John Hightower, 80, director of museums

John Brantley Hightower, who directed museums ranging from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Southstreet Seaport to Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium, died July 6 in Newport News, Va., where he had led the expansion of The Mariners’ Museum. He was 80 years old, and had lived in Ridgefield from 1983 to 1988, with homes on High Ridge and Main Street.

Born in Atlanta, Ga., he grew up in New York City, graduated from Yale University in 1955, and served in the U.S. Marines. He became executive director of New York State Council on the Arts in 1964, appointed by then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Over six years during which the council’s budget grew from $500,000 to $22 million, he “championed a grass-roots approach to the arts,” according to a New York Times obituary, and “gave money to a host of community theater companies, art outreach projects for poor neighborhoods and troupes touring rural areas.”

In May 1970 he was named director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. During a time the Vietnam War had spawned an age of theatrical public protest across the nation, he led the storied art institution for a turbulent year and a half when the museum was the site for demonstrations and “guerilla art actions” on topics that ranged from layoffs of museum staff to the number of new artists shown to the bombing of Cambodia. Dismissed at age 37 amid the highly charged political atmosphere, he continued to work in culture and the arts. Serving as president of the South Street Seaport Museum in the late 70s, he converted “a shabby remnant of New York’s waterfront into one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations,” according to The Times.

He became executive director of the small Maritime Center in Norwalk in 1984, and led its transition into the $30-million Maritime Aquarium with a museum, aquarium and IMAX theater.

He moved south and oversaw arts planning and development for the University of Virginia, then took a position with The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News. There he led the creation of The USS Monitor Center honoring the Civil War “ironclad” gunboat, and “guided the transformation of The Mariners’ Museum into an institution that tells the sweeping stories of man and the sea,” according to an obituary in The Daily Press of Newport News

Besides his wife, Marty Hightower, he is survived by a daughter, Amanda, and her husband, Carl Redling, and a son, Matthew, and his wife, Michelle, and grandchildren Brantley, Charlotte, Grace and Felicity. He also leaves a sister, Margaret Van Siclen, and 10 nieces and nephews.

His brothers Edward and Charles died before him.

There will be a memorial service Saturday, July 20, at 3:30 at First Presbyterian Church in Hampton, Va., followed by a reception at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News.

Contributions in his memory may be made to First Presbyterian Church in Hampton, Va., The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, or the Alzheimer’s Association.