October 18, 2010

Founding Director of Johnson Museum Dies in Rhode Island

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Prof. Emeritus Thomas Whittlesey Leavitt, history of art — founder of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and director of the museum from 1973 to 1991 — died Friday in Sanderson, R.I, according to the University. Born in Boston in 1930, Leavitt’s academic career showed a strong preference for history and art. He earned a masters degree in art history of the 19th and 20th centuries from Boston University and a Ph.D. in history of American painting and sculpture from Harvard.Leavitt began his career as a director of various museums in Pasadena and Santa Barbara, Calif. He was named director of Cornell’s A.D. White Museum of Art in 1968. Almost immediately after coming to the University, he began work assessing the possibility of building a combination of a museum and a teaching facility, forming the initial plans for the Johnson Museum. Leavitt began working with I.M. Pei & Partners architecture firm to choose the current location at the top of Libe Slope, which had been the previous site of a classroom building and parking lots. Leavitt worked for five years with the firm to produce the current building, with an emphasis on efficient space and engagement of nature, according to the Johnson Museum website.The finished building, with its unique pillars and broad planes of glass, was awarded the American Institute of Architects Honor Award in 1975.According to the University, Leavitt served on numerous national architecture boards during his career, and was the first director appointed to lead the Museum Program of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1971. He was also president of the Association of Art Museum Directors from 1977 to 1978. “Tom was a superb director, and what he did here has been the solid foundation for everything since then,” Franklin W. Robinson, director of the Johnson Museum, told the Cornell Chronicle. “He was also a man of kindness and civility, and it was a privilege to know him, and to be his successor in this great museum.”

Original Author: Brendan Doyle