Taft Museum, Cincinnati
Let’s leave Washington and go back to Cincinnati, where Eric McCauley Lee, current director of the Taft Museum and director-elect of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, aced his CultureGrrl interview.
As promised last week, here are some excerpts from our phone conversation.
—On the Kimbell’s planned expansion:
I think Renzo Piano is absolutely the right choice as architect. At the same time, I want to make sure that the integrity of the Kahn building is maintained and that the special qualities that make the Kimbell unique will be maintained with the new addtion.
I’m very sensitive to the architecture of Louis Kahn. I went
to college and graduate school at Yale and spent a lot of time with the Kahn museums
there. Louis Kahn did so much to shape my views of architecture and I think
that’s something that I bring to the table, especially with the expansion. My
reverence for Kahns’s architecture will play into that.
The design is still in the very early stages. I do hope to contribute to that. Respecting the original Kahn building will be critical. At the same time, it [the Piano building] should be strong in its own right. It shouldn’t completely defer to the Kahn building. That said, the Kahn building is arguably the greatest purpose-built museum building in the world. I certainly think it is. And you cannot tamper with that at all.
—On his vision for the Kimbell’s collection and exhibitions:
I think the Kimbell has benefited from having directors and also staff members with among the best eyes of their generation. I certainly want to build on the Kimbell’s legacy of acquisitions with an emphasis on quality and importance. I hope that the recent fall to earth of the art market will create additional opportunities for acquisitions.
I want to maintain the Kimbell’s reputation for stellar, important exhibitions. I do want to reach out to a broad, general public. At the same time it’s important to balance those exhibitions with exhibitions that make a contribution to scholarship. You always want to have exhibitions that try to do both.
I think it’s a mistake for museums to
organize exhibitions that veer too much to one extreme or the other. I
think it’s a mistake for museums to be strictly “ivory tower.” But a
museum like the Kimbell certainly should not veer too much into more
—On his track record, which is short on major art purchases and world-class exhibitions:
I’ve followed the art market very closely for decades and I certainly
have honed my eye and I have a great deal of knowledge about the art market. That will certainly come into play at the Kimbell.
I’ve had more experience as a director than as a curator. When I finished grad school, I had the choice between working as a curator at a large East Coast museum or working as a director at a small museum that had tremendous potential for growth. I decided to go the director route.
I was able to build a new museum building [a 34,000-square-foot wing designed by Hugh Newell Jacobson for the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum, which Lee directed]. The collections grew tremendously, primarily through gifts [most notably, the Weitzenhoffer bequest of French Impressionists], rather than through actually buying them. The museum at the University of Oklahoma has among the strongest collections of any public university-based museum.
I’ve curated many shows myself and I’ve been director of museums that organized important exhibitions. At the University of Oklahoma, I organized a Leon Polk Smith show shortly before I left for the Taft. I was very proud of that exhibition. [As reported in my previous Lee post, an upcoming exhibition that sounds promising, “Dutch Utopia,” was initiated during his short time at the Taft.]
My academic background is in European old master painting, above all. I’ve taught in that field. I also taught courses on architectural history at the University of Oklahoma.
As it happened, the exhibition at the Taft Museum when Lee arrived there was the National Academy’s “Luminist Horizons” show of highlights from its James Suydam Collection. Two important Hudson River School paintings were infamously deaccessioned by the National Academy from that collection late last year. Here’s what Lee had to say about those disposals:
I was heartbroken to hear they had been sold. I believe that art is the reason why a museum exists and should not be capitalized. A museum has operating expenses in order to serve the mission of caring for the art and presenting that art to the public. For a museum to sell major works from its collection in order to fund operations is counterintuitive.
I’m bothered by the precedent that the National Academy has set and I believe that the strong stance taken by AAMD was important to send a message to other museums that might be tempted to sell works in order to fund their operating budgets, especially in these difficult times. I think AAMD’s stance helped to lessen the potential impact of the precedent set by the National Academy.