Art In Conversation
JOCK REYNOLDS with Phong Bui
After the successful renovation of Yale University Art Gallery, a multi-year project that included a restoration of the Old Yale Art Gallery, an expansion from one-and-a-half buildings to three, Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Gallery, paid an early morning visit to the Rail’s headquarters to talk to Rail Publisher Phong Bui about his adventurous life and work.
Phong Bui (Rail): Within the past few months, I’ve visited both the newly renovated and expanded Yale University Art Gallery and the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology at the University of Oxford, which was renovated in November 2009. Both are encyclopedic museums, making them perfect tools for both teaching and training museum professionals, as well as making the collections accessible to scholars, artists, and the general public alike. Not to mention that they both offer free admission! The difference lies in the collections: the Ashmolean, combined with the Oxford Art Museum, has more archaeological materials and European objects, from early Cyclades and Crete.
Jock Reynolds: You’re right. The Ashmolean’s earlier classical holdings from Greek to Roman and more are very comprehensive and impressive. But if one considers the overall holdings of the Yale Center for British Art, the finest of their kind outside of London—the treasures of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; the myriad collections of the Peabody Museum of Natural History; and those of the Yale Art Gallery—it’s hard to imagine a finer concentration of cultural material extant at any world university. Yale is also the only Ivy League university whose long-established professional schools train artists not only in architecture, but also in art, drama, and music. It’s also notable that the Yale Art Gallery’s founding collection of American Revolutionary War paintings and portraits was produced by a living artist, the patriot Colonel John Trumbull. He designed and oversaw the construction of the first campus building devoted to the visual arts. The gallery bore his name when it opened in 1832, and within it he installed an impressive array of his finest artworks, with which he taught actively as Yale’s first artist-in-residence during the last decade of his life. Another unique collection of contemporary art was formed early in the next century after a revolutionary art of another kind had made its debut in the New York Armory Show of 1913, when artists Katherine S. Dreier, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp co-founded the fabled Société Anonyme in 1920. They undertook this endeavor as an active collaboration, first exhibiting and eventually assembling a vast collection of art created by the likes of Joseph Stella, Arthur Dove, Paul Klee, Fernand Leger, Wassily Kandinsky, and many others. The collection was gifted to Yale in 1941, during World War II, and augmented on Dreier’s death with her personal collection. Continuous contact with contemporary art and artists has long been a particular advantage that exists and continues here at Yale.
The long-developed system of American philanthropy has also encouraged devoted alumni donors and interested patrons to keep expanding the collections and teaching missions of our country’s college and university art museums. By comparison, many of my British and European colleagues are working in museums that have been historically dependent in large measure on government support for their well-being, and sadly such support has been dwindling in recent decades. Hence many of these fine directors and curators no longer have the financial resources at their disposal to adequately grow their collections, nor funding available to expand their staffs and programs. Oxford’s Ashmolean is a happy exception to the rule.
Rail: Is that how you were able to woo Ruth Barnes, who was originally a textile curator at the Ashmolean and is now the Thomas Jaffe Curator of Indo-Pacific Art at the Yale Art Gallery?
Reynolds: Well, we were indeed fortunate to be able to lure Ruth Barnes to Yale, but the same is true of Ian McClure, who is now our Susan Morse Hilles Chief Conservator and who was, at the time we recruited him, directing the Hamilton Kerr Institute while also serving as the painting conservator for the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. We simply searched for the finest and most collegial experts we could find anywhere in the world to steward both our new Indo-Pacific art department and Yale’s now rapidly expanding Conservation Center. I must say that it was fortuitous that both Barnes and McClure are married to Americans.
Rail: That helps! [Laughs.]
Reynolds: We have also recruited excellent curators to Yale from elsewhere in America who are highly respected experts in their fields. Larry Kanter (the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art) and Suzanne Boorsch (the Robert L. Solley Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs), for example, are both now at a stage of life in which they are fully secure in their professional accomplishments in a way that has freed them to be incredibly supportive of our students, museum fellows, and interns.
Also, my wife Suzanne Hellmuth and I come from families where both our fathers and mothers were committed educators in the sciences, economics, or humanities, and we both commenced our careers as young artists teaching in colleges and universities where we thoroughly enjoyed our students. My father happened to be a well-known microbiologist who spoke seven languages and traveled the world for a while as the U.S. representative to UNESCO in biology, happily recruiting students from all over the world to U.C. Davis, especially from Africa, Russia, and Eastern Europe. My father also loved art and music as did my mother, who was herself a fine botanist and founder of the first Head Start nursery school for migrant workers’ children in California’s Yolo County.
