♦ Interviews with University of Virginia Art Museum Directors, Past and Present

I think at the heart of it, is this experience, this experience with art that somehow changes you and leaves you wanting more.


Artists give us this concentration of experience and it awakens something within us and prepares us to find it out in the world, it helps us
. My conviction is, and I’m sure this was Jefferson’s thinking as well about the arts or athletics, that in fact, you needed these concentrations of experiences, whether it be aesthetic or physical, in order to apply yourself in any other discipline, so it’s part of being a whole person, part of educating a whole person, and it’s a part of creating a great citizen
.”



Dr. Elizabeth Hutton Turner


Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Hutton Turner, current Vice Provost of Arts and former interim director for the University of Virginia Art Museum from 2006-2011, by Shannon Cruse Ranson, regarding her experience as a University of Virginia alumna working to elevate the arts program and foster more educational opportunities for students.

April 20, 2011 at the University of Virginia

 

SCR:  When did you know you wanted to work in an art museum?   Has the reality of the job changed your view of art or the field in any way?

EHT:  Well, I first knew I wanted to be working in an art museum when I was given a tour of the National Gallery with my French class.  The thrill at really looking at all these wonderful pictures; that each had their own story, and to be able to share that with someone else was the most exciting thing to me.   I immediately set up my own tours (improvised with my high school friends) and the rest is history.  I’m still giving tours and no, I haven’t lost my enthusiasm, because I think at the heart of it, is this experience, this experience with art that somehow changes you and leaves you wanting more.   It’s something that’s so wonderful in your life that you need to, or want to, be a part of it and share it with others.  That happens on so many different levels, so depending on your own talents, you’re able to engage in various ways.


SCR:  According to your online bio, you are a Charlottesville native and received all your degrees from UVa, so your return was a bit of a homecoming.  After serving as the Senior Curator at the Phillips Collection for 18 years, was the transition to a university art museum challenging in any way, or perhaps easier because you were returning to familiar territory? 

EHT:  Oh I think it was a little of both, and you’ll have to remember that I hadn’t been back in practically 30 years, and I wasn’t raised in Charlottesville, but the University had a very significant imprint on my life, and I do have some childhood memories of the city that made me very fond of the setting and the landscape and then the experiences offered by the university made me very impassioned about that.  You know, the Phillips and the University of Virginia are analogous in that they had very visionary founders and I think that they both believed very strongly in the individual’s ability to sort through given intellectual experiences and inquiry.  

The Phillips Museum and Jefferson’s University definitely saw inquiry and problem solving and engagement with art as being a part of what connected you with life.  I think that served me well, that analogy, and so I have no problem coming back to Mr. Jefferson’s University to talk about the importance of the arts.  This place [UVa] had to be designed before anybody even understood what Jefferson was talking about; when he talked about this different kind of engagement between faculty and students and the way in which being situated in the landscape and being able to have these vistas would create experiences that would encourage or galvanize learning and intellectual pursuit. 

Phillips had the same idea about space.  He had the idea about a small museum.  He thought that this level of engagement with painting needed to happen on that personal level in this particular kind of configuration, a domestic scale if you will, and he had a gambler’s hunch about painting.  He didn’t start out knowing exactly how the collection was going to turn out, but he did have a certain conviction about this scale in which people should start to engage with the collection. 

 

SCR:  Do you feel extra pressure to elevate the Arts program at UVa because of your alumni connections? 

