Before I get into this, I just wanted to mention how long I’ve wanted to do this interview. My grandfather is someone I have looked up to since the day he volunteered to look for bugs with me in his backyard. His humble and kind presence is admirable- he is an encourager, leader, and a good friend. Although barely touched on during this interview, his resilience when things have gotten tough is something I wish to learn. Without further ado- an interview with an art Museum Director.
Chapter One: College
Tell me what your college experience was like
I went to Williams College. I liked the small college atmosphere and didn’t apply to any big universities. I had a lot of very close relations with classmates and professors which were very affecting.
Starting out, I wanted to become a doctor, but realized the only thing that got me through my science classes were the lab drawings. I finally realized that I was destined to be an artist. So, I decided to take art history courses and eventually had my own student exhibition in my school.
I was a member of Delta Upsilon which had a well-rounded membership. The captain of football and basketball team were in it and honors society members too, but it also had its share of animals. Every weekend we’d have parties and the animals would tear the place apart!
My junior year, I was an advisor, so I was living with freshmen. At the time, it was an all male school- now its co-ed. We would take road trips to other colleges to meet women. We would see how quickly we could get back and forth to Skidmore. 45 minutes!
My sophomore year, I met Gayle (my now wife) who went to Skidmore. We dated all through college. Because she was an artist, we used to paint on our dates. We did anything to avoid the wild parties at my frat. They called it the “D U Zoo”. Some of the frat members are in jail now.. and never finished.
One year, I was a cheerleader amongst my frat brothers. You know- we would form pyramids and such.. it was really goofy.
Chapter Two: Career
What was your first job outside of college? How did it lead you into your career path?
I received an Andover Fellowship and took a gap year. I taught photography, painting, three-dimensional design, and coached the football team (even though I wasn’t a football jock). They gave me free housing and food, so I was able to save up money. During the fellowship, I wanted to become an artist and had a couple of exhibitions. The school ended up buying one of my sculptures!
After the fellowship ended, I decided to apply for grad-school. I applied to Yale, which had the best studio art grad program at the time, and also applied to NYU, to do art history. I did not get into Yale- but got into NYU, so I did the art history graduate program.
This was the fork in the road for me. This program led me to become a museum person.
When I was at NYU, in the late 60’s, many of the professors were from Germany. They didn’t believe in colored slides- all of the slides were in black and white and they never brought us to museums. It was odd. So we were learning about art history but never got to see the art for ourselves.
Metropolitan Museum Of Art
During my graduate program, I discovered the MET had a training course and this changed my life. I truly discovered museum work here. If I couldn’t make artwork myself, I could work with other great works made by other people. The MET is the greatest museum in the country! I was an intern at the drawings department. It was like coming home to seeing Picasso and Rembrandt. I could look at them and hold them.
In three years, I got a museum certificate and a graduate degree. I want to mention that throughout my graduate program, I commuted from New Jersey. I hitched a ride into school every day. I was never denied a ride. I would wait with my suit and briefcase everyday and would get a ride to the George Washington Bridge.
By the time I graduated, I was married to Gayle and we moved to London.
Victoria and Albert Museum
While we lived in London, I worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum- a museum built by Queen Victoria in 1851. It was filled with mostly decorative arts and a few paintings. I was an intern here, and my wife, Gayle, took courses on the furniture at the museum.
Minneapolis Institute of Art
A man I met while in London, who at the time was director of the Minneapolis museum, told me to come out and work for him there. I became the Associate Director at Minneapolis Institute of Art. I was number two associate at my first job! I had a tough boss, but he would actually let us (his employees) try stuff! He constantly encouraged us to invent and design things at the Museum.
While I worked here, I organized an exhibition for Dutch art. I was sent to Europe and was introduced to a bunch of art dealers there. I kept seeing Dutch art everywhere. Little to no publications of it. I wanted to do an 18th century Dutch art exhibition. I met with people who either had the art or studied it. I went through with the exhibition, and then Toledo and Philadelphia wanted in on it.
When the Dutch exhibition was over, Toledo asked me to work for them. My salary was dramatically increased and had promises of becoming director. The director retired and I became next director. He and I remained great friends- he was always super supportive- a mentor and a guide.
A group of people in Toledo made relations with Toledo Spain. Because of our sister city relationship, I wanted to see if they could lend their pieces of art for an “El Greco” exhibition. We asked other museums if they could partner with us as well. I went to the National Gallery in Washington and they said they were interested, and then I went to Spain and they agreed to give us the art.
I found out the exhibition would cost over a million dollars! We cooked up a scheme to go to amex- and told them Dallas would take it if they sponsored us. They did! It was the greatest momentum- it was not only the money we needed but it also gave us great publicity. People were flocking and tourism was huge as a result!!! It was an enormous success, we had articles in Time Magazine and I was interviewed on CNN. It was the most heavily populated exhibition in all of those museums. (Link to Times article here.)
The National Gallery of Washington
This stunt introduced me to all the folks at the National Gallery. Paul Melon came to check out the Toledo Museum and invited me to become the Depute Director of the National Gallery. I was there for five and a half years: 1988-1993. During that time, I did a lot of strategic planning, organized exhibitions, helped with the first capital campaign for their 50th anniversary, and re-installed the entire painting collection while working with the curators. An exhibition with works by Vermeer was the last major show I did there. We had 27 of his paintings for the exhibition.
