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Intrique: Director of Timken Museum Is Out

This Wednesday, John Wilson, Executive Director of the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego, is set to give a gallery talk titled “Brave New World: from Icons to the Future.” As I write this, that’s what the museum website says.

John-Wilson-Timken-MuseumIt may be a broken link by the time you read this post, though, because Wilson (pictured at right) quit or was pushed out last week, just before the holiday. His name has been removed from the Board/Staff page of the site, though his replacement’s name isn’t yet there. That would be, according to various reports, David Bull, the well-known conservator and expert on Old Master paintings. Bull is founder and president of the Fine Art Conservation & Restoration in New York and paintings conservator at the National Gallery of Art.

Bull, who is 80, has been named “visiting director,” which is new title to me. Wilson is 58. I’m not an ageist, but something is going on there.

The Timken is a small museum known for it collections of European old master paintings, American paintings, and Russian icons. Wilson has been director for six years, and was, according to the Times of San Diego, “the first professional art historian with extensive museum experience to hold the position.” 

Both sides have remained circumspect, but it looks to me as if the board disagreed with Wilson’s strategy for the museum. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune,

Wilson said he was hired to bring change to the museum. During his tenure, he brought in innovative exhibits that provided context for the Timken’s Old Masters collection, among them a cutting-edge Robert Wilson video portrait exhibit and the current installation “El Lissitzky: Futurist Portfolios.”

In the past year, attendance for the museum, which is the only free museum in Balboa Park, reached a record 200,000 visitors and fundraising also increased substantially. Among Wilson’s goals was to make the Timken a partner and a player in San Diego’s cultural community, and the museum, in collaboration with the San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Diego, was instrumental in the first ever cooperative effort between the three museums, “Behold America!”

But the U-T quotes Wilson saying: “The board had a model of the Timken that is similar to when John Petersen was here. So it’s time for a change.” And what was that?  The paper says that Peterson was the grandson of Walter Ames, the Timken’s founder, and the son of Ames’ daughter, Nancy Petersen, who was the museum’s first formal director. John Petersen ascended to director in 1996 but died in 2006. Wilson succeeded him. 

And the U-T notes: “Replacing a director, who is a first rate curator, with a visiting director, who is a first-rate conservator, speaks to the museum’s current priorities.”

The Times wrote:

…Paige Nordeen, a museum spokeswoman, [said:] “David will be guiding the institution through San Diego’s 2015 centennial celebrations in Balboa Park and coincides with the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration, and he will be leading several planning sessions over the next month.”

She also used the code word that Wilson was leaving “to pursue other opportunities,” even as the U-T has Wilson saying  “he had no immediate plans, and at least for now, is looking forward to working on some research projects, and will likely stay in San Diego.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Timken


  1. Josh Reynolds says:

    Ah, the Timken. One of those museums that has its roots in rancor; the Timken Sisters and the board of the San Diego Museum of Art didn’t get along they and pulled their familie’s pictures and father’s money out of the S.D.M. and started their own little fifedom next door – a finger in the eye of the board. Nancy Peterson was the daughter of the Timken’s attorney, not founder, and John, her son who committed suicide in ’06 was a surfer whose mother insisted he take her place when she retired. She was a tyrant and he should have been left alone to live in the surf and ‘haze’ of So. Cal that was who he was. He always looked out of place at the Timken. I’ve known the family for 40+ years and they weren’t happy campers. Nancy was grasping and manipulative, and John a victim of a domineering mother. But this story is all about the board and the director’s ability to tame these unrully horses. Nancy was their dominatrix; John not so … he just wanted to be in the water with his board.

    John Wilson was the real McCoy and too much for the board now made up of a troop of deep pocketed local social climbing plastic surgeons, etc. David Bull on the other hand is a manipulative back stabbing character who wheedled his way into this job. Why … why would an 80 yr old man who has enough to do causing trouble and aside from wanting a better deal getting a face lift want to become involved in a rattle snake den like this? Sometimes ego knows no bounds and David Bull’s functional days are long behind him. He is now just a nasty old man and that he was hired by the board shows their lack of judgment and inability to select a director. Frankly the Timken has no reason to exist and should just ‘re cleave’ to the SDM of Art. This story makes the ‘Wives of San Diego’ look like childs play.

  2. Is Wilson’s departure even in part related to his “cutting” edge/”contemporary” moves? As he is quoted: “The board had a model of the Timken that is similar to when John Petersen was here.” Is that an allusion to a more conservative vision that guided the museum back then, one more closely wedded to the Timken’s core collection? If not, what is meant by this?

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

    • Josh Reynolds says:

      You may well have picked up the correct shell. The funny thing is that when I first met Mr. Wilson he was working on a catalogue raisonne of the paintings of John Hoppner and was living in London. Even when I spoke to him fairly recently he was not what I would call ‘cutting edge’ but maybe he is. That would certainly bother the board.

