Gary James' Interview With
The Former Director Of Everson Museum on John and Yoko's
This Is Not Here 1971 Exhibit
Jim Harithas is the director of the Station Museum Of Art in Houston, Texas. Back in October, 1971, he was the Director of the Everson Museum Of Art in Syracuse, New York. The Everson Museum hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono's This Is Not Here exhibit.
Mr. Harithas spoke about how that exhibit came to be and his friendship with John and Yoko.
Q - Mr. Harithas, I believe the Everson Museum opened in 1969. Were you the director then?
A - No. I think it opened earlier. It's actually one of the earlier museums in the country. It dates back to the 19th century, the late 19the century and actually the people that started the museum were originally connected to the Metropolitan Museum and they thought it was becoming too much of a stuffy museum and they shifted their interest to Syracuse, where they opened one of the first museums that was somehow dedicated to American Art. It's been thirty or forty years since I thought about it. It was one of the first museums in the country that was really concerned with contemporary American art.
Q - I'm talking about the...
A - New building, the I.M. Pei building. It came in, I guess it was 1969.
Q - You're not a native Syracusan, are you?
A - No.
Q - So, how did you end up becoming the director of the Everson Museum?
A - I'd just come back from doing an exhibition in Holland. I went to an interview and I was given the job. I had previous museum experience and I also taught art history. So, I had previous experience. I'd been director of a major museum in Washington before.
Q - How long were you with the Everson?
A - Probably three years. '71 roughly to '74.
Q - You told the Syracuse Symphony Guild at the Corinthian Club back on January 9th, 1973, "I selected the Yoko Ono Show because Yoko and her husband John Lennon are the only superheroes among the youth I know who are anti-drug." That was one of the big considerations in bringing Yoko's show to the Everson?
A - I couldn't have said that. (laughs) I would've been a hypocrite if I said that.
Q - I got that quote from the Syracuse newspaper.
A - I didn't know they were anti-drug. I probably said that, to be totally honest, I probably said that because John was being tried and they were trying to throw him out of the country. So, I may have said that because of that. But, I really chose that show because I was interested in Yoko's art. Yoko was part of Fluxus and Fluxus was the real underground art movement of the time.
Q - How did you hear that John and Yoko had this exhibit they were looking to showcase?
A - I ran into them at a gallery. While we were there, we had this chat. I said to Yoko, "Look Yoko, we'd really love to give you a museum show", because she had not had a museum show. She was a woman and very few women were getting shows and because I thought she was a significant member of a very important movement called Fluxus, and so I invited them up to Syracuse to see the museum. They saw the museum and I offered the whole thing to them. But this show started from scratch at that point. It was an exhibition that involved the whole museum and it was an exhibition in which Yoko invited fifty other artists to participate in this exhibition with her. I think it was the first real opportunity given to a woman to take over a whole museum, from the basement up, and to really showcase a significant portion of her work.
Q - When John and Yoko came in to Syracuse to look at the museum, did they spell out certain conditions they wanted, like staging and lighting?
A - Well, I always worked very closely with the artist. There wasn't anything spelled out. We kind of talked it over, spent some time talking together. I think there's a letter where John said I was the best museum person in the country or something like that, which is the most complimentary thing that ever happened to me. They were committed to my kind of program and we got along perfectly. I put on art shows before, obviously, but for me it was just a question really of putting on an art show by a really significant person and the second thing was to help John out because he was under trial. They tried to push him outside of the country, so I thought it was important that he participate in it. And he did. That was it. And to showcase Yoko's work, which really I thought was great. If you look at the news reports from that period, a lot of people came to that show. They came from all over the country.
Q - Was there any opposition from your staff on bringing in John and Yoko's show?
A - Oh, I don't think so. I think they were all for it. I think most people were actually surprised that we were getting it. I think a lot of people on the board for example didn't know that much about John and Yoko. They knew about The Beatles, but they really didn't know that much about John and Yoko. I always thought that Syracuse was kind of open, that people were very open-minded up there, much more left than say a lot of the rest of the country.