After the 50th anniversary of National Gallery, the director pointed at me to become next director as he retired, but the trustees picked someone else. The director who was chosen was a friend of mine- I stayed for a bit then left.
Soon after, I was offered an honorary professorship at Williams. I would fly up to Albany and go to Williamstown to teach one class a week. I loved it so much. I began to think that it would be cool to be a president of a college someday.
I searched and saw nothing. Then, I heard about the RISD presidency. I applied and because the trustees were all looking for a director for the art museum there,they hired me. I only took the presidency, but hired someone else to be the museum director. I loved it. I was there for fifteen years. Happiest time of my life. My wife got her masters in fine arts. And my grandchildren came (me). It was a cozy and wonderful time.
RISD was glorious. I loved the students, being near Brown, helping build more international experiences. I was able to teach- work with designers, and architects. It was wonderful.
When I left, I was voted to get an honorary degree. During my career, I’ve earned 9 honorary degrees.
Ive had an exciting career.
Qatar Museums Authority
After RISD, we moved to the Middle-East. I was head of Qatar Museums Authority. We had never been to the Middle East before and here we were moving there! Qatar is a very family-oriented place with big ambitions. They are liberal and tolerant of other religions. There’s a Catholic Cathedral there. They are very involved with national politics.
The Qatar Museums Authority wanted to build 12 museums- not just art ones but history, science, children’s, air and space, and media museums as well. I was in charge of all of it!
We started with 350 employees. I hired museum staff from Britain, France to Turkey, Australia, and the U.S. I brought people from all over the world. When I left, we had 1200 employees- in four years that was a lot of people to hire. I had a chance to work with I.A.PEI a chinese architect who designed the Museum of Islamic Art.
Jea Nouvel. Hergzog and De Meuron. All great architects, I worked with all of them.
After four years I was turning 70, and we decided it was time to come home. In January 2012, we came back. I served as senior advisor to Qatar Museum Authority for a year.
Then, I started doing consulting for different universities, colleges, and art schools. I’ve been serving on a lot of boards as a trustee of art museums and art schools. I enjoy it a lot because I’ve worked in a variety of arts institutions. I think I have good and wide experiences to offer as a trustee.
Chapter Three: Today
Today, we are trying to start a contemporary art and design museum in New Bedford.
It’s called: DatMa or Massachusetts Design Art and Technology Institute.
It will specialize in international work and programs. It will show the impact of new technologies on art and design.
It’s having its inaugural exhibition next summer as part of a huge festival were planning called Summer Wind– we’re celebrating the arrival of wind turbines in New Bedford!
We’re bringing in an outdoor installation from LA. by Poetic Kinetics. We have 16 board members and we are currently trying to raise money to fund for this show!
Interested to learn more about “DAT”? Watch this.
Thank you to my grandfather, Roger, for sharing his story with us all. I believe it is fascinating how life leads us from one chapter to the next. No matter how much we try to plan our lives- in my grandfather’s case- planning to become a doctor, life leads us to where we are meant to be and this is apparent from hearing his story.
My family and I have a Japanese friend who brought the ingredients over to make this. He told us that most of what he brought was straight from Japan and that we couldn’t get it in the States. Sad.
Soo I’m not going to lie- before we befriended him, the only Japanese food I knew about was sushi. But did you know that there’s actually Japanese pizza? (Picture below)
This Japanese pizza is called Okonomiyaki. Technically it’s a pancake, but to me it looks like a pizza. So flavorful. There’s fish, onion, Japanese mayonnaise, and cabbage in here among other things. Love.
Being eager to learn more about Japan, I went to the Obon Festival that takes place in St. Paul annually. Definitely go if you haven’t. They do floating lanterns when it gets dark, teach you how to make origami, and have rows of food stands.
Here is what I got while I was there:
This is called Takoyaki. They are snacks that are filled with octopus, tempura, pickled ginger, and green onion. To me, they taste similar to the Okonomiyaki, but I could just be naive. They definitely have similar ingredients though.
Anyways, after all this, I think I should take a trip to Japan soon.
Plus I’ve been obsessed with the song “Lost in Japan” by Shawn Mendes.
I used to work at an elementary school- and boy if you don’t know what roasting is you will learn a thing or two while working there- okay that’s besides the point.
So, do you remember being in elementary school and always trying to act cooler or more mature than you were? Yes you do- don’t lie.
Anyways, in the classroom we had a book shelf filled with books that I never once saw a kid touch. Very sad, I know. One day, I decided to pull out a few of my childhood favorites and read them out loud. I just sat at a table by myself and began. No fair -warning- nothing.
At first, the kids were all snickering. “Why is ms. Coco just reading out loud randomly?” They started making jokes about the books, but then something funny happened.
Within five minutes of me reading, half of the classroom was sitting by me. They began to truly listen. No jokes- just engaged fourth and fifth graders. While the other half wasn’t gathered around, they were still listening as well and would occasionally run over to look at some pages as I told the stories.
Funny right? I think so at least. It’s because we all love a good story.
What teachers did you like the best? The ones that made connections through story-telling or the ones who just read off the bullet points and left you wondering “what’s the point”? I think it’s a pretty easy question to answer, right?
Story-telling draws people in! That’s why we love movies, hearing other people’s experiences, etc. It connects us to one another.
They also help us remember things better. I am much more likely to remember new information if it’s told in story form versus just having to memorize words and definitions.
Tell more stories! It makes people want to listen more and it makes it easier to connect with others.