EHT:  Extra pressure?  No, I feel extra passion, maybe not extra pressure.  I feel like, and I say this to my fellow classmates,…you know I graduated here the first time in 1973, and ’74 was the first whole class of women.  I transferred into UVa after my first year at Mary Washington, and I became very good friends with that class of ’74 …and what I tell them is that I feel like we owe it to the University.  A great university deserves a great museum, and in a sense the whole University, like Paris itself, is a World Heritage site, a museum of sorts.  It’s because of its Jeffersonian design that’s embedded in this situation; an appreciation of landscape, an appreciation of architecture, an appreciation of light, an appreciation of beauty, and you sort of take that appreciation of design that you begin to find in the everyday and you take that into the context of a museum and you say, well, we want great art here, we want great art to come here, we want our students and faculty to engage in research and to be able to then share it and broadcast that with the larger community.  All of that really has to do with this idea that works of art are concentrations of experience.  Artists give us this concentration of experience and it awakens something within us and prepares us to find it out in the world, it helps us.  My conviction is, and I’m sure this was Jefferson’s thinking as well about the arts or athletics, that in fact, you needed these concentrations of experiences, whether it be aesthetic or physical, in order to apply yourself in any other discipline, so it’s part of being a whole person, part of educating a whole person, and it’s a part of creating a great citizen. 

 

SCR:  What challenges do you face here at UVa that are unique to a university art museum? 

EHT:  The challenges of a university art museum as opposed to a stand-alone museum is really an important question because I’m sure you’ve learned in your textbooks that there’s a certain number of functions of a stand-alone museum, I don’t know whether it’s five or four, but for a university museum, (and because you get university support), the university museum must align with the university’s mission of teaching and research.  So you think, okay, put that together – teaching and research of objects, of art.  That is where the university art museum comes in because you’re creating an objects-based inquiry and you’re setting up research problems that have to do with materials, or process, or historical context, or biographical context.  Or, whether it’s science, if you’re looking at the neuro-science of color, or looking at the neuro-science of even the idea of painting.  The whole point is that the university art museum must be engaged in research.  We have basically, in order get our accreditation with the American Association of Museums, needed to align ourselves with our host institution.  Our accreditation is dependent upon it, and is also dependent upon having a facility in which we have physical and intellectual control over our collection.  Our museum needed to be renovated, and so the university invested in the renovation and we were able to reorganize the collection.  We have three areas of on-site storage, two galleries that have been transformed to be teaching spaces; we have one storage area that is a teaching space, not a public gallery, and one space that has all three functions, public gallery, teaching space and storage space.  So what we’re doing by changing all these things is that we’re privileging teaching, we’re privileging access to this collection, so that’s how we’re unique. 



SCR:  The museum does a wonderful job at providing resources and accessibility to students, but do you feel that the greater Charlottesville community feels welcomed and aware of the opportunities the museum offers to them?   

 

EHT:  Well I think you’re getting at the “Town and Gown” question, which is an eternal question for universities, and I what I know about the public function of an academic museum really comes from my experience at the National Endowment for the Humanities, when I worked there.  The idea is that you create these public programs that communicate to a broad audience.  We are a state institution and we’re here to serve the population, to serve the tax payers of Virginia as much as we are here to climb the heights of intellectual pursuit and share our knowledge with the world.  We are open, we are free to the public. 

The Arts are a public face for the university and a way for us to showcase to the wider public what it is that’s going on here.  You can’t necessarily do that with the Sciences, but you can get to concerts, you can get to drama, you can get to a museum.  One of the things we’re doing to make it easier to do that is a new parking garage on Culbreth Road and we are moving forward on a plan to develop the lot across the street from the Museum.  Right now we have parking spaces set aside all week (6 across the street and 18 behind the museum), so parking is an issue and communication about that parking is an issue, but we’re definitely working to improve that.  Actually, I think it’s interesting, the way parking and transportation is organized here [UVa], it really is like you park on the perimeter and you walk in, and that being part the over arching plan of the campus.  Believe it or not, the Arts precinct on Carr’s Hill is the most accessible part of the University, including the hospital! 



SCR:  Are there any programs the museum offers that you’re especially proud of, like Art JAM or Writer’s Eye?

