Tag Archives: john buchanan

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.

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Birth of Impressionism, death of kings

Stéphane Mallarmé. 1876. Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Oil on canvas. 11 x 14 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.

By Bob Hicks

SAN FRANCISCO — Two clichés come to mind today: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

I wouldn’t call my attitude toward Impressionist painting contempt, exactly. Far from it: This is great stuff, and you’d have to be a fool not to recognize that, even if, as in my case, your attention has been elsewhere of late.

I confess to having had a touch of fatigue, a sense of been-there-seen-that, a feeling that yesterday’s artistic revolution had become today’s wallpaper, the essence of nice. (Another cliché pops into my head: “guilt by association.” I gradually came to undervalue the real thing, I think, on the evidence of innumerable encounters with contemporary paintings in which a sort of generic, Impressionist-lite fuzzing of the image attempts to obscure the artists’ inability to be compelling or precise.)

Birth of Venus.  1879.  William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905).  Oil on canvas, 9 ft. 10 1/8 inches x 7 ft. 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé LewandowskiThank you, Musee d’Orsay and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, for shaking me out of that nonsense. Birth of Impressionism, the show of masterworks from the Paris museum on display through Sept. 6 at the Fine Arts Museums’ de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, reinvigorates the Impressionistic moment by putting it in the context of its own time and the art world that existed when it knocked on the door and was found unsuitable company for dinner with the establishment.

That historical grounding had been absent from my thinking for a while. It reminded me of why the Impressionist movement was groundbreaking, and reawakened my fondness for works whose value should have been self-evident. (A followup exhibition from the d’Orsay, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, opens Sept. 25 and runs through Jan. 18, 2011.)

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It’s mourning. Do you know where your weeping medieval alabasters are?

By Bob Hicks

Like “a troop of fairy-tale dwarfs turned to stone by an evil sorcerer” — or so Ken Johnson describes them in his review this morning in the New York Times — they march, mourning the death of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy (1371-1419). These 16-inch-tall alabaster carvings, which these days do most of their weeping at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon in France, have traversed time and the Atlantic for a tour of seven American museums. Their first stop is Medieval Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they’ve been since March and will stay through May 23.

mourner_75Johnson’s report caught my eye first for the gorgeous photo that the Times ran and then for the story’s mention that the tour was organized under the wing of FRAME (the French Regional and American Museum Exchange), the innovative organization of which the Portland Art Museum has been a leading and vigorous member. The almost forty alabaster carvings in The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures From the Court of Burgundy will move on to FRAME member museums in St. Louis, Dallas, Minneapolis, Los Angeles (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), San Francisco and Richmond — but not to Portland.

Why not?

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Friday Scatter: Remembering Izquierdo and Hoving

Manuel Izquierdo untitled self-portrait/Laura Russo Gallery

An arts scene is a movable feast, a passing parade of people and ideas. Today’s Portland is vastly different from the big town of the 1950s to the 1980s, when the scene was small and sometimes rowdy but seemed somehow containable, as if you could experience all of it if you tried hard enough.

Glazed terra cotta, early 1980s. Laura Russo Gallery Impossible to even think about that now, which must mean Portland’s evolving into a city at last.

A few dominant figures from that smaller but vigorous art scene remain, among them artists Mel Katz, George Johanson and Jack McClarty. They and others like the late Michele Russo, Sally Haley, Hilda Morris and Carl Morris (and even Mark Rothko, who fled Portland for New York as a young man) continue to exert a significant influence on the shape of art in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.

In whatever ways art here has morphed, it’s built on what these artists and others accomplished — and they, in turn, built on the work of even earlier artists such as the Runquist brothers, Maude Kerns, Amanda Snyder, C.S. Price and Charles Heaney.

Manuel Izquierdo mother and child, early 1950s. Laura Russo GalleryAnother big player in those midcentury years, sculptor and printmaker Manuel Izquierdo, died in July. Notable (like so many of his contemporaries) as a teacher as well as an artist, he was also one of the artists who connected the Northwest’s sometimes insular scene to international ideas. He was born in Madrid, left Spain during the Civil War, and spent most of his adult life in Portland. But he brought a European spirit with him.

Laura Russo Gallery has a memorial exhibition of Izquierdo’s work — most of it from the early 1950s through the 1980s — until Dec. 24. I have a review of it in the A&E section of this morning’s Oregonian; you can read it here. The O ran photos of several of Izquierdo’s more mature abstract sculptures. For a different look, I’m showing some of his other, smaller work here, including the self-portrait at top.


Thomas Hoving, the Indiana Jones of museum directors, died Thursday in New York at age 78. Randy Kennedy has a good obituary here in the New York Times.

Hoving's 1993 memoirs of his swashbuckling years at the MetHoving was a swashbuckler, a showman, a democratizer, maybe even something of a pirate. When he took over the great Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan in 1967, at the age of 35, he declared it moribund and set out to make it the most popular show in town.

To the extent that he succeeded — and he radically shifted things before leaving in 1977 — he helped establish the concept of the blockbuster exhibit and set a tone for a whole generation of museum directors: Certainly John Buchanan, former director of the Portland Art Museum and now running the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is a child of Hoving.