I vividly remember sitting by my father’s bedside during the last days of his life, despairing for a while that all of the amazing knowledge he had acquired throughout his lifetime was about to pass away with his impending death. But upon thinking further, I reminded myself that he had already shared a great deal of his knowledge with his students over some 40 years of teaching. By that point, they possessed a lot of it and more of their own. This epiphany during a difficult emotional time was deeply comforting to me.
Rail: You more or less intended to follow in your father’s footsteps, didn’t you? When you first went to Andover for boarding school, you initially found biology to be your favorite subject, until you stumbled into the Addison Gallery of American Art, where you saw the paintings of Eakins, Homer, Hopper, and others that began to change the course of your life.
Reynolds: That’s true. Even though I was doing well in biology, I really disliked studying in Andover’s Oliver Wendell Holmes library, which I found to be an oppressive environment. So I went over to the Addison Gallery one day, where I could sit almost alone and read quietly, not feeling the pressure of what at that time was a tremendously competitive all-boy learning factory. [Laughs.] There in the Addison I discovered that if you just sat still and looked at a great work of art long enough, it would start to speak to you. And so that is what the masterworks residing there did for me, yielding experiences and visual lessons of a sort that I began to really enjoy.
Rail: Who were your art teachers at the time?
Reynolds: Gordon “Diz” Bensley was my favorite art teacher. He taught the “Visual Studies” class we all had to take. It was basically a Josef Albers-Bauhaus course and a terrific one at that. “Diz” was not only an inspired teacher, he was also an excellent photographer. He’d give each of us a 4-by-5 Graflex View camera, tripod, and film, instruct us in its use, and send us out into the campus to “find line, texture, and form in nature.” We were then to print our findings and discuss them with each other, which I found to be great fun. Such assignments began to help me see that I possessed a measure of visual intelligence worth developing.
Rail: Was the Albers-Bauhaus course at Andover similar to what was taught at Black Mountain College?
Reynolds: Very much so. In fact, it was Charles Sawyer, the Addison Gallery’s founding director, appointed to lead it in 1930, at the tender age of 23, who gave Josef Albers his very first show in America in 1935. Two more Albers shows were produced at Andover by the time Sawyer took his leave of the Addison in 1940, and by then the two men had formed a great friendship that never waned. Years later, it was Sawyer who recruited Albers to Yale from Black Mountain in 1949, not long after becoming Yale’s Dean of Fine Arts. And once Albers started teaching in the Yale School of Art in 1950, its faculty, students, and standing in the world changed dramatically. He helped to lead an important creative revolution here at Yale, as everyone well knows.
Rail: Were Patrick and Maud Morgan—the teachers at Andover of Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Hollis Frampton, and many others—there when you returned to direct the Addison Gallery in 1989?
Reynolds: Patrick Morgan had died decades earlier, but the remarkably lively and beloved Maud was still alive and working actively in Cambridge as a much admired artist. We quickly became great friends, and Maud provided me with artistic and institutional knowledge of enormous value. She in fact lived to the ripe old age of 96. Charles Sawyer also became a great friend of mine, and a welcome advisor to me at Andover and then later at Yale, sharing the remarkable body of knowledge he had gained in the art world across more than 70 years.
But the great moment that altered the course of my life occurred when I attended U.C. Santa Cruz in its first class of students, back in 1965, fully intending to become a marine biology major. It was there I took a sculpture class from Gurdon Woods during my sophomore year, and that was it! Woods right away challenged me to take his class and art seriously. He too noticed that I possessed a good eye and was also capable with tools and materials. The tool skills had come my way growing up, making pieces of furniture and building other things with my father. But the best thing Woods conveyed to me was that I should place more trust in the genuine intelligence he felt resided in my hands, and to learn to couple it effectively with the acuity of my eyes and mind. After I took his class, he asked me to become his studio assistant on the weekends. We thereafter worked together on many of his own projects, and also set up the first bronze foundry at U.C. Santa Cruz within an old blacksmith shop still extant on the campus from its era as a working ranch.
Besides being the founding chairman of U.C.S.C.’s art department, Woods had earlier been the director of the San Francisco Art Institute during one of its heyday decades (1955–65). Throughout that time the likes of Richard Diebenkorn, Hassel Smith, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Jay DeFeo, Nathan Olivera, Manuel Neri, William T. Wiley, Robert Hudson, Kathan Brown, and many others were either faculty members, students, or visiting artists there. Woods knew almost all of the artists in the San Francisco Bay area and soon took me to gallery shows of their work and for studio visits, including the very first one to the studio of Peter Voulkos. Having such a generous and caring mentor in Gurdon Woods was remarkable, and I named my first son after him. Gurdon also helped many of us who studied with him feel as though anything was possible as members of U.C.S.C.’s Pioneer Class.
