John Hightower, 1933-2013


Arts administrator John Hightower died July 6 in Newport News, Va., at 80 years old, due to complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. Hightower was a director of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) and of the South Street Seaport Museum and, briefly, of the Museum of Modern Art.

As director of NYSCA, Hightower pumped up the organization’s budget from $500,000 in 1964, the year he began, to $22 million in 1970, when he left. He similarly elevated the sleepy South Street Seaport, in Manhattan, from a sleepy holdover from New York’s maritime past to a popular tourist destination. He was director there from 1977 to 1993. He was president and CEO at the Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Va., from 1993 to 2006.

His tenure at MoMA lasted just 19 months, starting in May 1970, when he was 37. His time in the job saw antiwar artist protests at the museum and a strike by unionized museum staffers. Comments by Hightower at public meetings about the possibility of winnowing older works from the museum’s collection, according to an obituary in the New York Times, displeased trustees and led to his dismissal, with Richard Oldenburg succeeding him.

Born in Atlanta, Hightower grew up on Long Island and graduated from Yale University in 1955 with a major in English.