John Buchanan dies of cancer at 58

By Bob Hicks

John Buchanan, the flamboyant former director of the Portland Art Museum, died on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, after a struggle with cancer. He was 58.

John Buchanan, 1953-2011Buchanan left the Portland museum in 2005 to become director of the much larger Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which encompasses the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the nearby Legion of Honor. He was director there from February 2006 until his death. Here is Kenneth Baker’s obituary for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, who was the Portland museum’s consulting curator of European art during Buchanan’s years here, said Saturday morning that it was apparent to his friends and his wife, Lucy Matthews Buchanan, that Buchanan’s days were short when he told Lucy before Christmas that he wouldn’t be returning to work.

For John, such a thing was unthinkable. He was a tireless worker, a man who was energized by the details and occasional high drama of the museum world, and who loved the art of the deal. Nothing stimulated him so much as creating and selling a vision about the world of art.

In 1999 I watched him negotiating in St. Petersburg, Russia, with state political leaders and museum officials such as Mikhael Piotrovsky, the canny director of the State Hermitage Museum, and Vladimir Gusev, director of the State Russian Museum, over loans for what would become perhaps the Portland museum’s greatest triumph in recent years, its expansive exhibition Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family. Pierre Merle, the droll and buttoned-down Stroganoff Foundation lawyer who was also key to the negotiations, told me at the time that few people anywhere could have pulled the thing off. “John could be a diplomat,” Merle said. “He’s amazing. He should be in the State Department.”

Buchanan’s high-rolling salesman style energized a Portland museum that had been in a deep funk. Perhaps most importantly for the city in the long run, he persuaded Portland’s moneyed elite and its next levels of potential donors that it took money to get things done. Suddenly, thanks to the Buchanans (John and Lucy were an inseparable team in Portland) $10,000 to the museum or the symphony or the opera wasn’t a big gift. A hundred thousand dollars — even a million dollars — was. In that sense, John and Lucy prodded Portland to grow up, and for that, every nonprofit organization in the city owes them thanks.

Still, to a lot of people, John’s style was unseemly for the reserved Pacific Northwest. To them he was a huckster, a showman, a lot brash and a little vulgar. He made a lot of money and he spent a lot of money — the museum’s physical expansion, with its funding and design controversies, came on his watch — and to them that seemed not right. Maybe his biggest sin, though, was abandoning Portland for the brighter lights of San Francisco. Buchanan’s great stain against the Northwest character? He had ambition.

When San Francisco hired Buchanan away from Portland I wrote this in an article for The Oregonian:

The story of how the Buchanans shook up Portland’s arts scene is well-known. They raised money like no one else had even imagined –$125 million in 10 years for renovation and expansion.

In the process they transformed it from a largely academic institution into one that brought hordes of general audiences through the doors. And they showed other cultural institutions that historically tightfisted Oregon could be persuaded to play a much bigger money game.

Professionally, John Buchanan is a child of Thomas Hoving, the legendary director who brought hustle, marketing and a blockbuster mentality to the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Mixing elitism and populism with the shrewd instincts of a master politician, Buchanan never met a potential donor he didn’t think he could charm. He and Lucy promoted the museum’s cause relentlessly, and it paid off.

The Buchanans’ Barnum & Bailey act hasn’t pleased everyone. Staff morale has often been low. Some arts insiders have sharply criticized the museum’s populist blockbuster mentality, arguing that big-draw shows take too much energy away from other aspects of the museum. Others have complained that the museum caters mostly to the rich, discouraging average citizens with high ticket prices.

Certainly the museum has had its blockbusters in the Buchanan years, beginning with the massive “Imperial Tombs of China” in 1996, a show that attracted 430,000 visitors, and following in 1998 with the scarabs and mummies of “Splendors of Ancient Egypt.”

But while the museum has had its share of crowd-pleasers, from the Western art of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell to the princely art and artifacts of 2000’s “Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family,” it’s also important to note that the blockbuster shows have often been aimed at the masses more in the marketing than in the art they’ve exhibited. The Stroganoff show, the current “Hesse: A Princely German Collection” and others that have been given the big sell also have been exhibitions of high artistic, art-historical and academic interest.

At least as important has been the way that shows such as Stroganoff, Hesse, 2001’s “Empire of the Sultans” and 2002’s “The Stuff of Dreams” have expanded the museum’s reach into some significant international waters. If China and Egypt opened the doors wide for mass-market shows, what they let in after them has often been of high quality.

The Buchanan years have internationalized the Portland museum in quieter ways, too, from the acquisition of works by such masters as Cezanne and Van Dyck (when the museum bought Van Dyck’s 1623/24 portrait of Vatican Cardinal Domenico Rivarola in 1999 it was the first time in more than 30 years it had bought an Old Master painting) to the museum’s involvement as one of a select number of American institutions in FRAME, the French Regional American Museums Exchange, an innovative partnership that creates original exhibitions in the two countries.

Buchanan wasn’t the perfect museum director, but he was the right director for Portland at the right time. As a journalist I was aware of his strengths and his flaws. Personally, I liked him. I knew when he was on the sell. I also knew his belief in what he was selling was genuine. And I liked the way that he and Lucy ruffled feathers on the staid old backs of Puddletown.

The last time I saw John was in June 2010 when I dropped in to the de Young to see an exhibition of Impressionist masterworks from the Musee d’Orsay. We talked in his office for a little over an hour, and it seemed evident that, as busy as life had been for him in Portland, the stakes were very much higher in San Francisco. One thing he was glad about, he noted wryly: San Francisco had just undergone its own massive building project before he arrived, and whatever else he might have to deal with, he’d never have to go through a big capital campaign again. He’d signed on to run an art museum, he said, not a construction project. For John, it was all about the art — bringing together great stuff, and bringing people in the doors to see it.

One final note. A few years ago, in an interview, a San Francisco journalist asked Buchanan who he turned to in tough times. “My wife,” he replied. “She is the smartest and most beautiful person I know.”

He meant that. To people who knew them in Portland, it’s hard to think of John without also thinking of Lucy, and the other way around. They were a team, in the completest of senses. Our best wishes to Lucy as she carries on without him.