The Hoving style is out of fashion — you get the feeling that a lot of priests in the museum world don’t want their temples sullied with actual paying customers — but Hoving figured out a couple of key, simple things for which we can all be grateful: (a) great art is exciting; (b) the potential audience for great art is a lot bigger than the gatekeepers believe. That led, inevitably, to (c) if you make a Big Event out of it, you can get people knocking down the doors to get in.

The excesses and occasional inanities of the blockbuster style eventually put it in disrepute, and the current economic collapse has given it at least a temporary knockout punch: Museums are saving money by reconsidering what’s already in their collections, and in a lot of cases that’s a good thing.

But a couple of things got lost in the counterrevolution. First, Hoving really knew his art, and what he was selling was usually first-rate. Second, not all blockbusters are equal. A surprising number of “big” shows have also had a high level of historic, academic and aesthetic interest. The blockbuster was (and will be again: These things go in cycles) a style of presentation, not a definition of quality. That the style itself, regardless of content, offended a lot of people is … well, interesting.

I like this quote from Philippe de Montebello, Hoving’s successor at the Met, in Kennedy’s obituary for the Times: “People criticized him for his excesses, but you have to remember that it is not the timorous who climb life’s peaks. He has left us with a changed museum world.”


Thursday scatter: of foxes and hen houses, etc.

An egg crisis is ravaging the hen house.

They’re disappearing.

And the foxes are shocked, shocked.

While the hens bemoan the loss of their little ones — several survivors have been running around crying that the sky is falling — the foxes have gathered the whole barnyard to declare that Something Must Be Done. Trust them: We Must Act Now.

The head fox has declared that the true victims are the foxes themselves, who have been cruelly deprived of their stockpile of eggs. To avert catastrophe, the foxes’ hoards must be replenished: The hens must lay 700 billion new eggs, right now. The farmer, blinking owlishly, agrees. One wise old fox, who yearns to live in the farm house, has declared that he will Suspend All Other Activities while he Helps Find a Solution. That solution will be found by foxes, and foxes alone. And the solution is that the Hens Will Provide.

Meanwhile, no omelettes this morning. And for music lovers, the rooster doesn’t much feel like crowing, either. Where’s Aesop when we need him? Where’s George Orwell?


NEW GUY AT THE GUGGENHEIM: Those who can curate, curate. Those who can curate well, lead museums. At least, that’s the mini-trend among major museums in New York.

Following the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s appointment earlier this month of European tapestry curator Thomas P. Campbell to replace the venerated Philippe de Montebello as director, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has named Richard Armstrong, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, as the Guggenheim‘s next director.

Like Campbell, Armstrong rose in the ranks on the strength of his curatorial qualities, not his showmanship: His specialty is contemporary art, a good fit for the Goog. And the ever-busy Carol Vogel, in her report for the New York Times, suggests that after years of expansion in Bilbao, Venice, Berlin and (coming in 2013) Abu Dhabi, Armstrong and the Guggenheim are ready to shift their focus back to New York. Another good report comes from The Art Newspaper.

Is it possible that sober financial times are bringing more prudential museum leaders? De Montebello, of course, has combined prudence, measured daring and a brilliant commitment to the art for more than 30 years at the Met, following the mercurial reign of supershowman Thomas Hoving. At the Guggenheim, Armstrong will follow high-rolling Thomas Krens. And when the Portland Art Museum‘s Hoving-like director John Buchanan headed south to take over the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the museum board replaced him with Brian Ferriso and charged Ferriso to quiet the waters and keep things on an even keel.

The question is, will an even keel fill the cruise ship with customers? Is generating excitement gauche, or is it part of what a museum is about? To what extent does a museum exist for insiders, and to what extent does it have a duty to appeal to the general public?

These are uneasy times, and leading a major — or modest — museum is no easy task. To Armstrong, Campbell, Ferriso and their compatriots, then: Good luck, be wise, balance well, take risks, and don’t forget the public.


HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SOMEDAY: Someday Lounge, that is. The Old Town Portland night spot and hub for interesting alternative arts has turned two and is celebrating with a bunch of events this weekend. The one that catches our eye is the premiere of Pig Roast and Tank of Fish, a documentary about Portland’s Chinatown (which is more or less where the Someday coexists) to be shown at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28. Here’s what the Lounge has to say:

Portlander Ivy Lin directed and produced Pig Roast & Tank of Fish. “I’ve always wondered why our Chinatown went from being the second largest in the U.S. to almost like a ghost town. It’s in the heart of downtown, with that beautiful gate and garden and nothing much else,” says Lin. “Earlier this year, 70 Asians showed up at a city council meeting to testify against the the siting of another homeless shelter on Block 25 in Chinatown. I was not even involved with the Chinese community then, but I was very moved and this event became the inspiration for this project.”

This documentary is the first-ever motion picture to acknowledge the history/legacy of Chinatown, Portland’s oldest neighborhood where the pioneers of many ethnic communities once called “home.” It includes some rarely seen footage of ongoing cultural/social activities behind closed doors…Chinatown is not dead!

See you there, Friends of Art Scatter.