      The more entertaining question is what is David Bull going to do for the Timken. Who would hire someone who cleans paintings to direct a museum … even if he is only going to be there for a short time. He is hardly qualified for the position. But that lifts another rock in the Timken’s garden: Who hired him? They could have picked up any distinguished retired former museum director (Frank Robinson, Alan Rosenbaum, etc.) for a short gig.

      • Thanks for your reply and for your longer post, which I found most Interesting. Did you mean to cite the “Putnam” sisters rather than the “Timken” sisters []? I find it a bit confusing that the museum’s website refers to them as “members of the Ohio-based Timken family since no further information is given. – L. T.

  3. robert a hoehn says:

    I take great exception to the pejorative comments regarding Nancy Peterson and her son, John. Under their leadership, the museum made some outstanding acquisitions as well as put on extraordinary focus exhibits year after year. It is true that neither Nancy or John had a background in art history, but their passion for the institution, their contacts in the art world (all leaders in their fields), and their own innate eye for beauty and quality served the museum well. The Timken is one of the few museums in the world where collection comes first. That has always been the museum’s mission and both Nancy and John never lost sight of that. At a board retreat many years ago when we were going through agonizing reappraisal, we asked John Walsh (then director of the Getty) what the Timken should do differently. His reply was simple, “Nothing”. He went on to say that the Timken was one of the great “pure” museums in the world and that we should never lose that. Indeed, the museum’s reputation in Europe borders on reverence. Thank you Nancy and John.

    • Josh Reynolds says:

      Re your comments: John Walsh is a gentlemen and would never say anything negative to struggling amatures. You, however, are delusional. My comments stand.

      • RA Hoehn says:

        Delusional? Perhaps, but usually regarding my own grandeur. My assessment of the Timken, however, is quite lucid. One final comment on the article, John Wilson deserves both kudos and gratitude for his contributions to the Timken. The perennial challenge for the Timken was to overcome being San Diego’s best kept secret. John changed this by increasing the awareness of the Timken in San Diego which has resulted in the dramatic increase in attendance. John’s exhibitions ( yes, even the challenging ones) were excellent and of the highest caliber. Also, John negotiated loans for the Timken which were destinations in themselves. Thank you, John, well,done and the best of fortune in your future endeavors.

  4. robert a hoehn says:

    Thank you, Hal!

  5. Hal Fischer says:

    Having worked with the Timken for 22 years, under both Nancy Ames Petersen and John Petersen, and having developed and managed the “extraordinary” focus exhibition program and produced the accompanying publications, I am in a unique position to address the comments made by Josh Reynolds. First, the Putnam sisters did not “pull” pictures from SDMA. Due to a disagreement with the then director of the Fine Arts Gallery (now SDMA), the sisters had their lawyer create a foundation in their name and from 1951 on the Putnam Foundation purchased paintings that were put on loan to museums on the East Coast, with the hope that at some point in the future, the paintings would come back to San Diego. The Timken family from Canton, Ohio, which had a summer home in San Diego, ultimately funded construction of the building, which was named for the family. As to the inference of rivalry, SDMA provided technical assistance to the Timken at the time of its founding and for many years after.

    Walter Ames also established a tradition of visiting directors, among them George Stout, a conservator, who was profiled in the recent film “The Monuments Men.” The focus exhibition program, which I ran for two decades, following the same tradition–we found the best and brightest art historians to serve as guest curators and catalogue essayists and to advise on acquisitions. Our program was so well respected and had so many friends in the art world that we were able to achieve extraordinary cooperation, including the loan of “The Last Judgment” by Hieronymous Bosch from Bruges, which Hugh Davies, director of San Diego’s contemporary art museum, said was probably the most important work to have ever traveled to San Diego.

    As to the reference to “cutting edge” art, as part of the focus program we did present contemporary art, including monographic exhibitions devoted to Stephen Hannock and Debra Small, and an exchange with the contemporary museum of art.

    Nancy Petersen and John Petersen never claimed to be art historians, nor did Nancy’s father. They understood talent and they sought it out. The visiting scholar program and contracted art historians served the institution well. As such, they were well respected in the field and earned the loyalty of many museum professionals. Point of fact, David Bull, who the writer maligned, actually found the lovely Anthony van Dyck portrait that the Timken acquired in 2005. The stellar Eastman Johnson exhibition organized by the Timken with Americanist Marc Simpson traveled to New York where it received a rave review in the New York Times. Many young historians got their first professional curatorial opportunity through our focus program.

    As to what constitutes an effective and valuable museum director in this day and age is a complex subject. But if
    history is going to be misrepresented, and previous museum directors maligned, then I would suggest this: looks at fundraising, acquisitions, exhibitions organized and publications produced by the Timken over the past six years. Then compare that to what was achieved under Nancy and John in terms of quality and quantity.

  6. Penelope M. Smith says:

    Ignoring the acrimony, I would simply like to say that in my thirty years in cultural institutions John Wilson was the most wonderful boss I’ve ever had. As a chief curator he dealt with his employees with respect and interest, bringing out the best in them intellectually, creatively, and professionally. He is a fine scholar and a lovely, personable, and civilized human being. To lose a director like that is never a positive occurrence. Thank you.

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