November 17, 2010

Johnson Museum Director to Retire After 19 Years

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Director of the Johnson Museum Frank Robinson can barely contain his giddy excitement, his words racing over each other like speeding cars along a highway. After all, he’s at work.“This is fascinating!” he exclaims — yet again — before explaining, in a matter of seconds, the origin, meaning and methodology behind Douglas and Mike Starn’s Structure of Thought, part of the Johnson’s new gallery, An Introduction to Trees & Other Ramifications: Branches in Nature and Culture.           Bounding joyfully through the exhibit, Robinson reveals an intimate knowledge of each piece, somehow expressing more and more enthusiasm at each stop.“I mean just look at this!” “Isn’t it incredible?” “Now this is really amazing.”After serving as the Johnson’s director through 19 years and an estimated 300 to 400 shows — not to mention hundreds of additional shows he worked on during 16 years at other art museums — Robinson has announced his plan to retire next summer, despite an ebullience surpassing that of most freshmen.Robinson’s initial retirement plans were interrupted in 2008, when the financial crisis prompted a 30-percent cut in University funding for the Johnson. Robinson said it was “very important to me to not leave [the Johnson] a mess,” so he remained director until now.“I always thought I would retire at 70, but I wanted to make sure … that our finances had stabilized first,” said the 71-year-old Robinson.“Now looked like a pretty good time to hand it over to someone else,” after the museum had recovered from the funding cutback, Robinson said, through donations, grants from foundations and the laying off of four staff members.Robinson added he wanted to see the Johnson through the construction of its new wing, which is scheduled for completion in 2011.Robinson said the museum has received nearly $22 million in funding for the wing — which, he said, would expand the Johnson’s gallery size by 25 percent and approximately double the number of works on display. The funding came entirely from outside sources. He added that the wing also has a $3 million endowment for staff and upkeep, “so it’s not a burden for the future.”In addition, Robinson said, he “didn’t want people saying, ‘When the hell is that guy going to retire?’”It does not seem likely that many people would have expressed such a sentiment.On Tuesday, Robinson received the Cogan Tourism Award, given to individuals “who have made remarkable contributions to local tourism” in Ithaca, such as the award’s eponymous Howard Cogan, inventor of the “Ithaca is Gorges” t-shirt.Robinson will also be honored Friday at the National Philanthropy Day for Outstanding Professional Achievement in Non-Profit Leadership sponsored by the Finger Lakes Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.In his Nov. 1 State of the University Address, President David Skorton honored Robinson in announcing his retirement — the only faculty or staff member that was thus honored, according to Mary Neumer, the Johnson museum’s Director of Development.    Neumer said Robinson was “given a standing ovation for a good minute.”  “He’s definitely in the same category of [former Cornell Presidents] Frank Rhodes or Hunter Rawlings — that level of iconic status,” Neumer said.Staff and students who have gotten to know Robinson often paused when asked to describe him, seeming to search for words that appropriately channel their feelings. Robinson was “enormously friendly,” said Sarah Humphreville ’10, former president of the History of Art Majors Society. “He really cares about who you are as a student … [He] was always really encouraging and really excited by everything.”In a typical story about Robinson, Humphreville said that on parent’s weekend, her dad “met [Robinson] while on a run” and the two “decided they were going to be friends.”Andrew Weislogel, an associate curator and master teacher at the Johnson, said Robinson has “boundless energy.”  “Everyone you will talk to will talk about his enthusiasm,” Weislogel said, adding Robinson has a “really high sense of personal and institutional accountability.”Prof. John Henderson, anthropology, said Robinson  “makes you feel he wants you to come in and use the collection, rather than the sense that he’s doing a favor for you. It’s genuine.”“He’s a man of great …” said Andrea Potochniak, the Johnson’s publications and publicity coordinator, searching for the next word before simply adding “ness.”“He’s really taken that museum and put it on the map,” Mary Neumer said. Neumer called Robinson “tireless,” saying “he has more energy than you and me put together, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”She added Robinson has increased the number of visitors to the Johnson by about 30 percent during his tenure, citing his work quarter-carding for shows outside of Olin Library.  “How many directors do you see on campus doing that?” she said.Neumer fondly recalled going on the road with Robinson to obtain alumni funding, calling Robinson a “phenomenal fundraiser.”But she also emphasized his passion for art, recalling how she has seen the “brilliant, brilliant man … cry when he talks about works of art in front of alumni,” particularly when he is speaking of the Dutch painter Rembrant and Rembrant’s life story. Robinson said “a museum is where everything comes together,” a “meeting place for so many different aspects of the world.”He said a university museum should be a place where one can learn “about every aspect of the world,” saying this goes “right back to Ezra, any person, any field.”  “It’s what a liberal arts education is about: to find yourself by losing yourself,” he said.Robinson said this is “why I love being in a university museum,” and why he has “spent my life on a campus.” The son of a Brown University professor and the cousin and grandson of art museum directors, Robinson met his wife, Margaret, when he offered her a seat at an art history lecture in Harvard, where the two were art history graduate students. Robinson joked this gave his future wife of 40 years a “false impression of me as kind and charitable.” The two went on to have one son, who works in computer design.After directing the art museums of Williams College from 1975 to 1979 and that of the Rhode Island School of Design from 1979 to 1992, Robinson was offered his current job directing the Johnson.Over his time at Cornell, Robinson said one of his fondest memories was an exhibit of Greek and Roman coins by Prof. Andy Ramage, history of art. Robinson said the gallery did not draw very many people, which in “a city museum would have been disastrous.” But because “every time I passed by, the gallery always had a different student looking hard at the exhibit and studying [it],” Robinson called the exhibit a “huge success.” For him, “that’s what we’re here for … If people study our shows closely, we’ve done it. That’s my idea of a blockbuster. That’s what we’re about.”Still, after nearly two decades at Cornell, Robinson lights up most when talking about the Johnson’s future.On a tour of the fifth floor Asian art gallery currently being renovated, Robinson chatted fervently with the construction workers, who asked him how his trip to New York City was and why he “never stops.” Carpenter foreman Bob Swartout said Robinson has “treated us like royalty,” to which the ever-modest Robinson protested, “you guys are the ones who make this happen.”“It’s just spectacular,” he said, gesticulating avidly to an empty gallery filled with nothing more than construction equipment, blank walls and empty cases. He appeared to stop for just a split second, hazel eyes peering through his thick gray frames and out over the Cayuga Lake region spread out below.The moment passed almost before it could be registered. “But why don’t we look over here,” he said, disappearing around a corner.

Original Author: Jeff Stein