And although Higgins won’t stretch that far, some believe the grid even informs presidential politics.
“Fluxus is a process of elevating simplicity, of taking grand things and rooting them in ordinary context. It’s anti-Washington as you think of Washington, with lobbyists controlling access,” says global warming expert Hendricks, the son of Geoffrey Hendricks, another Fluxus artist. “The Fluxus approach is very compatible with Obama-defined politics where you change ownership of access. So much of Obama’s presidency is about giving the country back to the people, grounded in community organizing and the patterns and structures of democracy.”
Which is why Higgins’ and Reinstein’s arrival on the Washington scene is so intriguing — and could have a quiet, but powerful, impact. Higgins is sensitive to the economic problems facing many aspiring artists, having absorbed some of her father’s disappointments. “I’m so in awe of what artists do, the way they put themselves out there alone. The idea that I would somehow be able to turn it into a living and thrive institutionally when so few of these artists have been able to do that is agony,” she says. “My father died penniless, actually penniless.’’
After graduating from St. Paul’s School, Dick Higgins “broke with that way of living,” she says. “He entered the art world and spent every dime he had on something called the Something Else Press, which was the first press to publish Merce Cunningham, Claes Oldenberg, and a very early [John] Cage book called ‘Notations.’ He brought Gertrude Stein back into print and published the memoirs of Raoul Hausmann [co-founder in 1917 of the Berlin Dada movement].
“He was so angry about the basic distribution process that appends to books that he cut himself off. He would only deal with small, independent distributors, and of course he went bankrupt,” continues Higgins. “That was his generation’s way of rebelling.”
The Higgins family patriarch John Woodman Higgins amassed a fortune manufacturing steel, just like Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection where Higgins now works. “He held the patent on pressed steel used to make helmets and mess kits in World Wars I and II,” Higgins says of her great-grandfather.
Whereas Duncan Phillips collected modern art, John Woodman Higgins had a passion for suits of armor, at one point buying the armor collection of William Randolph Hearst (now on display in the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Ma.). “He used to waltz around town giving away candy to children in the street while wearing his armor,” recalls Higgins. “That was one of my father’s strongest childhood memories. It was his first experience with performance art.’’
Higgins describes her own formative “experience being raised by avant-garde artists and going to a fancy prep school,” as “disparate things that don’t sit so comfortably one with another.”
Attending the Dalton School when she was 11 years old, she says, “We lived in SoHo. A lot of my friends weren’t allowed to visit me down there because people wouldn’t let their kids downtown. I had this friend, Susanna Goldmann. Her father, William Goldmann, was a famous screenwriter [winner of two Oscars for the screenplays of ‘All the President’s Men,’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’]. I basically had an open invitation to their house at any time, and lived there sometimes for weeks at a time.’’
Higgins’ parents divorced in 1970 when she was six years old when her father, she says, “discovered he was gay.” In 1984, her father “remarried my mother as a gay man. We think of complex family arrangements as something invented five years ago, but it’s just not the case.”
Speaking as a child of counterculture activists, Higgins is not adverse to working within the system, especially now when she sees the possibility for real change led by the Obama White House. “Any number of us have this way of being in the world where you try to bring new ideas into these very established organizations as a way to be functional, to render large-scale change.
“Considering my childhood, the most rebellious thing I could do was go to college, marry an advertising executive, and then move to Washington, D.C.,” she says.
And now that she’s at the very epicenter of the system, or at least her husband is, the challenge is how to deconstruct America’s biggest political power grid from the inside — capitalizing on it to further her passion for the arts.
“Joe has a marketing background; I have this art background. We had always in a very kind of idealistic way talked about how sad it was that our worlds are so separate,” says Higgins. “Wouldn’t it be great to see his ideas about outreach, connection and mattering connect to the world of the arts?”
Caption: Hannah Higgins with Austin, the family’s five-year-old Portuguese water dog, and Hannah Higgins at the Phillips Collection Center for the Study of Modern Art)