Some thoughts on John Buchanan, privilege and responsibility

John Buchanan brought paintings from the Musée d’Orsay, including this Van Gogh, to the de Young.

John Buchanan, who served as the executive director of the Portland Art Museum from 1994 to 2005, died on Friday in San Francisco. This news Oregon ArtsWatch readers probably know already, from one source or another (we did a couple of posts on our Facebook page, for example), but Buchanan was such a complex figure here, a stranger in a strange land, I’m about to suggest, that sorting through the memories, emotions and positions he generated during his time here is going to be difficult.

In my time in Portland, which goes back to 1979, we haven’t had a more polarizing figure in the arts than Buchanan. (Actually, make that plural, “the Buchanans,” because his wife Lucy was so deeply involved in everything John accomplished.) I know people who absolutely love him and what he did for the museum here, and people who detested both his personal style and his blockbuster mentality for programming exhibitions and were happy to see him go.

From the beginning to me, Buchanan seemed out of place here. He always seemed so well-scrubbed and well-coiffed, so crisply attired in his tailored suits, so full of energy and ambition, so busy. More than that, though, he brought with him the bearing and attitudes of  the gentry of the upper South, where he was born, educated and first made a name for himself in museum circles at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee, as though he’d just left Sunday School charged up for the day of good works ahead. The phrase that comes to mind when I think of Buchanan is noblesse oblige, the idea that privilege involves responsibility.

In the supposedly democratic Northwest, we still like to think we’re the land of the Stampers in Ken Kesey’s great logging novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion.” We don’t like to acknowledge privilege, even as a concept. Not even the privileged among us. Hey, we’re all loggers here. Everyone has a chainsaw, a sledge and maul, an ax with a few bites out of the head. We wear jeans, boots and workshirts. To the office, dammit, because who knows when we’re going to have to clearcut a hillside. And the arts? They’re just for the privileged, which none of us are!

I’m engaging in hyperbole for effect. Portland has had its arts benefactors, and some of them even owned big timber-based businesses. But I’ve heard that in the old days wealthy board members of major Portland arts institutions could give $5,000 and think they were doing their bit. The result of this parsimony we can still see: The budgets, facilities and endowments of our big arts institutions don’t rank with those of comparable cities.

But Buchanan managed to convince Portland’s wealthy families to give more to the museum than they had in the past.  From the outside looking in, I surmise that he achieved this feat by doing two things. First, he put a powerful question to them: Do you want to be on the board of a mediocre (if not worse) museum, or one that can hold its head up in the company of other regional museums? The implication was clear: It’s your responsibility to change the museum. Under the Buchanans, the museum started receiving the largest donations in its history.  Second, he made something else clear: If you meet your responsibilities to the museum, the museum is going to make sure you have some fun. The museum parties under the Buchanans were lavish affairs without a plaid shirt in sight. Privilege has its responsibilities and its rewards, including getting dressed up from time to time!

I’m not sure exactly where, when or why the Buchanans resolved to focus on Big Event programming at the museum, expensive shows that they could market widely (and well). As Bob Hicks pointed out in heartfelt remembrance of John Buchanan on Art Scatter, it’s from the Thomas Hoving school of museum management. Create a stir. Get the public lining up around the building for a look at some treasure from some foreign land or another. Hits aren’t just the province of Broadway or Hollywood. A museum can have a hit, too, and when it does, it opens the sluice gates for sponsorship and foundation money, not to mention increased admission and membership income. And if you are a patron, you get to say, “Hey, my museum’s doing well!” The “Imperial Tombs of China” show in 1996 was the first and most startling of these shows. The museum had done blockbusters before the Buchanans arrived, but never with that much ancillary marketing activity all over town. And eventually, Buchanan leveraged his art world contacts to create those shows himself, exhibiting artwork from the ancient houses of Stroganoff and Hesse, his most important curating achievement here. Talk about nobility.

John Buchanan

The Northwest really isn’t the ante-bellum South, though, and the Buchanans rubbed a sizable number of people the wrong way, by lavishing their affections on the wealthy and focusing the precious attention of the local culture on the ornate carriages of European aristocrats or Asian potentates and pharaohs. I quite enjoyed my interviews with Buchanan. I found him engaging and informed, and I never felt that I was being manipulated (though he was skillful enough I think to make that part of the manipulation!), even though in our interactions, I represented the “press.” But I totally understood the objections to the way he was running the museum. There were a couple of primary ones. Internally, everything was routed through him. In his story this morning, DK Row called it “micro-managing,” and it made life difficult for his more ambitious and creative employees. And while the museum was doing its blockbuster thing, art in Portland was flourishing. And the museum either didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with it or didn’t know just how exciting and engaging the arts here were becoming. At least that’s how it seemed to me: The museum missed out on a great opportunity to participate in, augment and shape an incredibly dynamic time in the arts here. And I would have favored a museum that supported such curators as Terry Toedtemeier and Gordon Gilkey more actively than this one ever did, too.

But look, we are still attempting to figure out how to make regional museums work in this particular time, culturally, economically and politically. What kind of museum will the “one percent” support?  The “arts engaged” public that makes First Thursday and First Friday so important here? The public in general? The region’s artists and curators? I happen to be an “exceptionalist” about these matters, meaning simply that the solutions and balance we figure out in Portland may not be those of another city. I don’t think the franchise approach will work here, the McRegional Art Museum. But I also think that the  two primary achievements of the Buchanans are critical for all museums at this point: to engage the public as broadly as possible and to encourage much greater giving from those who can afford it.

When the Buchanans took off for Bagdad by the Bay and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 2005, I wondered how they’d fare in a more cosmopolitan city, one that did have a cultural strain of noblesse oblige running through its DNA, however mutated it had begun. Judging from San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker’s take on John, he did just what you’d expect. He raised a ruckus. He programmed blockbusters. Attendance zoomed. And with the increased resources at his disposal, he brought some great art to the city. It also seemed that maybe he’d learned to delegate responsibility a little more.

I think what Buchanan’s time in Portland reinforced for me is the idea that all kinds of personalities and management styles can work, if the manager brings enough energy, creativity, will power and intelligence to the masked ball.  That if we are smart, we’ll learn from them, even if they really don’t quite fit. Sometimes that “not fitting” creates the tension necessary to do interesting things.  And what a life John Buchanan led! What interesting situations he entered!

Our final thoughts and condolences are with John’s wife Lucy and his family in Nashville. We wish them the very best.




Comments are closed.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives