Pontus Hulten, a visionary art impresario who embraced artists of many persuasions, conceived of museums as public forums for mind-bending experiences and infused his ideas into the foundations of several major institutions, including the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, died Wednesday at his home in Stockholm. He was 82.
The Moderna Museet in Stockholm announced his death but did not state the cause. Hulten’s American colleagues said he had been in poor health for several years.
His tenure in Los Angeles was brief, but his reputation gave MOCA instant credibility in its formative stage. He is credited with establishing the museum’s early relationships with leading artists and collectors and with laying the groundwork for multifaceted programs.
“He was an original with a truly international perspective,” said Richard Koshalek, Hulten’s successor at MOCA and now president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “He was a special person who caused change.”
Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, said Hulten set a high standard for all the museums he directed and instilled a spirit of grand ambition at MOCA. “The complex, thematic exhibitions we do that differentiate MOCA from other museums are part of his legacy,” he said.
Lyn Kienholz, head of the nonprofit California/International Arts Foundation and a longtime friend of Hulten, described him as “an entrepreneur, not an administrator” who was “incredibly passionate about what he did, passionate about the artists.”
Born in Stockholm in 1924, Hulten studied art in Copenhagen and earned a master’s degree in art history at the University of Stockholm in 1951. He wrote his thesis on two 17th century Dutch figures, painter Jan Vermeer and philosopher Baruch Spinoza, but devoted his career to the most adventurous art of his time.
Seeking his professional focus in the 1950s, Hulten spent much of his time in Paris, forming friendships and working relationships with leading avant-garde artists, including Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely and French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp. As he worked out ideas of what art could be, he also organized exhibitions and made underground films.
Hulten launched himself as a force in the Swedish museum world by landing a traveling exhibition of Picasso’s monumental painting “Guernica” and related drawings. While working at the National Museum of Sweden, he installed the show in a former Swedish naval facility in Stockholm. The building was converted to the Moderna Museet in 1958 with Hulten as its founding director.
Stockholm was far from the most likely city to become a beacon of contemporary art. Some civic leaders deemed the museum a hotbed of radicalism and objected to funding its program, but Hulten prevailed. His thematic shows of kinetic and Pop art and surveys of such artists as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Edward Kienholz and Jackson Pollock made the museum the be-all, end-all place to see contemporary art in Europe. Determined to make art available to a broad audience, Hulten also pioneered the concept of offering programs of films, concerts, poetry readings and philosophical debates at museums.
In the early 1970s, when plans were shaping up for Paris’ Pompidou Center, including a museum for modern and contemporary art in a high-tech building, Hulten was the obvious candidate for the museum’s directorship. He was hired in 1973. The museum opened in 1977 with a retrospective of Duchamp’s work and “Paris-New York,” the first in a series of sprawling, multidisciplinary investigations of artistic relationships between the French capital and other art centers. Hulten’s trademark projects were huge explorations of aesthetic territory with lots of rough edges, but the museum was an instant hit with the public and soon became Europe’s most compelling showcase for modern and contemporary art.
Hulten also was the director of choice for Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, founded in 1979 as part of a Bunker Hill redevelopment project.
In late 1980, when Hulten agreed to take the job, the proposed museum had no building and no collection. It had only a skeleton staff, including volunteers, and the trustees had a lot of fundraising to do. But the project had a great buzz, and Hulten’s appointment added considerable credibility.
“What he did in Stockholm, and what he did again in Paris, he is likely to do again in Southern California,” critic John Russell wrote in the New York Times.
Hulten had a big impact on MOCA during its formative years, but he never had a large presence in Los Angeles and soon faded from the scene. In late 1982, a little more than a year after he had officially taken charge of MOCA, the museum announced that he would step down within a few months to direct the cultural and artistic component of the 1989 Paris World’s Fair. The news raised eyebrows because the Paris job didn’t sound very substantial. At the time, Hulten declined to comment on his departure from Los Angeles, but in art circles he was said to have been beaten down by local politics, trustees’ agendas and bureaucratic processes.
In a 1997 interview in Art Forum, a magazine published in New York, Hulten said that he got along well with artists in Los Angeles but “less well” with the patrons and that there was insufficient financial support for the fledgling institution.
“I finally had to leave because I was no longer practicing my profession,” he said. “I had become a fundraiser instead of a museum director.”
Koshalek -- former director of the Hudson River Museum in New York’s Westchester County and the Fort Worth Art Museum in Texas (now the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth) -- had been hired as MOCA’s deputy director and chief curator soon after Hulten was appointed. He succeeded Hulten and stayed at the helm until 1999, when he took charge of Art Center.
After Hulten left Los Angeles, he helped found an art school in Paris and led three museums in Europe. In 1985 he became director of the Palazzo Grassi, an 18th century palace on the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy, and organized a major exhibition of Futurist art there. In 1991 he became founding director of the Kunsthalle in Bonn, a nonprofit exhibition space. In 1995 he launched the Jean Tinguely Museum in Basel, Switzerland. He spent his final years in Stockholm and donated his collection of 700 works to the Moderna Museet, on the condition that pieces not on display be available to the public in storage.
Hulten married Anna-Lean Wibom in the late 1950s. They divorced after having two children. Hulten is survived by his son, Felix, and a grandson.