Rail: I’ve looked at a few works you made in 1969 (your senior year). For example, there’s a hinged plastic box with a vinyl border, an electric cord with two plugs, and a toothbrush with real teeth inside it. They look like Fluxus objects!
Reynolds: They were. Woods did an amazing thing in 1967, in that he applied to the Carnegie Foundation and received a very large grant to experiment with undergraduate education and art. This grant enabled him to invite a whole group of amazing artists to the campus throughout the 1968–69 academic year. I remember there were 16 of us students—we didn’t know what we were being recruited for—who were asked to sign up for a year-long experimental interdisciplinary art workshop. We did so, and its leader was the Fluxus artist Robert Watts. He, along with Woods, were instrumental in inviting George Maciunas, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allan Kaprow, Dan Flavin, George Segal, James Lee Byars, and others to campus; the list goes on. Some of these visiting artists would come for a few days to do a performance or to show films by the likes of Andy Warhol. Other artists stayed longer to conduct mini-seminars in which they shared their work and provided critiques to the work we students were making both individually and as a creative collective. We staged a number of Fluxus-like performances, including a hilarious Fluxus parade on the campus of U.C. San Diego in the last semester of our work with Watts. These events were often very humorous, and sometimes quite mischievous, but also always creatively purposeful and well nurtured by those who taught us. I remember Maciunas brought one of his Flux briefcases out west with him and showed us what was inside: 17 boxed objects from 17 Fluxus artists, including Yoko Ono’s infamous film “Bottoms (No. 4)” and a Stan Van Der Beek film loop, among other visual oddities that fascinated us. He invited us to join him and make similar things, so I started to make a series of objects I felt were in the spirit of Fluxus and sent them off to George over the next few years, having no idea that he was actually going to produce and distribute them! Happily, I started receiving Fluxus mailings from artists residing all over the world, which was an unexpected bonus that arose from Watts’s workshop.
I have to say, the thing that was so wonderful about that time of my life, which continued when I went on to U.C. Davis for my M.F.A., was that the teachers there—artists such as William T. Wiley, Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, and others—were so generous to us as students. They basically said to us: “We’re all artists, so let’s just make work and talk about it in our seminars and studios.” There was no stuffy hierarchy of who was more important; these professors essentially treated us as their creative peers and served as powerful role models.
Rail: Did you take any time off between undergrad and graduate school?
Reynolds: Yes, one year, during which I was an adult probation officer.
Rail: What does that mean?
Reynolds: During my undergraduate years at U.C.S.C., I had volunteered in a California Youth Authority camp that was located above our campus. I took a number of our sports teams there to play games with the inmates, and some of us also tutored a number of the young people who had been convicted of crimes. Instead of adult prison, they had been sent to the minimum security camp in Ben Lomond to clear brush and trails, and to stay out of trouble until they were released to hopefully secure jobs or resume their education. The camp’s superintendent, a wonderful man named Milt Vivian, liked me and knew at the time that I was working a graveyard shift as a cannery worker to make extra money right after graduating from U.C.S.C. It was he who helped me land a position as an adult probation officer for the county of Santa Cruz.
Rail: Was it a fruitful experience?
Reynolds: It sure was. All during the following year I learned a whole lot about how the U.S. justice system does and doesn’t work and also gained some very important knowledge about how racial and economic issues loom large in our American society. I also had to learn how to deal with the concept of triage, for I had a huge caseload of 165 probationers and needed to constantly determine which of them I could potentially assist the most and keep from running afoul of the law again. Such work also helped me gain greater empathy for people who didn’t enjoy the privileged education and supportive family I was so fortunate to have.
Rail: What sort of work did you make while you were at Davis?
