Davies, Govan, Cuno: Museum directors remember James Wood


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James N. Wood, who died Friday at age 69, was a leader of museum leaders.

Along with directing particular institutions over the years, including the St. Louis Museum of Art (1975-1980), the Art Institute of Chicago (1980-2004) and, from 2007 until his death, the Getty Trust in Los Angeles, Wood was known within the art world for serving as a highly principled model for and mentor to other museum directors.


He was a longtime member of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. And he co-founded the Harvard Program for Art Museum Directors with James Cuno, then head of the university’s art museums, in the 1990s. The program brought museum directors from different cities to campus to take seminars on business and poetry, exchange ideas on art, unplug and recharge.

Cuno’s 2003 book, “Whose Muse?” came out of this program and included an essay by Wood exploring the very purpose of art museums. He wrote about the various ways in which museums can establish the authority and leadership “essential to gaining and justifying the public’s trust.”

To hear more about Wood’s own leadership, The Times talked to three art museum directors who knew him over the years: Hugh Davies at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Michael Govan at the L.A. County Museum of Art; and James Cuno, who succeeded Wood as the director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Their comments are below.
Hugh Davies, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego:

I’ve known Jim through the [Assn. of Art Museum Directors] for 25 years but got to know him much better through the Harvard museum directors program. I was enormously impressed and relieved when he was appointed president of the Getty. I really felt that the Getty’s previous leadership lacked substance and credibility. Bringing James Wood to L.A., having someone of his knowledge and background, instantly changed the whole tenor of the situation.

If you had to pick the two most important museum directors of the last 20 years, it would probably be Jim Wood and Philippe de Montebello [of the Metropolitan Museum of Art]. But Philippe, as brilliant as he was, as talented a leader as he was, wasn’t really a mentor to folks. He rarely came to AAMD meetings, for instance. When you met with him, he was very imperious, while Jim was very down-to-earth and unassuming but also very thoughtful, intelligent and consistent.

Michael Govan, Los Angeles County Museum of Art:
James Wood and Anne d’Harnoncourt [of the Philadelphia Museum of Art] were the two museum directors that people really looked up to -- they were the ones who made it safe for people like me to go into the museum world. They had a kind of clarity and elegance about their sense of purpose, what they were doing and how they were doing it. They were leaders, that was clear: They composed themselves as leaders, they spoke of themselves as leaders. At the same time, they were incredibly nice and generous. I know it sounds stupid or simple, but it was that combination of leadership and personal generosity that made so many people want to work for them over such long tenures.

James Cuno, Art Institute of Chicago:
Jim realized his vision for the Art Institute -- refining the collection, developing a robust, international exhibition program and building membership -- with terrific success. It wasn’t just that Jim laid the groundwork for doubling the size of the museum, but he renovated every inch of the museum that he didn’t construct.


He was also committed to important national and international exhibitions. When the thaw between the U.S. and the Soviet Union became a reality, he and Philippe de Montebello of the Met camped out in Helsinki, Finland, waiting to get to St. Petersburg to develop with the Hermitage an exhibition of loans to come to New York and Chicago. They were the first American museums to do so.

Jim was also very good at building a staff. And if there’s any measure of that, it’s that in the last few years, six or seven curators he has hired have gone on to be directors of other museums — like Larry Feinberg going to Santa Barbara, Jay Xu to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and Neal Benezra to SFMOMA. He identified talent, and provided them with an inspiring example.

-- Jori Finkel