EHT:    Well those are highly successful programs and I think the real test of a program is the ability to sustain it.  It has been a really galvanizing influence as far as bringing all ages.   When we get our expansion, and the much needed teaching spaces, we can certainly use those for more ways of bringing people in.  We are Charlottesville’s art museum and we are working to achieve the right balance of university support with private support.  Getting that balance right that makes all the difference in our future.  So there’s no doubt in my mind that we aim to let Charlottesville know that this is a place for them.  We are the only art museum in this region.  Where else can university students and children get a first-hand experience with great art?  We wanted to work really hard to make it an experience, to make it something that engages them and awakens something in the individual that they can carry with them the rest of their lives.  That’s our ambition, and while I think that’s the ambition of every art museum, at a university art museum, what you have is the opportunity to delve deeply, work closely,…you have the ability to get an intensity here that you can’t find anywhere else. 


SCR:  The controversial William Christenberry Site/Possession exhibit in the Fall of 2007 was met with mixed emotions and the expected backlash was not as much as anticipated.  How did you have the foresight to know that the museum and conservative UVa community was ready to embrace such emotional and thought provoking work?     

EHT:   Well I didn’t have the foresight, that was Jill Hart, but she did her homework.  The Christenberry show made a National tour.  Some places it was well received, and some places where there was no homework done, or not enough, and no community work done, people were surprised and people don’t like to be surprised.   Jill went out into the community, she prepared people for the show, she informed people about the show, she talked about how and why it was put together.  That takes a lot of advance work, and people need to understand that it’s not just putting stuff on a wall, but it’s what happens before that goes into a great exhibit.  There’s research and community work.



A sampling of dolls created by Christenberry for the "Klan Room Tableau",
part of the Site/Possession exhibition that featured his experience growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama

 


SCR:  Based on the success of that exhibit, would you be more inclined to continue bringing in exhibits of work that challenges visitors?    

 

EHT:  Certainly, I would not want to dumb down an exhibit just to make it more palatable, but again I think doing your homework in advance and really soul searching to ask yourself certain questions like why are we bringing this here?, what will the public learn?, and how will it benefit?, will aid in bringing the best exhibits possible to the museum.  These are all questions by the way that all the endowments use, because they are spending public money and they’re very conscious of their stewardship of public funds. 


SCR:  What exhibit at UVa Art Museum that was produced under your guidance are you most proud of? 

EHT:   The Oliphant [political cartoon] exhibit in the Winter of 2009 was a great exhibit because it referred to a contemporary event and it happened right at the time of the campaign and inauguration.   A living artist came, Oliphant came and he came with all his journalist friends and had great public events.  The installation was exquisite and we’re very proud of that.  We were able to combine that with a historical look too, able to look back and ahead because we were able to combine that with the Daumier show.  I’m pretty proud of that exhibit.  

Patrick Oliphant
Hillary
s Nightmare, 2007 (Hillary and Obama)
Charcoal on canvas


SCR:  If you had to choose a favorite work from your collections, what would it be?

EHT:   It would have to be the Stella [Jerdon's Courser].  Beyond its aesthetic appeal, I like when it was acquired [1976].  I like that the museum is able to connect with living artists and I hope that the university is able to continue to make those kinds of choices and acquisitions in the future.  



Frank Stella, Jerdon
s Courser, 1976

 

SCR:  What areas of the collection do you want to build, if any? 

EHT:   I think that when building a collection, you look for incident and opportunity, but you also work with the expertise that you have on staff.  There are opportunities when you have faculty that are working with collectors to build a collection in a particular area.  I’m thinking about Stanford in particular; at the Stanford Art Museum, you have a huge collection of Rodin sculpture, and it was given to Stanford not by an alum, but by a private collector that worked with Albert Elsen, a professor, and it was built under his guidance.  I think that the next great collection to come here [UVa], at least I hope, will come from our intellectual capital.  Our ability to buy and create these wonderful life changing experiences is unique here.  It’s unique to a university art museum to have this level of expertise to pool from. 

 
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The challenge of coming to a job like this [UVa] is getting a road map, learning the cast of characters, learning the peculiarities of a vested institution which is within a state institution.

