Barbara Tober is president of Acronym Inc., a venture capital firm that invests in art-related projects, and chair of the Museum of Arts & Design in New York. She previously was editor in chief of Bride’s magazine, a position she held from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. Tober, who turns 73 this month, talked recently with Women’s Voices for Change about preparing for new challenges and following her passion for art.

Women’s Voices for Change: You left Bride’s magazine in 1994 after serving as editor in chief for 30 years. Did you know then what you would be doing now?

Barbara Tober: The right moment became obvious to me in 1994, the year of my 60th birthday, although I had been quite restless for the previous two years, knowing that I had done everything I could possibly do to expand the magazine and the industry and make the subject interesting for me as well.

My plan had been to prepare Millie Bratten, who had been with me for
18 years, to take over my position, and despite various interventions,
it worked out beautifully. I knew she would be a superb editor-in-chief.

I went to my boss, Si Newhouse, whom I loved and who had been very
supportive of me all those years, and told him I had to leave; that it
was time for me to do something else; specifically, to get involved in
the art world. Moreover, that I had a gift for him: an absolutely
ready, terrific person to take over the helm. Everyone met her and they
agreed, and she has been the EIC and my "honorary daughter" ever since.
I’m very proud of this unique transition in the magazine business, or
any business for that matter.

I had already been elected to the board of the Museum of Arts &
Design in 1989. And in 1994, I heard a couple of people say: "You
should be chairman," so I had a feeling I would be elected to that very
demanding office. The Museum was going through some difficult times,
and I decided that someone giving full time to the institution could
help it in myriad ways.

So, after leaving Conde Nast in December of 1994, my husband and I
went skiing, and when I came back in January, I just plunged into this
new world.

I already knew quite a bit about the field of decorative arts and
design from my schooling, my work and my affiliation with the Museum
and the artists since the mid-80s. This was simply the next and most
natural step.

To me, the idea of building something is the key element to life. I
was born and Bride’s was founded in August of 1934, so it seemed fated
for me to be the champion of its restoration. We built Bride’s Magazine
from about 200 pages to a magazine of over 1,000 pages — too thick for
the early technology of the trimming machines to remove all those rough
edges that come fresh off the printing press. Expansion and success
took a long time, but the end result was that we built a market well in
excess at that time of some $35 billion dollars.

Now, however, it was time for a new challenge. Everything was in
place. I knew where I was going, and I knew, more or less, who was
going with me. My "retirement party" was at the Museum, and I fondly
remember Si Newhouse saying to everyone who was standing on the
balconies, "You all look like crafts."

WVFC: When did you first become interested in art? What fueled your interest?

BT: I have loved the world of decorative arts and design ever since I was a child. When I was 6 years old, I watched in awe as a man in Woolworths was making ships, dogs, cats and little houses with a Bunsen burner and a rod of glass and I thought, "Wow! This is really hot stuff!" — literally.

I was allowed to buy them from time to time and collected these, as well as butterflies and other creatures in the wild. Later on, when I bought objects, decorative or practical, for my apartment, I always tried to find those that were made by hand.

WVFC: Did you have any formal arts training when you were young?

BT: I didn’t go to college. I had art appreciation in school, and we played with paint and clay, but we didn’t have any deep training in art history.

I have traveled all over the world, however, and I’ve seen some of the greatest works of art, from the Sistine Chapel to the Parthenon to Venetian frescos to St. George and the Dragon in Munich. And I’ve read and collected books on Goya, Michaelangelo and Caillebotte, to name a few. We have at least six walls of books in our home, and the majority of them are art books. You can’t not get an education in the arts by the time you’re 73 years old unless you’re totally immune to everything visual.

I believe strongly that there has to be art and music education in school. It’s a natural part of the whole learning process; languages should be as well. We have to learn to see and we have to learn to communicate.

The Museum of Arts & Design, under the supervision of our director, Holly Hotchner, and her staff, has a very intense education program which includes all five boroughs of New York, as well as outreach to schools in the tri-state area. Not only do we teach the teachers, but artists themselves go into the schools and work with the classes to excite them about these new media and how to create using them in new ways.

We have a fascinating exhibitions program too, expanding the knowledge of our constituency about the contemporary world of decorative arts and design. We are moving to larger quarters at 2 Columbus Circle (renovating the old Huntington Hartford building) in 2008, because we want to expand our constituency, and because we want to show more of the work of artists who create art objects to sell through galleries, etc.; execute commissions for the residential, corporate, religious and public art market; and design prototypes for production. These skilled craftsmen and women are not only proliferating but thriving in our world today.

My goals are to inspire the public to understand and celebrate creativity, imagination and new ideas. At Bride’s magazine, my philosophy of editing came through my interest in anthropology. This affected how I managed the structure of the magazine and how the staff was able to effectively reach our readership. Even during the period when couples were marrying barefoot on mountaintops and the press believed that marriage was becoming extinct, I knew the "pair bond" would never cease.

Now in the decorative arts and design world, I know that the nobility and intrinsic value of beauty and skilled craftsmanship will always prevail over shoddy workmanship and flashy trends. We will continue to do our part to ennoble this truth.