Q - That's surprising because I always felt Syracuse was more conservative.
A - Well, I didn't see much evidence of it. I was able to do the kind of program which I did with a totally far out, very advanced program that we got a lot of national and international publicity for in Syracuse, which I think would've been very difficult to do elsewhere. New York (City) hadn't done a John and Yoko show. Japan, her home country, hadn't done a Yoko show. In fact, all the Yoko shows came afterwards.
Q - That show really did put Syracuse, N.Y. on the map, didn't it?
A - I think it really spotlighted Syracuse.
Q - I don't think I would be wrong in saying the John and Yoko Art Exhibit was the most successful exhibition in the history of the Everson Museum.
A - Really?
Q - The museum has never seen the crowds before or since turn up for an art exhibit.
A - I thought, during that period I was there, very consistently good crowds. We had a lot of programs and there seemed to be enormous interest in our work. We did a big prison program with Auburn Prison. When we exhibited the results of this prison program, I think there were almost one hundred newspaper articles. There were articles all over the world really, about a really successful prison program and that was Everson. We did posters in those days of our programs and if you go to Everson you'll see what a huge program we had. There were people in the museum at all times. Probably the biggest moment was the John and Yoko show. But another moment was the Joan Mitchell Show. That was a great show. That brought people from Europe. We did a pro-Attica show because the prison at Attica had blown up, so we did a show in support of the prisoners of the Attica. At another point, we had Jane Fonda come to the museum and speak. We got the locals a little bit riled up, but it worked out.
Q - I don't remember that.
A - When Fonda was there, my God, a lot of the VFW and ex-military got furious. Of course they were mad at her. My goodness, I thought she was beautiful.
Q - Do you remember reading the letters in The Post Standard about the John and Yoko show?
A - I don't remember them too well. I know there were quite a few.
Q - Some people liked it. Some people didn't like it. Let me just read two excerpts from letters people wrote, who didn't like the show. The first is from Dr. Ryan of Fayetteville, "The show itself was a silly collection of sub-titled nothingness, which any journeyman gay man worthy of his hire could have concocted on his lunch hour."
A - If you look at all of Yoko's pieces, that's ridiculous. I wouldn't have paid any attention to that I tell you.
Q - One woman wrote that the show was "an insult to one's intelligence that the museum would even consider this exhibition. If the "average Syracusan" called the museum and asked to do this kind of show with broken guitars, discarded Volkswagens, the public invited to write or draw on blank pieces of paper on the wall and to enter into this through a telephone booth, this "average Syracusan" would immediately be invited to the nearest available psychiatric couch." That made me laugh.
A - That's funny.
Q - When I went to the show, I saw a pair of old shoes put on a pedestal. I assume they must have been John's. And I also saw, like a bubblegum dispenser that said "Cat Shit 2¢." It hit me that this is something alright, but is it art? I thought John must be sitting back laughing at all the people coming by to look at this. This must've been his strange sense of humor. What do you say to that?
A - I look at it totally different. The way I look at the Fluxus orientation was, it was a way; there was an official art that was really doing very well and kind of supported America as this extraordinary place, extraordinary culture, Pop culture fundamentally and then there was the Fluxes people who were taking a position against it and trying to make an art that was much simpler, much more direct, much more that really had to do with discarded Volkswagens, etc. But you have to remember that a lot of those pieces... what Yoko did in one of those galleries, and some of it was pretty junky, Yoko invited people to put their pieces in the show. So, in the majority of the gallery's objects that looked very heavy, but were actually very light and objects that were light that were actually very heavy, those were Fluxus pieces. But there was also that section of the show; we never finished the catalog, that other artists were invited to send something as a collaboration with Yoko and that had a range of stuff. There were fifty artists and they had a range of stuff from Andy Warhol to what you're describing.
Q - I'm pretty sure that it was Frank Zappa's Volkswagen.
