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Eric McCauley Lee Steps Up to the Kimbell’s Directorship

The next director of the Kimbell: Eric McCauley Lee
(Photo by Tony Walsh)

I promised not to break the news embargo set by the Kimbell unless someone else did. We were asked to wait until tomorrow (Friday). But another reporter (Janelle Gelfand of the Cincinnati Enquirer) has jumped the gun (or, more likely, got her news independently, from the Taft Museum’s staff), so we’re off to the races.

I had never heard of him, let alone spoken with him, until this week. But Eric McCauley Lee, 42 going on 30 (as you can see from the photo), who has just been named to become the next director of the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, strikes me as ripe for his fortunate ascendancy to one of this country’s premier art museums. He comes there, effective March 23, from the directorship of the distinguished, but comparatively modest, Taft Museum, Cincinnati.

How fortunate he was to get his new post is suggested by Gelfand’s revelation in the Enquirer that he “was approached about the Fort Worth job several months ago.” This job search is a year and a half old: It’s been going on since Timothy Potts suddenly resigned, without explanation, in May 2007. The press release then said that he would “stay until Sept. 1 to allow time for his successor to be identified and to ensure a smooth transition.” Malcolm Warner, the museum’s senior curator, became deputy director after Potts’ announcement and has been acting director since Potts left.

We can only surmise that it may have been hard to attract a replacement for Potts (now director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), and that the board is taking a flyer on someone they began considering only recently, who looks ready to step up.

And to me he does. The only time Lee lost his composure during our phone conversation yesterday was when I asked him whether he was reasonably confident that he would not be negatively affected by whatever issues may have caused tensions between previous directors and the long-entrenched board. (The departure of Ted Pillsbury, Potts’ predecessor, was also a sudden surprise resignation.) The board’s president is Kay Fortson, niece of Kay Kimbell, whose bequest bankrolled
the eponymous museum that opened in 1972.

After stumbling a bit over his words, Lee hit upon the diplomatic dodge to my dodgy question:

Timothy Potts did a fantasic job at the Kimbell. I don’t know the complete details of why he decided to leave. I find the board a wonderful group of people. The Kimbell is a great museum in large part because of the work of the board.

Lee is a persuasive speaker—fluent but not glib, intelligent but down-to-earth, knowledgeable about the institution he’s about to lead and articulate about the broader issues facing museums. (And deft at deflecting questions that he shouldn’t answer.)

Although he has solid scholarly credentials (Yale art history Ph.D., with study in London at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art and the Courtauld Institute) and a decent professional trajectory (directorships at the Taft for two years and, before that, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma for almost 10), he lays claim to no spectacular art purchases or world-class exhibitions—staples at the Kimbell.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some excerpts from what Lee (no relation to the late Sherman, another, more renowned, Ohio museum director) said during our conversation that left me with the impression that his marriage with the Kimbell may well succeed.

In the meantime, you can get a sense of his interviewing skills by clicking here (have patience: it takes a while to load) to see a video of a conversation that took place when he began his Taft tenure. Do not be alarmed: The guy with the David Lee Roth hair, whom you’ll see first, is not our Lee. He’s Mark Perzel, WGUC‘s able interviewer.

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