Published: June 28, 2011
Thomas N. Armstrong III, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and chairman of The Garden Conservancy, died on Monday, June 20, in Manhattan at the age of 78. According to Amory Armstrong Spizzirri, his daughter, the cause was cardiac arrest.
He was born July 30, 1932, in Portsmouth, Va., but grew up in Summit, N.J., where he attended high school. In 1954 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art history from Cornell University, where he trained as a painter and later served as a trustee. Following a tour in the Army, he worked for eight years as assistant to the chairman of the securities and engineering firm Stone & Webster. He returned to graduate school in 1967 at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, studying museum administration.
His museum career began as a curator for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection in Williamsburg, Va., and he moved on to become the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1971.
From 1974 to 1990 Mr Armstrong was director of the Whitney, where he began aggressive fundraising and building up the museum’s collection. Most notably he purchased Frank Stella’s 1959 painting “Die Fahne Hoch!” for $75,000 in 1977, and in 1982 he raised more than $1.25 million to purchase Alexander Calder’s “Circus.” And shortly after becoming director, he purchased “Three Flags” by Jasper Johns for about $1 million. These works, and others, are now the backbone of the Whitney’s collection.
Numerous important exhibitions were staged under Mr Armstrong’s leadership, including the works of Cy Twombly, Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Saul Steinberg, Richard Tuttle, Elie Nadelman, Red Grooms, Robert Mapplethorpe, and a Jasper Johns retrospective. The 1989 exhibition “Art in Place” featured 15 years of acquisitions by the Whitney, a permanent collection that had grown under Mr Armstrong from 2,000 works to 8,500.
Mr Armstrong’s quest for more space to show the Whitney’s collection led to the development, with architect Michael Graves, of a $37 million plan for an addition to the museum’s building on Madison Avenue. The plans, introduced in 1985, became unpopular with the museum’s trustees and the surrounding neighborhood, and were finally dismissed in 1989. The following year Mr Armstrong was relieved of his position with the Whitney.
When the Andy Warhol Museum opened in 1994 in Pittsburgh, Thomas Armstrong was its first director, a position he held for nine months before resigning over the general operation and direction of the museum.
During his years at Cornell he studied agriculture, another one of his interests, but that avenue took second place to his museum studies for, as a city dweller, he felt his farming opportunities were very limited. However, in 1987, Mr Armstrong and his wife, Bunty, bought a house on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound, and his life changed.
“For the past 20 years we have been taking truck loads of plants and trees out to Fishers Island for Tom,” Scott Jamison, owner of Oliver’s Nursery in Fairfield, Conn., said, “and at one time he was really pushing the boundaries of his property,” recalling the time a neighbor complained and they had to pull back some of the plantings.
“His garden filled about three acres, but Tom never had enough space,” Mr Jamison said. He mentioned that it was a constant battle against winds off the water and sea spray, “but Tom persevered with his vision of shapes and colors and created what I think of as a wonderful strolling garden with paths that meandered through countless daffodils and all the other annual and perennial flowers that he loved,” he said.
The gardens were featured on the cover of House & Garden magazine in June 1999, and the house, a very modern replacement for the original home that was destroyed by fire, was featured in the October 2010 issue of Architectural Digest. Mr Armstrong was working on a book about his own garden at the time of his death, and it was 99 percent finished. Some of the final pictures have been taken and the book, reported to be 274 pages, mostly photographs, is scheduled to be published this September.
Along the way, Mr Armstrong cultivated many friends who shared his interest in horticulture, among them Frank Cabot, founder of The Garden Conservancy. Since 1992, Mr Armstrong had served on the Board of Directors of the Conservancy and recently was named chairman, following Mr Cabot, who became chairman emeritus.
“Tom was a superb member of our board, first as vice chairman and later as chairman, and his infectious enthusiasm was a pleasure for all concerned and his efforts and energy spread the word of the Conservancy across the country. He was a devoted gardener in his own right and it was a pleasure to serve with him,” Frank Cabot said.
Mr Armstrong has served on the advisory committees of Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens and Winterthur Museum & Country Estate. He was an honorary trustee of the National Building Museum and a trustee of the New York School of Interior Design.
Over the years Mr Armstrong has written many articles, and also been the subject of a good number. Years back he was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, singled out as a famous bowtie wearer, for an article about a Connecticut firm called Lowe Bows. It rekindled an interest in bowties and for a long time regular customers of Lowe Bows had trouble receiving orders on time.
He is survived by his wife, Bunty; his two daughters, Amory Armstrong Spizzirri of Greenwich, Conn., and Eliot Armstrong Foote of Vero Beach, Fla.; two sons, Thomas Newton Armstrong IV of Baltimore and Whitney Brewster Armstrong of Manhattan; a sister, Susan Armstrong Watts of Summit; and seven grandchildren.
A memorial service will be conducted Wednesday, June 29, at Saint Bartholomew’s Church, New York City. Memorial contributions may be made to The Garden Conservancy, PO Box 219, Cold Spring NY 10516.
While Tom Armstrong will be remembered foremost as the Whitney’s popular director, and later as a strong supporter of The Garden Conservancy and its tireless chairman, his many friends and colleagues will always remember him for his wonderful sense of humor and fun. For with Tom, one never knew. One time it was a silly hat, another time he showed his love for little windup toys, and then there was the time he spent growing tomatoes on the terrace of his fifth floor office and selling them on the sidewalk at a vegetable stand. And always with a bowtie.
⁒. Scudder Smith
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