June 14, 2010

James N. Wood, my first museum client, rest in peace

Ten years ago, Cheryl and I were hired by the Art Institute of Chicago to study its audiences. We also studied its director, Jim Wood, and learned volumes. This morning, I was saddened to read of his unexpected death on Friday at age 69.

Many others knew him better and longer than I did, so I have little to add to what’s being said around the field (for example, here and here). But I don’t want to miss the chance to remember my first museum client and the subtle change he underwent as he got to know the institution’s audiences in a new way.

Patrician, penetrating, and affable, Jim led the Art Institute through an unusual combination of pragmatism and idealism. (The latter is on display in his chapter on “The Authorities of the American Art Museum” in Whose Muse? Art Museums and The Public Trust.) In fact, he had already been leading the Art Institute for two decades when we began our project, and he didn’t seem to be expecting to learn much new from the research we were about to conduct. I saw flashes of impatience during the first meeting at which we presented preliminary findings. “The art speaks for itself,” he said, gesturing professorially down the table, explaining a widely-known truth to us newcomers.

But that’s not quite how the museum’s audiences saw it, and over the next eighteen months of qualitative and quantitative research, Cheryl and I tried to convey their perspective to him and to the staff and advisory board overseeing our work. We presented every report (and there were half a dozen along the way) several times to different committees and staff groups. Jim was there every time, sometimes hearing the same presentation two or three times. ...

Over those months, his questions shifted from perfunctory to curious, and eventually to probing, even philosophical. He endorsed the findings in ringing terms to his senior team. Changes were made, including interpretive changes that helped those objects speak, and to different kinds of visitors. Our initial project led to others, and we were still working with the museum when he announced his departure in 2004. (As most of you know, he went on to lead the Getty Trust.)

If he had learned from his audiences, I had learned from him — about the relationship between scholarship and leadership, about how money works in the art world, about the creative tension between personal passion and institutional breadth. Most of all, I learned that there can be good reasons why venerable institutions are slow to change, reasons having to do with the need to balance new information with instinct and intrinsic purpose.

I agree with Judith Dobrzynski that the Getty should take this opportunity to rethink its structure and direction fundamentally. And I know that some portion of the blame for the Getty’s continuing troubles has to fall on Jim. But I also know that, at the time he was hired to succeed scandal-plagued Barry Munitz as the Getty’s chief, he was, in every sense, the smartest choice.

Please share your own recollections below.



2 Comments »
Bob Eskridge — June 15, 2010

Anybody who worked with Jim for any length of time couldn’t help but be impressed by the greatness of the man in every dimension. He was a visionary planner and strategist, and he was one of the most ethical human beings the museum field has seen in the past two decades. I know the Getty is reeling, since they’re also absent a museum director, and now with the leader of the Trust itself. It’s a real blow.

I remember the first time I met you, Peter, was in a conference room when Jim introduced you by saying that over the last 20 years he’d had many consultants, but this was the first work that he’d experienced that he really had faith in. It was a great compliment to you, and well deserved.

So I hope his legacy will live on in some powerful way in the future.

Cheryl Slover-Linett — June 17, 2010

What I loved about Jim was his fearlessness. It can be hard to have consultants tell you things about your audiences that you don't want to hear. Though I know some of our findings took him aback, Jim was steadfast in his wanting to know. We had some healthy debates about what to do in the museum to address visitors' needs, but we never doubted Jim's commitment to having a rich, shared understanding of what those needs were.

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