Reynolds: When I returned to Davis, to the U.C. campus town where I had grown up, I was still very interested in all kinds of plants and animals, and how they grow, function, live, and then die. My mother, besides being a trained botanist, was also a great gardener who possessed a fabulous eye for beauty and fully understood its value. She and my father very kindly bought a very cheap little farm on the outskirts of Davis. On its three acres was a 40 by 60-foot metal Butler building that became a wonderful studio, along with a cracker-box of a house and enough land upon which I was soon able to raise a huge vegetable garden, 24 sheep, lots of chickens, ducks, peacocks, beehives, and a couple of pigs, while also caring for a horse that one of my best friends owned. Correspondingly, the central focus of my object-making, performances, and installations during grad school became primarily focused on the material nature and life cycles of plants and animals, many of which required my dawn-to-dusk attention. And right after receiving my M.F.A. in 1972, I had my first commercial gallery show in the Hansen-Fuller Gallery in San Francisco where many of my professors also showed their work. Almost all of the pieces I had created in my studio and brought into the city displayed in some manner live being, such as mosquito fish, earthworms, baby chicks, spiders, field mice, or vegetables (some still growing and others canned). As you might imagine, such process and life-oriented pieces were in tune with the interests of many other artists who were also producing ephemeral process-oriented, cross-disciplinary work during the 1970s. It was also this prevailing spirit of broad artistic experimentation that helped give birth to a number of San Francisco’s important alternative spaces, such as Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art, 80 Langton Arts, La Mamelle, Camerawork, and Site Projects. Some survived longer than others, but they all emerged robustly in the 1970s. At the same time, many of us young artists also began to teach in colleges, universities, and art schools in the Bay Area during what was a very yeasty and creative decade. I taught at San Francisco State University, helping to direct both its undergraduate and graduate program at the Center for Experimental and Interdisciplinary Art. At that time, the Bay Area arts community was still small enough that you could know almost everyone, and a lot of collaboration and sharing of creative skills and facilities took place. Poets, dancers, and musicians, including Robert Ashley and David Behrman, for example, alternated chairing the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music from their main bases in New York, which also brought to us youngsters a strong sense of what was then taking place elsewhere in the world of New Music. Dancers such as Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Viola Farber, Trisha Brown, and many others also travelled back and forth, performing between New York and the West Coast. The same was true of many other notable musicians and poets. It was just a wonderful time, not a time of any big commercial success, but rather of great creative ferment, with an amazing crosspollination of ideas and expressive creative media to explore, with a freedom that in retrospect seems quite remarkable.
Rail: Who among your contemporaries did you have a close affinity with?
Reynolds: I of course met and began working with Suzanne and the Motion Institute, of which she was a founding member, for the first time in 1975. We later married and expanded our work together. I also met David Ireland in 1975, and we soon became close friends. At the time, David had recently purchased an old Victorian building in the Mission District and begun to carefully consider how he might go about renovating his 500 Capp Street home, doing so not long after I had sold the little farm in Davis and purchased 80 Langton Street in San Francisco’s South of Market Street district. At 80 Langton, I renovated a portion of the second floor as a studio within which to live and work, while another good artist friend, Jim Pomeroy, did the same on the other portion of the second floor. Pomeroy had recently received an M.F.A. from U.C. Berkeley as one of Jim Melchert’s brightest students. We first met when Wiley and Melchert had encouraged students from both Davis and Berkeley to share in each other’s graduate seminars, again a rare act of educational generosity. I must say that Jim Melchert is one of the greatest teachers and most inventive artists I have ever known. At the time I first met him he was developing compelling work via the media of ceramics, drawing, video, film, and performances. He also somehow found the time to attend the openings, readings, and performances of almost every young artist I knew, and later went on to become the head of the Visual Arts Program at the N.E.A.
Rail: He came right after Brian O’Doherty, who went on to become director of the N.E.A.’s Media Arts Program: Film/Radio/Television, a position he held until 1996.
Reynolds: Right. Melchert served the N.E.A. for four years (1977–81), during which time many artists, including my wife Suzanne and me, were encouraged to apply for visual artist fellowships and visual arts organization grants, as did many others of our generation who were involved in either helping to co-found or work within the alternative artists’ spaces that were popping up all over America. It was thus that many of us involved in this very organic American cultural moment came to know each other when we were asked to go out and conduct N.E.A. site visits to an array of our peer organizations that were extant in other cities across our country. We helped to assess their programs and review their grant applications, and then sent in our reports so that the deliberating N.E.A. peer-panels had some fieldwork reconnaissance to consider when they conducted the grant-review meetings in Washington, D.C. These forays, for which we were paid $75 a day at the time, comprised a genuine post-graduate education of sorts, and helped many arts leaders of my generation quickly learn about the real administrative work it was going to take to productively run and sustain alternative artist-directed organizations and publications.
It was also the case that many of us young San Francisco artists received support from our commercial art dealers, a number of whom were genuinely interested in much of the artwork we were creating, even though it could not readily be sold to collectors or cared for as traditional objects. This was certainly true of Jim Pomeroy and my dealers Wanda Hansen and Diana Fuller. It could likewise be said of gallerists Ruth Braunstein and Rena Bransten. They were all wonderfully supportive people and, as members of the San Francisco Art Dealers’ Association, generously helped to support the founding of 80 Langton Street. As a young artist, you could just walk into the back rooms of these women’s downtown commercial galleries, where fresh coffee was always available, refrigerators held soft drinks, and books and catalogues were made freely available to those of us who actively wanted to read and learn more about the art of our time. This sense of genuine welcome was palpable and not like the feeling one so often encounters in many commercial galleries today, where their general atmosphere and offices seem designed to make you feel somewhat unwelcome or outright intimidated unless you are an active collector of some importance.
