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Timken Intrigue, Part 2: The Power Play

If a dispute isn’t about money, it’s usually about power. And that is what appears to be behind the problems at the Timken Museum of Art (below). Not programs, not old-school art versus contemporary art, not money.

When we last wrote about the Timken, we weren’t quite sure whether director John Wilson quit or was pushed out or why. It’s not quite true that the board disagreed with Wilson’s strategy, as several people including me surmised. Wilson has done a fine job. Attendance when he took over in 2008 was about 143,000. Last year, it was 197,000. Wilson added context to the collection of Old Masters, American paintings, and icons with exhibits: putting works by Gabriel Orozco in among the Russian icons because he used similar techniques; mounting the Robert Wilson Video Portraits show to illustrate that Wilson drew inspiration from Old Masters, to name two. But my sources say those shows did not ruffle the feathers of the board.

TimkenEven if they did, they drew audience. And Wilson’s best effort hasn’t yet happened: he has arranged for the Timken to borrow a Vermeer from the Rijksmuseum and a Raphael from the National Gallery in London for the Timken’s anniversary celebration next year. Not everyone can do that!

Meanwhile, the endowment, after losing value in the recession, is back to where it was, at about $25 million. Admission is free, but Wilson increased voluntary contributions — just by asking for them and putting a dollar amount at the contribution box (first $5, then $10) — to about $5,000 a month. For a museum with a budget about $2 million a year, that’s a noteworthy amount.

The problem was, Tim Zinn — who moved from trustee to president in 2012 — had other ideas. He wanted Wilson to continue his curatorial duties, but he also wanted to return to the Timken’s old governance structure, my sources say.

Walter Ames, who was the lawyer for the Putnam sisters, whose collection formed the Timken (they were kin to the Timkens), used to run the museum with “visiting directors.” They included, my sources say, Agnes Mongan and AB de Vries, t he retired director of the Mauritshuis. Thus Ames was able to run the museum himself. He passed that power to his daughter and grandson, Nancy Peterson and John Peterson (who I’m told never wanted the job and committed suicide).

Zinn, I’m told, likes that model. He is president, but not CEO, of Ceretec, “a privately held corporation developing and producing innovative, cutting-edge medical devices and pharmaceutical products.” Zinn wanted to make the decisions and, when Wilson wouldn’t go along, he made clear to Wilson that his contract, which was up in mid-August, would not be renewed. So Wilson quit as of July 1.

Zinn reached out to David Bull, 80, to become “visiting director” because Bull is on the Timken’s advisory board — another way the museum tapped curatorial help in the past without having its own.

But Bull, I’m told, has no intention of leaving New York and will in fact simply visit the museum on occasion. Wilson was a member of AAMD, but I doubt the Timken’s new arrangement qualifies for the AAMD’s museum standards rule that “The museum must be administered by a professional staff.”

This is no way to run a museum.



  1. Hal Fischer says:

    The Timken family and the Putnam sisters were not related. Also, the Putnam sisters did not have a collection. They created a foundation in 1951 and the foundation, under the leadership of Walter Ames, purchased paintings to be put on public view. As to Walter Ames, Nancy Ames Petersen, and John Petersen, their acquisitions program (1951–2005) created what Harry Parker, former director of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, called “painting for painting, the finest small museum in America.” Not bad for non-professionals.

    • The museum’s website says: “…two sisters, Anne R. and Amy Putnam – members of the Ohio-based Timken family of the Timken roller bearing fame…The Putnam sisters spent decades acquiring European old master paintings…”

  2. Hal Fischer says:

    Apparently some overzealous copy editor, and a lack of interest on the part of those who should be checking the site for accuracy, resulted in two errors. The line you quote, taken from much earlier text and substantiated by the Timken’s own collection catalogue, originally read as follows: The Timken Museum of Art has its roots in the serendipitous relationship between two sisters, Anne R. and Amy Putnam, and members of the Ohio-based Timken family.

    The website also goes on, erroneously, to suggest that the Putnam sisters had a collection. Amy Putnam did collect icons. What is noteworthy about the sisters’ generosity with respect to European paintings, and this is substantiated in print, is that they purchased these paintings anonymously and donated them directly to the Fine Arts Gallery (now SDMA). What documentation exists indicates that the paintings were acquired for them by dealers and shipped directly to the institution.

    Sadly, what seems to be missing in the museum world of today is the kind of no strings attached generosity demonstrated by the Putnam sisters: charitable giving to benefit the public, and not for personal recognition or gain.

  3. Tom Brand says:

    An obvious question: where is the Timkin? I can look it up but shouldn’t this be in the article?

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