I think in the future, probably what we’ll have to focus on more is looking at our collection and presenting it in new contexts or juxtapositions of works which can often tell you a lot about the work, seeing them in different context, a different light.





Dr. Bruce Boucher


Interview with incoming University of Virginia Art Museum director, Dr. Bruce Boucher, by Shannon Cruse Ranson regarding his background, impressions of the institution and plans for the future.

April 20, 2011 at the University of Virginia


SCR:  When did you know you wanted to work in an art museum?   Has the reality of the job changed your view of art or the field in any way?

BB:  I first decided that I wanted to work in an art museum, probably in the 1990s. Up to 2000, I had been an academic art historian and a professor at the University of London.  I had worked on a number of exhibitions with various bodies, such as the Royal Academy, and my last two years in London, I was a research fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and also a guest curator of an exhibition that I prepared for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston on Italian terracotta sculpture.  In the 90s, I thought “you know, it might be nice to have a second career, move into museum work,” but I was rather frustrated because I had never worked in a museum, even though I had done comparable work in terms of organizing portions of exhibitions, doing catalogue raisonnés, etc. There was reluctance on part of some of the museums to hire me when they were sounding me out, or rather I was sounding them out, and so it was a “Catch-22.” 

Going to the Victoria and Albert Museum between 2000 and 2002, gave me the credibility to become a curator, because I was doing everything that a normal curator would do. It struck me during that time that I didn’t want to go back into teaching, because it would just be the same-old, same-old.  So, fortunately I was giving a talk in Chicago and I met the director of the Art Institute and they were looking for a new head of their department in European sculpture and decorative arts.  We talked about the job.  He came to London and saw my show and subsequently offered me the position, and I said “yes.”  I was there for about 7 years and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed teaching through objects. We did a complete re-hang of European art, which hadn’t happened in nearly 30 years. I enjoyed running a department, motivating people, and I thought while I was doing that that, that I would like to try running a museum, because my department was run like a museum within a museum because it had 29,000 objects that ranged from ancient Egyptian to contemporary Picasso ceramics. So I applied and was accepted by the Getty to do their museum management course which was an excellent 3 week summer course with like-minded people, about 20 of us, all either wanting to become directors or had just become directors.  It was a very good experience and when this job came up [UVa], what appealed to me about it was that I could be in an academic museum and give me the opportunity to teach and pick up the reigns of a museum that was really at a crossroads. 

 

SCR:  How will your experience at the Art Institute of Chicago influence your plans for UVa, a very different type of university? 

BB:  That’s an interesting question.  I don’t think it has influenced it that much because they are so totally different.  The challenge of coming to a job like this [UVa] is getting a road map, learning the cast of characters, learning the peculiarities of a vested institution which is within a state institution.  The University of Virginia is a state school that has to conform to bureaucratic procedures that are laid out by the state.  There are a lot of complicated things about it, for instance, we aren’t allowed to make a profit, we have to recover costs, and the state will not give us any money for development, that’s all soft money, we have to find it ourselves.  Also, if we want to sign a contract for an exhibition loan, then we have to go through the university procurement system which is very complicated, and anyone that is lending to us has to become a “vendor” at the university.  A lot of people get really annoyed about having to go through these kinds of hoops and it continues to be a source of embarrassment to us, but it’s something one just has to put up with. 

Basically, it was useful [time spent at the Art Institute of Chicago] because I did learn about gallery installations and managing people.  This place [UVa], we had next to no endowment, an advisory board that had been split about the departure of my predecessor [Dr. Elizabeth Hutton Turner] and a lot of fallout from the previous administration’s attempt to create a new museum building at a different site which nobody seemed to like and the idea really tanked with the downtown of the economy around the end of 2008. 

 

SCR:  Yes, I remember that.  As a docent, we were really looking forward to that, but there’s something to be said for keeping the art at the Bayly. 