Rail: It seems like what was happening at 80 Langton Street, which later became New Langton Arts, was very exciting. Why did you move eastward to succeed Al Nodal as director of the Washington Project for the Arts (W.P.A.)?
Reynolds: Suzanne and I ended up in D.C. for several reasons. First, Nodal had been one of my students at S.F.S.U. during the 1970s. Suzanne and I had won the Adeline Kent Award from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1979. This award supported our first large collaborative exhibition project, one created from a gleaning and then a visual reassembling of a large array of photographs we drew upon from three public archives in California. Nodal liked the work and later invited us to show a further development of it, A State of the Union: Photographic Juxtapositions, which opened at the WPA in 1982. Around the same time, Kathy Halbreich, who also liked what we were doing, invited Suzanne, me, and our two young boys to spend a year at the List Visual Art Center at M.I.T. as artists-in-residence, where we produced “Speculation,” an installation employing archival photographs and objects relevant to M.I.T.’s important development of radar during World War II and its deep involvement in the nuclear arms race thereafter.
It was during this time that Nodal was hired as the new head of art and cultural affairs for the City of Los Angeles, so the W.P.A. needed to replace him. Its board of directors assembled a search committee that initially asked me to come down to Washington as an advisor, but then they sandbagged me to take the job [laughs], which I did.
Rail: It must have been a huge decision to leave New Langton Arts and a tenured teaching job at San Francisco State.
Reynolds: It was a bit crazy for sure, considering that Suzanne and I had two sons under the age of 5 at the time and a very thin economic means of supporting our young family. But we didn’t actually move our family to Washington until W.P.A.’s board and I dug the organization out of deep debt, over some six months, while Suzanne and our boys remained in Cambridge to see if a new life together in Washington would be tenable. It took some doing to get W.P.A.’s finances balanced, but the organization was so wholesome artistically, so vital to the arts community of Washington, and so well-regarded by the N.E.A. that the endeavor was certainly worthwhile. In retrospect, the move to a new city and arts community also proved to be a healthy one. Washington was also replete with major public archives of photographs that Suzanne and I wanted to delve into for our own creative work, yet another reason for us to give it a go.
Rail: You were there from 1983–89. It was in your last year that you and your colleagues presented the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective exhibition at the W.P.A., after the Corcoran Gallery of Art backed out of showing it at the last minute.
Reynolds: Many don’t remember how the N.E.A. had earlier been attacked by freshmen Congressmen Richard Armey and Tom DeLay, not long after they and others were swept into office in 1985. Along with Newt Gingrich and others, they brought forth their “Contract with America,” which in many ways set the stage for the controversies that were to fully erupt in 1989. Both Armey and DeLay held hearings on the N.E.A. beginning in 1985, complaining that it never funded good traditional Texan writers but only funded gay poets from Texas. I attended some of their hearings and watched how these ideologues soon drew some blood and started getting attention in the press. This emboldened them to expand their witch-hunt on American art and culture, in which they were later joined by Senator Jesse Helms and others as the next five-year reauthorization of N.E.A. funding came to be debated at the end of the 1980s. It was then that the “culture wars” really got underway in earnest, with sad consequences for the N.E.A. and our country that are still being felt today.
Rail: It was the perfect moment for them.
Reynolds: Yes it was, and how ironic, since Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment was the title of the artist’s touring retrospective. These Congressmen well understood that assaulting the N.E.A. via the castigation of some provocative photographs created by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, rather than continuing to berate little-read poetry, was the right way to launch a full attack on the N.E.A. and create a major threat to its life. What was amazing was that none of these characters ever came to actually view the Mapplethorpe exhibition, nor view the artist’s creative work in its entirety, an act of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice that remains despicable to my mind.
Rail: The same can be said of Rudy Giuliani, who condemned Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” painting when it was shown in the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, without ever seeing it in the flesh.
Reynolds: The same thing happened in Washington. One person I always respected who did come to see the Mapplethorpe retrospective was David Gergen, who was both a respected journalist and White House advisor. I met him much later, when he served as a member of the Yale Corporation. But so many people were politically intimidated during 1989, that even John Frohnmayer, then the nominee facing Senate confirmation to become the next director of the N.E.A., refused to walk a few blocks over to the W.P.A. to view the Mapplethorpe show at the invitation of the W.P.A.’s board president Jim Fitzpatrick and myself. I don’t think Mr. Frohnmayer wanted to have to answer any questions at his confirmation hearings about what he thought of Mapplethorpe’s art. It was safer to simply say he had not seen it. On a happier note, Congressman John Lewis, one of the great civil rights leaders of our time, and some of his colleagues did attend the show’s opening and lent their support to it with their presence. Otherwise, there was a definite lack of cultural and political courage displayed on a lot of levels in the nation’s capital during the tough time when the N.E.A. came under a withering attack for supporting “obscene art” with public tax dollars and was soon thereafter greatly hobbled. The continuing attacks on the N.E.A. had serious consequences for alternative spaces and artist-directed organizations. In the case of the W.P.A., at the height of its best programming years, it was winning up to six grants a year from a variety of the N.E.A.’s programs. It was doing so at a time when small arts organizations could compete openly and fairly with each other, and with larger organizations and museums, solely on the merits of good ideas and worthy artistic proposals. The N.E.A. soon had to end its programs supporting individual fellowships for critics, and then later those for individual artists. The level for federal funding for the visual arts has never been the same since and now an applying organization can file only one N.E.A. grant proposal per year.