A - It was Frank Zappa's Volkswagen and we filled it with water. That was the idea. Yoko's idea was, you send the piece and I'll fill it with water. So it was a kind of gesture. I thought it was a very generous gesture because it's pretty rare that an artist, especially an artist who hadn't gotten a museum show to that date, would generously kind of share her space with a group of other artists, including all the rest of the Fluxus artists. They were pretty well allowed to send in anything they wanted and I thought that was fine.
Q - I think people have an idea that art is something that only a few people can do. It's something like Still Life, something to stand back and admire.
A - Well, it's every show, even what we do here. Last night I participated in a panel that was involved in censorship. We really talked about the fact that you can't... no matter how good the show is, you get people that come in and complain about it. Our job as a Contemporary Arts Museum is to show the stuff. I like to show things that are way out on the edge and see what the result is. So, we've done a lot of shows like that here. That's precisely what I tried to do at Everson. If you follow the history of art, you see that contributions are made very often at the edges by somebody who has kind of broken through with a different idea. It's not necessarily a Renaissance painting is what I have to say. In fact, Modern Art has moved away from the idea that you have to draw a certain way or illustrate a certain way in order to be an artist. An artist is just somebody that expounds something passionately as far as I'm concerned. You know, visually through his art, using whatever materials he wants. The problem was of course that John had such a big reputation and he was like a perfect person anyway I thought. Both of them, even though they had their problems later on, they were a great couple. They were two totally creative people that had their minds in the right places. When the state threatened to run a road through the Onondaga Indian Reservation, one of the Chiefs, Oren Lyons, came to us and said "Please, can you get John and Yoko to come to where we're protesting where the bulldozers are?" And John immediately agreed to do it. We all went over there and stood up against bulldozers. That was the climate of the times. The state finally relented. Of course John brought with him fifty news people. John Lennon was a person with a really serious social conscience, and so was Yoko.
Q - When John was in Syracuse, he celebrated his thirty-first birthday at Hotel Syracuse.
A - I know.
Q - Were you invited to that birthday party?
A - Well of course. I was there and he actually had two parties. He had one party in the museum which everyone was invited to and he sat at the table with two of my kids who were absolutely thrilled to be there. Then there was the second party where really a bunch of people came, members of the Avant-Garden. Other Beatles, whatever.
Q - I knew Ringo was in town.
A - Ringo came, yeah.
Q - Did George Harrison also come to Syracuse?
A - I think both Ringo and George Harrison came. Paul McCartney didn't come. I thought there was a little friction between Paul McCartney and John in that period. Maybe they got over it. Of course there was the ongoing problem that everyone thought Yoko had broken up the band, but the truth of the matter is, I don't think she did. How could she have?
Q - John was probably tired of being a Beatle.
A - It was over. He went on his own and composed some beautiful music on his own, like "Imagine". And "Imagine" was the song he was actually composing in that period. So it had a lot to do with creativity too I imagine, and Yoko's work.
Q - It was also reported that John was going to stay in touch with Everson. Did he stay in touch with you over the years?
A - Well, I stayed in touch with Yoko over the years. Two years ago I went up to Iceland for the presentation of the John and Yoko sculpture, at Yoko's invitation. Every now and then she sends me something, a gift or something. I try to keep her apace of what we're doing here. It's probably four of five years since I spent time with her. I went to dinner at her house maybe five years ago. We kind of kept in contact. I'm probably the oldest museum director in the world right now.
Q - You are?
A - Well, I'm seventy-eight years old. We're still doing shows. They tend to be somewhat controversial, but it works and we're in Texas
Q - Who was more of an artist, John or Yoko?
A - Well, Yoko was the real artist, no doubt about it. She got out of school, in what, the early '50s. I think she made her first piece of art in '52 or '53. If you go to practically every major European museum, especially Vienna, Berlin, everywhere, there's a Yoko Ono section. I actually just got back from Sao Paulo and there was one gallery devoted to Yoko Ono down there. It's a big South American biennial. She's definitely not forgotten and her contribution is realized.