to Delehanty, who organized so many important ICA exhibitions before continuing her illustrious career at the State University of New York at Purchase, in Houston, Miami, and at Rutgers University. To learn a little bit more about her—and our—history.

“So Suzanne,” Ingrid says. “You just wrote Agnes Martin a letter?”

“Sometimes it’s good to be a little naïve,” Delehanty says, smiling. “Or a little direct.” She’d first seen Martin’s work in A Romantic Minimalism, an exhibition Prokopoff organized in 1967. “There was an Agnes Martin painting in that show, and I was utterly fascinated by that painting, which was from Lallie Lloyd’s collection. And she was the only woman in the show. So I started to keep a file on her. Then I started seeing her paintings on people’s walls, or postcards of her work pinned to the walls in artists’ studios. When I became director, [board member] Dan Dietrich asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I was dying to do an Agnes Martin show. He said he thought it was a good idea, and that he had some of her paintings.
Suzanne at table

Delehanty, left, with staff on ICA’s mezzanine

“I picked the pictures very carefully for that show: to show the way she worked, and to represent her life. For the loans, I went to visit people personally. People were so excited she was having a show that we got loans we wouldn’t have gotten at another time.”

Becky, who has done a lot of research on Agnes Martin (and has an Agnes Martin tattoo), says, “I love that she offered to repaint any painting that might get damaged in the show.”

“She was very much an ally,” Delehanty says. “I would say to people, Agnes really wants that to be in the show. She lived on a remote mesa in New Mexico and didn’t have a phone. She’d walk down to her post office and we’d have a phone date. I’d have to close all the doors, really concentrate, the conversations were very intense. Then, after the exhibition, I went to visit her in New Mexico every couple of years. I kept up with her all her life.” Delehanty’s 1972 show, Agnes Martin, is credited for launching the stalled career of an artist who, at the age of sixty, had given up painting until Delehanty came along.
Martin image

Agnes Martin, Untitled #1, 1989, acrylic and graphite on linen, 72″ x 72″ (182.9 cm x 182.9 cm). Photo by: G. R. Christmas / Courtesy The Pace Gallery.

“Was Sam Green already a legend when you got here?” someone asks, referring to the director who preceded Prokopoff, most famous for organizing Andy Warhol’s first solo museum show in 1965, and for taking the art off the walls for the spectacular exhibition opening.

“Absolutely. He was known for taking cab rides to New York for meetings, then bringing the bills to the Dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts. You couldn’t not like him, even if he could be naughty.”

“What about ICA’s dialogue with other institutions?”

“We always had a good relationship with the Philadelphia Museum. And when Tom Armstrong came on at PAFA, that was a strong connection. ICA was the place to see art that hadn’t been deeply written about, art you had to come grapple with to see what it was. There was the sense that the PMA was the collecting institution, and that the role of ICA was to animate the scene. But I like to think we influenced what the PMA collected. For instance the Twombly room [at the PMA] probably would not have happened if we hadn’t done the Twombly show at ICA.”

Twombly, Delehanty adds, once came to ICA to do a program for school children: “The kids were impressed that he wore a coat and tie!”

Kate, who has been editing her own correspondence for the archive, asks Delehanty how she approached this task.

“I don’t know that we thought about the future, or an archive,” Delehanty says. “We were there in the moment. We were a small staff, and we were scrambling.”

She stops and thinks for a moment.

“Honestly, the fact that things got filed at all was miracle!”

—Rachel Pastan

For more of our conversation with former ICA Director Suzanne Delehanty, tune in next time.

To learn more about ICA’s history, and how it is sparking new projects, visit ICA@50, on view through August 17.

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