In response to this sad situation, many private foundations and individuals have pitched in to help support individual artists and worthy artists’ organizations and museums that encourage the art of our time. As a member of the board of directors of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for the last eight years, it has been a great pleasure to support a lot of contemporary art exhibitions, artists, publications, and critics. But your generation clearly has to adapt to economic circumstances much more challenging and difficult than those encountered by my generation, and I thus deeply admire what you and your colleagues are doing at the Rail to support the work of many worthy young, mid-, and late-career artists who rightly deserve a fuller public and critical response to what they are creating.
Rail: Well, after having run the Rail for 13 years, with all these wears and tears, the vision is clearer now than ever. Anyway, what was your reason for leaving the W.P.A. to become the director of Andover’s Addison Gallery?
Reynolds: You mentioned Patrick and Maud Morgan earlier, as we were talking. What was so interesting about them was that, when they got married, they made a vow to go study with Hans Hofmann, in Munich, which they did. Then they encouraged Hofmann to come to the U.S. He first went to U.C. Berkeley, in 1930, at the invitation of Worth Ryder; but he eventually came to New York, where he taught at the Art Students League before opening his own school in Provincetown, in 1935, which lasted until 1958. It was during this time that Hofmann paid several visits to Andover, rekindled his friendship with the Morgans, and also met the Addison then-director Bartlett Hayes, who took a strong interest in his work.
Rail: And he had his first retrospective at the Addison Gallery in 1948.
Reynolds: Yes! Hayes, who was also my teacher, organized Hofmann’s retrospective and authored a publication that accompanied it entitled Search for the Real and Other Essays, one still in print today at MIT Press. So Albers and Hofmann, two great artist-teachers of very different sensibilities, came to be closely associated with the Addison and Andover. And theirs are some of the legacies that students such as myself were absorbing quietly as teenagers during our visits to the Addison Gallery and our visual studies classes, not yet fully understanding the important role artists of this stature were exerting in the art world. When you think of Frank Stella’s later works, after the Black Paintings, for example, which extend directly out from the wall with those bold colorful and curving shapes and forms, I think they relate directly to Hofmann’s aggressive lyrical abstract paintings of the late 1940s. You could make a similar claim of Carl Andre’s square metal-plate floor sculptures, which evoke a relationship to Albers’s serial series of “Homage to the Square” paintings and his own deep interest in photography. All of this was then channeled straight through to two generations of Andover students via “Diz” Bensley, to Stella, Andre, Frampton, and many others, and then to all of us who later followed them at Andover as young learners. Such progressive educational experiences are unique in the history of American secondary school education and not easily forgotten.
Rail: Well, John Andrew Rice, the founder of Black Mountain College, certainly knew who to ask to run his school, and now I also understand why Charles Sawyer later hired Albers to come join him at Yale.
Reynolds: Both of these men were wise and visionary in many respects, which brings us to another concern that interests me. Everyone now seems to be asking who can and should direct many of the museums and schools that are beginning to need new leaders as the baby boomers of my generation prepare to retire. I often ask myself why there isn’t more faith being placed in hiring some younger people who understand art very well but don’t possess M.B.A.s or major administrative training.
