Sunday, January 8, 2012

John E. Buchanan (1953-2011)

John Buchanan ran four institutions during his career: The Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences in Peoria, Illinois, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis Tennessee, The Portland Art Museum in Oregon and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.  During his tenure at the Dixon and in Portland he affected our lives greatly and for the better.


At the end of the 1980’s my wife, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel was working at Rosenberg & Stiebel when she got a phone call from John, who was at the time Director of the Dixon.  She had been recommended to John by a curator at her former institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to curate an exhibition of Sèvres Porcelain.  She did not believe that a small institution such as the Dixon with no track record for this kind of exhibition could get the type of loans that one would need to do a serious show of the French Royal Porcelain Factory, so she said, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”  

John would not take “No” for an answer and said, “There must have been some exhibition you wanted to do when you were at the Met and couldn’t.  That is the exhibition we are doing in Memphis. What exhibition are we doing?”  Out of that encounter came “Louis XV & Madame de Pompadour:  A Love Affair with Style” at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens and also at Rosenberg & Stiebel in New York.  We got loans from major museums, such as The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Cleveland Museum of Art and The J. Paul Getty Museum to name a few.  

There were also a number of very illustrious private collectors who contributed.  By the way, in the context of this scholarly exhibition, John got those important Sèvres objects that he wanted in the first place.  When we got off the plane in Memphis to attend the opening there, on a hill just beyond the airport was a huge billboard announcing the exhibition.  At the opening there were well prepared impersonators of Louis XV and Mme de Pompadour who went on to visit various locations in town.  Thus, was the showmanship of John Buchanan.

John and Lucy Buchanan
John moved on to become Director of the Portland Art Museum where he woke up a moribund institution as well as the potential donors to the arts in the community, helping not just his institution but also many others in town.  Aside from his ebullient personality, he brought important international exhibitions to Portland.   His wife, Lucy Buchanan, was Development Director and a major force in raising funds to do these shows. 

The next step was originating international projects. In 1997 he asked Penelope to curate an exhibition about the Stroganoff Family of Russia but she felt her responsibility, at that time, was to get our son into college.  But when she called John a year of so later to say hello he was still looking for someone to do that show, Hunter had by then been accepted at college so she accepted the job.   

The show opened in 2000 and there was national press, over 300,000 in attendance and the entire Portland community was engaged in Russian programming.  Demonstrating John’s political savvy he had the Director of the Hermitage, both State Senators as well as the Governor of Oregon and the Mayor of Portland on the rostrum for the opening. So began Penelope’s 10-year stint as curator at the Portland Art Museum.

John, Penelope, Lucy and their designer, our friend from Penelope’s Metropolitan years, Clifford LaFontaine made up the team that did shows with Russia, France, The Netherlands, Germany and Italy in Portland.  John was always enthusiastic and pushing for the best and most interesting show possible.  Bolstered by Lucy, John was always optimistic and positive without any show of doubt.  Though criticized by some for his too popular exhibitions that snobbish critics and art historians felt were not serious enough, he brought a new public into the Portland Art Museum that were hungry for his dishes.  

I stayed at the Heathman Hotel on one occasion, just a stone’s throw from the museum, and the elevator man, who had no idea that I had any relationship to the museum said to me in praise of the director.  “He allowed me to see a Van Gogh, I never thought I would be able to see one.”  This was in response to a picture on loan to the Museum.  For me that is what a museum’s job is to expose the public to what they do not know and hopefully make it interesting enough to bring the public in, and in the best of all possible worlds, come back. 

Lucy, Baroness Helene de Ludinghausen, and John
John and Landgraff von Hessen
John leading a donor group in Berlin
John inaugurating an exhibition
John with Guy Cugeval, Director of the Musee d'Orsay

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