BB:  Yes, well it’s more central. I don’t know if you would have had much take up on students or faculty coming across Rt. 29 to the Cavalier Inn site and also, it was not a very well thought out plan.  [The new arts complex] was going to have the band practice, a visitor’s welcome center, and the art museum.  We would have gotten only 40% more space than we currently have, whereas with the current plan to develop the area behind the Bayly building, we can get 80% more space for a fourth of the price. 

 

SCR:  So you feel that under the new renovation plan that the university is giving the museum adequate space for the future? 

BB:  Well, they said we can build out to the edge of our footprint, which butts up against the architecture school.  It’s now becoming a priority for development but we have to find money you know. 



SCR:  The museum does a wonderful job at providing resources and accessibility to students, but do you feel that the greater Charlottesville community feels welcomed and aware of the opportunities the museum offers to them?    

BB:  I hope so.  I think it’s always a balancing act because we are pulled in different directions.  We are in fact, Charlottesville’s art museum as well as the university art museum.  There isn’t enough support within the community per say to allow us to consider becoming just a city museum.  They [the community] are one of our stake holders, but the most important stake holder has to be the University because they pay 60% of our budget and our salaries.  The idea is that they’re the paymaster and they’re basically concerned about the student experience, which is fine.  We have tried to renovate this building to make it more accessible to by turning virtually every gallery and storage area into potential classrooms.  We’ve seen a trebling of the number of students using these classrooms since 2008.  There were about 410 in 2008 and we closed for four months in 2009 for the renovation and that really was a chrysalis moment.  Last year we had about 1,100 students using it for classes and last semester, 816, and it looks like at the moment we’re on target for having about 1,200 this year, so we’re on an upward trend and I think that’s a good metric to judge our success by. 

As far as the city, Writer’s Eye is very important; it’s our flagship education program.  We have 3,000 K-12 students come through every year, and I haven’t met anyone in Charlottesville with children that haven’t participated in Writer’s Eye or have come with their children at least once to it.  We have an advisory board which is composed of people who are partly from Charlottesville, partly from elsewhere and they function like trustees except they don’t have a fiduciary oversight and they are part of the broader community.  We have docents, community docents as you know, and a volunteer board drawn from the community which is a great booster organization, we rely on them for considerable help in terms of mounting exhibitions and the like.  Our student docents work with the Boys and Girls Club here to do art appreciation for kids.  We do Art JAMs for families, which is when they come look at things, sculptures and then go draw them.  We schedule about 6 of those a year, but we probably do twice as many because they’re always overly subscribed.  So we have quite an active K-12 program, as it should be, because I think for most college or university museums, probably 50% or more of their education program is community oriented and I would say ours [UVa] is largely community oriented.   


SCR:  To what extent do you think your expertise in architectural history, specifically the work of Palladio, whose influence is abundant on the UVa campus, will be useful in the preservation of existing structures and the planning of new facilities? 

BB:  Well, there are already groups in place that looks into these things.  I’m on a Grounds committee that looks at issues such as the Arts Grounds and the way it’s going to be landscaped.  We tried to intervene to save as many of the old trees on the Arts Grounds as possible during the building of the new thrust-stage for the Drama department, and unfortunately one of the trees we wanted to save, an old Red Oak, an independent arborist said it won’t survive the construction, so we’re losing most of those trees which is sad.  As far as the design, I think whatever we build here [on the Bayly site] will have to be modern in the sense that the University has a superfluity of red and white brick buildings and most of them are not that thrilling as architecture.  If I were called upon to advise, I would advise building something modern that engages with its surroundings and to get the best contemporary architects because I think building in a pseudo Colonial style shows a lack of creativity. That may sound strange coming from someone who studies Renaissance architecture, but you have to be true to the period in which you live and I think in the period in which we live, Colonial architecture and post-modernism are sort of dead issues in my mind. 


SCR:  If you had a favorite work from the collection that you’ve seen so far, what would that be?