It should not be forgotten that back in the late 1920s and ’30s, many very young art leaders fared well in leadership positions. Just start a list say of Alfred Barr, Jr., Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr., Beaumont Newhall, Charles Sawyer, and many others, and you will realize that all of them were directing significant institutions before they were 30 years old. And I have to tell you that I don’t think that the real work at hand that most needs doing is that much more complicated today. Yes, the scales of budgets, collections, boards, and facilities are often different and at times somewhat daunting to manage, but I believe the basic drive to be imaginative and to create and sustain something of artistic excellence can readily reside in the capable hands of someone very young and talented. We ought to place more trust in our young people who are seeking to spend their lives deeply steeped in the arts. I especially enjoy working as the director of a teaching museum where young students and interns can receive the encouragement, training, and strong formative experiences they need to confidently enter the cultural arena. Such thoughts began to arise in my mind while I was directing the W.P.A., where we almost quadrupled the budget and produced many wonderful programs over a six-year period while working together as an array of eager young people who since then have become significant figures: Philip Brookman, Richard Powell, Helen Brunner, Don Russell, Holly Block, Olivia George, and Skuta Helgason, just to name a few. We also built up a fantastic board of directors at the W.P.A., one-half of whom were working artists, and the others well-engaged collectors and patrons. They all were equally active as we integrated the organization’s board and staff racially in some very interesting ways, and also took some strong steps to more fully acknowledge the African-American cultural legacy and its contemporary presence in Washington, a city that remains today much too divided by race and economic disparity. We also created civic partnerships with other D.C. cultural organizations.
Phong, I just realized I have really digressed from answering your earlier question of how I came to leave the W.P.A. for the Addison Gallery in 1989. I had told the W.P.A. board when I was hired that I thought five years would be what I was willing to commit to the organization. It turned out to be six, and I was feeling the need to return to teaching and my own studio practice when Chris Cook, the director of the Addison Gallery, called me one day and said that he had decided to give up the directorship after 20 years in order to return to his own studio practice and teaching. He told me he wanted me to try out the Addison’s directorship for a year while on sabbatical from the W.P.A. And since it was Cook who had reengaged me with my prep school alma mater in 1981, when the Addison celebrated its 50th anniversary, I took his invitation seriously. He then arranged a lunch with me and the head of Andover’s board of trustees at the Yale Club in New York, at which I delivered the full pitch. Soon thereafter, I found myself in the headmaster’s office at Andover receiving a formal job offer, which I accepted. I reported to my W.P.A. board in the early spring of 1989, just months before the Mapplethorpe controversy erupted. So, one year at Andover turned into almost 10, before President Richard Levin lured me down to Yale.
Rail: And now you’ve been at Yale for 15 years. What was Levin’s stated priority when you first arrived at the Yale University Art Gallery in 1998?
Reynolds: President Levin had commenced a master-planning process for the entire Yale arts area earlier in 1995, asking his then-group of deans and directors to begin considering what should be done to renovate a number of important historic buildings in downtown New Haven and perhaps also to recommend the construction of some new arts facilities in the same neighborhood. He also wanted suggestions as to how Yale might best expand its arts curriculum and better enable its great art collections to become more readily and fully accessible. He was very aware that most of the gallery’s holdings had never been photographed, were mostly stored off campus, and had not been fully catalogued. In other words, there was a lot of work that needed doing, not only to attend to the deferred maintenance of the gallery’s historic buildings, but also to the better stewardship of Yale’s rich artistic resources.
President Levin was well aware that I had worked well with my colleagues at Andover to renovate the Addison Gallery’s historic building, fully document its collections, and broadly expand its exhibition, publication, and educational programs, making them readily accessible not only to Andover students and faculty members, but also to those who were members of neighboring public schools and the greater audiences of active learners, artists, and art appreciators residing in the Boston area and beyond. My main concern in coming to Yale was whether I could quickly learn how to master directing a much larger institution that was comprised of many more collecting departments and a much larger staff and educational constituency than I had ever worked with before. After all, all of my previous jobs and successes had been achieved with small, adroit, and nimble staffs that were essentially the size of some of the sports teams I had captained long ago—collegial groups of people where everyone knew each other and their capabilities well, and played very well together. At Yale, I knew my most important work at hand was not just to help forge a strong artistic and educational vision for the gallery’s future; just as importantly, I was going to have to identify the strongest leaders already extant on the gallery’s staff and bond them into a leadership team, to which I could delegate and entrust a lot of important work that I would be nuts to attempt on my own. Happily, such an able and capable group of colleagues willingly joined with me to form a core management team and tackle the large amount of work that faced us.
In working at Yale now for 15 years, as our staff and teaching museum has doubled in size, I have learned a lot about good hiring practices from observing the quality of leaders President Levin has continuously brought into our learning community. It should also be known that our President’s wife, Jane Levin, leads Yale’s highly regarded Directed Studies program for freshmen and regularly brings her classes to the gallery for direct engagement with original works of art and the gallery’s curators and educators. When her students are reading Homer, they’re brought into the gallery to look at Greek vases and sculptures; when reading Roman history, they come again to contemplate Roman art and the marble busts and bronze coins that well document its long line of emperors and cultural aspirations. When they’re reading Dante, they return to ponder Italian Renaissance paintings. When confronting modern literature, they feast on the rich holdings of the gallery’s Société Anonyme Collection. And so it goes, on and on. In fact, if a university is fortunate enough to have a “first couple” who are personally committed to the value of the arts, and then you join such exemplars to a very talented museum staff and a fully committed governing board, you can’t easily go wrong.