One must have an overriding philosophy in order to live life to the fullest. You can’t just be a journalist or a banker or whatever. You have to have a wider view of the world in order to make sense out of it.

WVFC: You were named a Pratt Legend in 2006 for your philanthropic work. How does your personal vision of arts and activism inform your funding decisions?

BT: People used to ask when I first became chairman, "How do you like your new job?"

"It’s terrific," I’d say, "but they used to pay me and now I pay them."

This took some getting used to, because my "power base" changed, and instead of being able to do something for certain people, I was going to turn the tables and ask them for something. This meant old acquaintances not returning phone calls, for example, and other such humbling experiences. Still, one must soldier on.

It was a great honor when Pratt Institute named me a Philanthropy Legend. I gave an acceptance speech that evening questioning why, in a world of Henry Kravis, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and so many billionaires, would Pratt choose Barbara Tober? This thought was even more humbling, but after great consideration I realized that America is a philanthropic culture and has been for a couple of centuries, ever since the robber barons of the 19th century gave tracts of land to the government for the parks we enjoy now.

Now, however, the preponderance of giving is done every day by ordinary people to the best of their abilities, and I am no exception to this, except that I am a bit more in the public eye as chairman of a museum.

I believe fervently that everyone who is passionate about something, has an interest in some cause, believes in something, should be as supportive as possible of that cause. Work, wisdom and wealth — the big three. One can give them all, or two or only one. All have great value to the world at large.

WVFC: What are your favorite pieces in your own collection?

BT: This is like asking a parent who is their favorite child. Each of the objects and art works we have collected over the years is precious to us for a number of reasons. First of all, we know many of the artists and have spent time with many of them, visiting their studios and hearing them talk about their work. Each of the pieces has found a treasured place in our lives and in our ambiance.

Some are already promised gifts to the Museum of Arts & Design for their permanent collection; others will be given later on. They all have a relationship to everything else in our lives, and for that reason there is a quiet harmony between them and the more practical furnishings and landscaping, both in New York and in the country.

I am deeply sorry that William Morris in Seattle has decided to retire seemingly at the apogee of his career as an extraordinary glass artist, but at least we are proud owners of several of his most exquisite pieces. Then Dale Chihuly, the great impresario of glass, has created alone and with his friend Lino Tagliapietra such incredible works. We have a few in our apartment and in the garden. Silas Kopf has done the ultimate marquetry piano, and "grape arbor" headboards — all, of course, in wood.

The fanciful eye of Tom Otterness is evident outside the door of our house in the country, and in other smaller sites everywhere. Kurt Weiser‘s painted china vessels, and Michael Lucero‘s "women as vessel" in various forms are perched here and there. John Cederquist, whose early Serpent Sea armoire perished in our sad fire, made another of autumn leaves falling into a calm pond. Why on earth is a painting any better than all this? It’s my constant question.

I could go on and on. These are my friends, my companions, my treasures in craftsmanship, design and artistry.

WVFC: What is your advice for women transitioning from one field to another?

BT: Be prepared is one simple bit of advice. But this does sound a bit simplistic doesn’t it? I always believed that I had two lives — one was the extremely pragmatic, time consuming and quite often creative business side, which was rewarding in more ways than one. For this life, I had to learn two of the most important things you can ever know about life in general and certainly about work: how to solve problems and how to get things done.

Because of time constraints, I had to fight for the other life, which was totally free flowing — the flights of fancy, the impossible dreams, the spur of the moment actions, the crazy ideas. Nothing self destructive — just letting life "talk" to you and learning to listen. So many corners were turned, so many introductions, so many coincidences, so many surprises, so many unexpected moments, phone calls, chance meetings that led to completely new paths.

Learn to be open to it all; let it happen to you. Accepting the unexpected shows the ultimate in self-confidence — because you have learned to solve problems and get things done in the practical world, you are prepared to have your life speak to you and guide you in certain ways. And it did. The convolutions, complexities, defeats and odd situations that led to changes in my career to this day amaze me upon reflection, but each of them led in the direction that realized my dreams and goals.

Lest the reader think that I am a complete Pollyanna, however, there is one other thing to remember throughout: Always anticipate danger. Murphy’s Law is a consistent threat — if anything can go wrong, it will.

This means one has not only to plan ahead, think strategically, solve problems and get things done, but one has to consider the fall-back position and all the possible and probable things that could assail the plan, frustrate or divert the project and cause it to fail. By training oneself to anticipate and act against danger, one builds yet another block of self-confidence that increases one’s chances of success in any endeavor.

You can’t get away with saying, "I always wanted to play the violin, and as soon as I retire, I will play every day." It just doesn’t work. You have to play that violin — even for five minutes a day — all your life, or your dream will die and you won’t have the stamina and the will to start later on in life.

What do you think of when you get up in the morning? What’s your passion? In order to have a more interesting life, you have to imagine what an interesting life would be. Begin to take courses in your areas of interest. Consider new careers and learn the pathways to them.

Remember to show up, on time, dressed to play. Very often, wonderful things can happen if you put yourself in life’s way.

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