BB:   Gosh, um, well I do like Willard Midgette [The Lobby, 1973], on view in the front gallery now, which is an intriguing painting because it was done by an artist that was cut down in his prime.  He died at the age of 40 from a brain tumor.  He was interested in Renaissance fresco painting and I think he was trying to recreate something of that style in that big work.  We have a small study for it and I would love to someday perhaps to do an exhibition around it and its genesis.   I find it interesting that he created this perspectival scene, but at the same time the way it’s painted militates against the perspective because the color values are uniform so there’s no sense of depth to it, so it looks like a giant tapestry.  I don’t know whether that was intentional or accidental, but I’d like to know more about him.  I know that his widow has a large number of his studies of it.  Midgette is someone who is virtually off the radar because he died so young.  I also like of course, the Stella [Jerdon's Courser] that we have out in the front gallery too.  I’m also very fond of the Reinhold Begas’ Pause from a Dance [1908], the bronze at the top of the stairs because that was the first thing I bought for the University when I came here. 



Willard Midgette, The Lobby, 1973



Reinhold Begas, Pause from a Dance, 1908

SCR:  It sounds like you’re on the way to building a stronger collection.  Is there any specific focus that collection is going to take in the future?

BB:  The trouble is that at the moment, we have very limited funds for acquisitions and to some degree it has been driven recently by gifts.  Every year, two collectors from Washington D.C. give us a number of contemporary photographs, so we’re building up that collection.  We also have a very good collection of prints and drawings, and we’ve tried in the last few years to make strategic purchases in those areas, particularly early twentieth-century European, which we’re deficient in. I think that prints, drawings and photography are areas that we can grow in. We’ve also been able to acquire from time to time good Indian paintings and very good Chinese scroll paintings, but we’re not acquiring any of those at the moment. 

I think in the future, probably what we’ll have to focus on more is looking at our collection and presenting it in new contexts or juxtapositions of works which can often tell you a lot about the work, seeing them in different context, different light, etc.  The other thing I think that is important is what I call “time-share”, such as the Henry Moore [Seated Woman, 1958-59].  I could never afford to buy one of those, assuming one ever came up on market, but we’re able to have the loan from the Henry Moore Foundation for three years at a modest amount of rent and insurance each year for that, but it gives us something to become the focal point for the new sculpture terrace.  When that goes back, we’ll probably go to the Hirshhorn or some other institution that has a public sculpture lending program and we’ll borrow something else.



Henry Moore
s Seated Woman,
on the new sculpture terrace in front of the UVa Art Museum

 

SCR:  I believe there is also a Calder sculpture on the grounds outside Peabody Hall, near the Lawn…

BB:  That’s not us [UVa Art Museum].  That was done by Beth Turner, the Vice Provost for Arts.  She has a program called “Public Art on Grounds” and I’m on the committee for that.  She has a certain amount of money to pay for that, but again it’s an admirable endeavor to try to open up the University to having more sculpture on Grounds. It was difficult I think, getting that Calder [Tripes, 1974] there.  We have agreed with Patrick Dougherty, who is an artist who works with saplings to come here in October 2013 to be in-residence and to do a site specific sculpture, but of course, they’re revising the sites that are appropriate or acceptable for sculpture.  We can’t just tell him, ok you go find somewhere to work like the center of the Lawn, that’d be nuts, you can’t do that.  We have to work with the University to find the areas that they deem okay.  



Alexander Calder
s Tripes, on the UVa Grounds

 

SCR:  Do you feel that because the City of Charlottesville has a program, Art in Place, that perhaps the University feels that public sculpture is already being met in the community?

BB:  I don’t think the University thought about public sculpture period, which is why bringing the Calder here [Tripes] was a very good thing because it looks great there.  I think having a Patrick Dougherty work somewhere on Grounds could look great. What I hope is that on our outdoor terrace, we can have rotating exhibitions of sculpture, perhaps sometimes even more than one piece and this will be a way of extending our reach and also accustoming people to think of sculpture.  We have very little sculpture in the collection and I think most of the sculpture at UVa is on the Lawn or adjacent to it and I don’t think anything new has been added in about 70 years.