Rail: So while you were out raising money to renovate the gallery’s buildings and to also expand the care and use of its collections, you were also busy recruiting the right personnel to expand such resources and programs?
Reynolds: Yes, and what is most heartening now is that we are close to realizing Yale’s entire arts-area master plan. Only new School of Drama facilities remain to be designed and built to conclude this big undertaking. And it has been an undertaking that took great coordination of all the arts deans and directors, their staffs, and university facilities-planners to figure out who was going to proceed with different individual projects at different times, and who was going to move people and/or collections around while certain buildings were being renovated.
The fact that we had to collaborate fully in realizing multiple facilities projects caused us to meet together regularly and thus better connect our disciplines of knowledge and artistic practice in a more imaginative fashion. So, it should be said that this long and at times excruciating planning process has been a very healthy thing. It took all of us arts leaders and many of our staff members out of our normal comfort zones and created a more cross-disciplinary sense of awareness and purpose for what has now been accomplished and what remains to be explored further.
Another thing that’s been a great pleasure for this teaching museum was to invite six regional college and university museums (Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Mount Holyoke, Williams, Oberlin, and Smith) into a collaborative project, funded by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, beginning in the spring of 2010. Directors, curators, and faculty members visited the gallery to broadly survey our collections, request loans, and create a series of experimental exhibitions from which their colleagues could teach a class that might not otherwise be possible to offer at their respective colleges. This approach is in harmony with the term “Indian Giver,” so wonderfully described in the first chapter of Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, a term that is often derogatory for those who never came to understand that none of us really ever own something forever. There is great satisfaction to be had in a full and circular sharing of all the gifts that life brings forth as we journey through it and then pass on. I don’t want to sound too dramatic in stating this principle, but in fact a lot of people who donate art to museums are mighty unhappy when they find their beloved treasures often simply being entombed in storage, seldom to be seen, enjoyed, and made available for learning.
Rail: I couldn’t agree more. Last question: what is it, in your experience, in the particular role of an artist who becomes a curator, scholar, or museum director that makes him or her different than others?
Reynolds: I believe that to become an effective leader, one has to have a great passion for and a clear understanding of art and the creative nature of the institution one is directing, be it an art museum, a dance company, a repertory theater, a publication, a school of art, one of drama, or of music. If you don’t have that basic artistic knowledge and passion well in hand to begin with, I think you’re really hampered and not likely to succeed. But when it comes to administering and fundraising, much of this work is about devoting yourself to spending a lot of time observing other people and listening to them in order to discover what their values and ideas are and what they know, care about, and would enjoy supporting. A constant attention to what other people think and know gains any leader a special kind of practical knowledge that is essential to becoming a capable and well-respected administrator. And a good deal of such knowledge can also be gleaned from what I was taught by my mentors to call “walkabout management,” something I never seem to be able to do as much of as I would like to do.
Let me add that there is no reason that relationships with donors can’t be as richly educational and emotionally satisfying as those one often enjoys with one’s students and staff colleagues. In fact, they should be, for what I am describing is simply the importance of creating strong and meaningful relationships with people possessing many different interests and often greatly differing backgrounds and resources than yours, whose knowledge and support may readily come to the fore if the relationships you establish are genuine and then well-stewarded. So much of what proves to be worthwhile in life seems to flow from establishing a good measure of respect and a consideration for others, upon which trust can then be built and mutually satisfying goals can be achieved.
For example, by helping a person truly understand the mission and purpose of your artist-oriented publication and how it functions and is financed, you are actually getting them to the point where they may wish to participate as a donor. And if you do this well, the thoughtfulness and effort that goes into fundraising, be it for a thousand dollars or a million dollars, is essentially the same. I have learned this from long experience, as for some individual donors the gift of a thousand dollars may in fact represent a much bigger personal commitment than a million dollars given by another donor of entirely different economic means. For some reason, not all directors and development officers seem to fully understand this dynamic when stewarding the many relationships they are responsible for maintaining in a healthy fashion. This said, it is also a fact that people generally have more confidence in gifting large sums of money to organizations and institutions that they feel are capable of surviving healthily beyond the stages of infancy and adolescence.
In that regard, raising money for Yale or Andover, which everyone knows have been around for a good while and are destined to endure, is much easier to do than what you are now doing on behalf of the Rail. But if I were to be young again and living in Brooklyn, rather than in San Francisco, I would be willing to work just as hard as you are, and perhaps even more, although that is hard to imagine!
Rail: It sounds like you really want my job. [Laughs.]
Reynolds: Maybe I do. Be careful!