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Remembering Steve Weil

Let me share with you an indelible memory of Steve Weil that finally makes sense to me. Some years ago, I was elected to the AAM Council by petition of the Educators Committee. I was then an inexperienced hothead in my mid-30s. Every time I arrived at the biannual AAM council meetings, I sat on the left-side of the horseshoe in the company of Michael Spock, Michael Botwinik, Malcolm Arth, Bonnie Pitman, and Steve. Some of us were making noise and causing trouble.


Steve’s self-imposed role was to craft motions at every impasse that might have a chance of passage while moving our position forward. At the time, I knew nothing about procedure and was not a friend of compromise. So I was amazed as he wrote, crossed out, and rewrote what would turn out to be the elegant and perfect motion sure to pass. I watched him do it again and again, marveling at his ability to find a solution that was acceptable to all without compromising the essential issue at hand.


Once at the end of a two-day meeting of the council, when everyone was ready for a drink, Michael Spock offered a totally unexpected motion: AAM should take a position against nuclear proliferation because museums were the keepers of the world’s treasures. The groan around the table was audible as folks began to think about what this might mean for the profession, their disbelieving board members, and the awaiting drinks. Two hours later, with the room deadlocked, Steve crafted another of his Solomon-like motions, tabling this important idea for a year and instructing everyone to go back to their boards and discuss the issue of museums and nuclear proliferation. The vote was tied. After reflecting for a silent moment, then AAM President Tom Leavitt cast the deciding vote for the motion, and the council meeting was adjourned.


The motion was to be brought before all the annual-meeting delegates at the general session the next day. Steve and I spent that evening explaining to other delegates why compromise was important and gathering as many votes as possible, while the opposition did the same. As far as I knew Steve was not out of my sight until we parted late in the evening. The next day at the general session we sat together watching the pre-choreographed agenda unfold. I was on tenterhooks.


Then as the issue was raised, unexpectedly to the microphone came two of the most persuasive moral voices in the history of the profession, Malcolm Arth and John Kinard. They said (in paraphrase): If you don’t know what you think about nuclear bombs today no amount of discussion will help. They asked all present to vote against the motion to table the issue for a year. I was shocked; I thought the general museum body would fail to see nonproliferation as a matter relevant to museums and our hard-won procedural compromise would be for nothing. Steve sat silently next to me.


The vote came, and what do you know? The assemblage voted overwhelmingly that AAM should take an outspoken position against nuclear armament. I turned to Steve and said, “Did you know this would happen?” And his smile that so recalled the Cheshire cat sprang forth.


Steve had had all tracks working at the same time. He was an elegant compromiser, a hugely sophisticated politician, a kind and gracious man and, now I understand more clearly, a radical.


What are we going to do without him? We will have to take better care of each other in his name. We will have to pick out the promising youth and introduce them to others. We will have to take on teaching gigs. We will all have to write more. We will have to learn to move the profession ahead by keeping our radical souls pure and by making our compromises elegant. Are we ready? I hope so, because we cannot start our relationship with Steve over again, much as we might wish.