A fantastically colored, larger-than-life old lady, the type one would expect to sip tea with the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat, stands in the lobby of the Yale University Art Gallery. It is a timely call, a perfect advertisement for the British studio pottery exhibition happening across the street at the Yale Center for British Art.
When YUAG Director Jock Reynolds first saw the grandmother figure at the house of private collector Linda Leonard Schlenger, it was nothing like its current shape. The clay sculpture, created by the late artist Viola Frey, had been knocked over and shattered into hundreds of pieces. It was declared “a total loss” by the insurance company.
Reynolds discerned in the ceramic fractions an educational opportunity — he ordered the swarm of pieces be shipped to New Haven. The fractions were then handed to Heather McLeod, fresh out of the Rhode Island School of Design and a YUAG intern at the time. She spent months putting the pieces back together. It was an unexpected, unparalleled opportunity for any wanna-be conservator. Having “resurrected” the sculpture, McLeod went on to become a Fulbright scholar to study in Italy.
When Reynolds showed Schlenger the restored sculpture, she was “overwhelmed.” The sculpture has no visible fractures on its surface. It was almost magic.
It requires a vision like Reynolds’ to see hope in a completely shattered artwork, making a conservation lesson and a well-timed installation out of an unfortunate accident.
The same pair of eyes has been by Reynolds’ side as he steered the gallery through almost two decades of growth and transformation. The beloved museum director is set to step down next June.
When Reynolds first came to Yale in 1998, the art gallery was “a bit retired.”
“It reached a point where it was running out of energy,” chair of the History of Art Department Tim Barringer said. “And then arrived Jock Reynolds, who is energy personified,”
In the eight years between 2004 and 2012, the museum tripled in size, encompassing the Louis Kahn building, the Old Yale Art Gallery and the Street Hall. The expanded space, going from a glassy modernist facade to expansive Gothic windows to a 13th-century Venetian palace, makes it possible for more art to face the public.
Concurrent with the expansion, the Art History department — the old tenants of Street Hall and part of the old gallery — moved their offices and classrooms to Loria Center, a stonework construction completed in 2008.
The architectural expansion has made room for enlarging the scope of the exhibits. African art, Indo-Pacific art and coins and medals found a new home in YUAG, recasting the space into to a museum of the world.
Curator of American Decorative Arts Patricia Kane GRD ’87, who has worked at the art gallery for 50 years, praised the expansion with no reservations.
“I have always been impressed with [Jock’s] eye and his sense of space, details. Because of those abilities many correct decisions were made about the architectural changes, the material that was used,” Kane said. “His sensibilities are very finely attuned to the visual and spatial.”
The price tag on the expansion that Barringer called “unparalleled” in the museum world was $135 million, an amount Reynolds dedicated a substantial part of his tenure to raising.
Though artists tend to be seen as too out-of-the-world to get their hands dirty with money, Reynolds, trained as a photographer, proved to be exceptional in the uncanny art of fundraising.
Ruth Barnes, curator of Indo-Pacific Art, fondly recalls that the one time when she and Reynolds attended an event with friends and possible donors in Boston, a woman turned to Reynolds and said, “Jock, don’t talk to me today. I can’t afford it.”
As Chief Curator Laurence Kanter put it, Reynolds’ ability to fundraise is “almost his reputation, a middle name.” In a world purely sustained by private philanthropy, the skill to “make somebody pull out their checkbook at the right moment” is a requisite for any museum director and a practice deeply familiar to Reynolds.
Before assuming the position in New Haven in 1998, Reynolds served for seven years as the executive director of the Washington Project for the Arts, a multidisciplinary artists’ association. He then became the director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover in 1989, where he started an outreach program that helped increase the number of annual visitors six-fold.
Miracles happen when artists discover in themselves a latent potential for fundraising. Peter Paul Rubens was a gifted businessman as well as the best artist in the Flemish Baroque tradition. Reynolds is no exception.
“Jock is a lightning rod for attracting not just money,” Kanter said. “Money is obviously the result that people noticed. He attracts enthusiasm, commitment and support in ways that pay ripple effects well beyond the dollar signs that sometimes come with them.”
His fundraising ability proved instrumental in bringing a work of the legendary Spanish painter Diego Velázquez back to light.
Rediscovery — especially one that is associated with basements and a tag that says “anonymous, Spanish School, seventeenth century” — requires the right combination of pure luck, artistic intuition and, as often forgotten from time to time, financial support. Only a visionary like John Marciari, then a junior curator at the gallery, saw the value in the five-feet-tall and four-feet-wide painting lying on a rack in the basement of the Swartwout building.
Giving the painting a new identity was not enough. It took Reynolds, an “impresario” in the words of Barringer, to make things happen. Putting his fundraising skills into play, Reynolds persuaded Banco Santander, Spain’s largest bank, to sponsor the whole conservation.
Perhaps not the most common characteristic of people who dedicate much of their time asking others for money, Reynolds’ energy exudes sincerity, a quality that has won Reynolds not just financial support, but more importantly, genuine enthusiasm from the donors.
“He’s a person that’s impossible to resist because his enthusiasm is so great,” Barringer said. “He develops personal relationships with people who then want to support the gallery, want to get involved. He’s very personal in his approach. In a businesslike world, it cuts through all that.”
Ian McClure, the gallery’s chief conservator, recalled that when he and Reynolds visited the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, they ran into to a couple who had donated to the Yale gallery. To McClure’s surprise, Reynolds greeted the couple not only by name but inquired about their children by name as well. He even knew the names of the colleges the couple had attended. McClure said that he had never met someone with such good memory of people.
Reynolds’ Midas Touch is his energy. Almost everyone who knows Reynolds expressed the sentiment, in one way or another, within ten minutes of the interview.
“He never runs out of energy,” Kanter said. “I get emails from him at two o’clock in the morning. It’s obvious that it’s not just an irregular sleepless night. He’s just always working, always alert, always pumping through.”
One wonders what unusual sleeping schedule Reynolds follows, if he follows any at all. McClure said that Reynolds first approached him for a job at the gallery in 2008 by calling him at 10 o’clock in the morning. For Reynolds across the Atlantic Ocean, it was five o’clock in the morning.
Sequoia Miller GRD ’18, a doctoral candidate in the Department of the History of Art and a studio potter, was tapped by Reynolds to collaborate on curating an exhibition in the art gallery called “The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art.”
Miller was surprised to find that Reynolds, who has no academic background in the field, is well-versed in ceramic artists from 1960s to 1980s. But even more than Reynolds’s breadth of knowledge, Miller was surprised by his enthusiasm.
“He was pulling out racks after racks,” Miller said, recalling their visit to the storage in search of paintings that could potentially be used for the exhibition. Miller thought they would only look at a few paintings, they ended up seeing all of them in the section.
Reynolds’s energy, however, can sometimes get him into trouble.
As part of an exhibition in 2009 called “Time Will Tell: Ethics and Choices in Conservation,” the gallery put on display a light composition work by Thomas Wilfred. It was a box from the first half of the 20th century that could project light onto a screen. The box’s design represented a dilemma: Turning on the light would accelerate the work’s wear, but left to itself it is just a rustic box.
According to Carol Snow, the deputy chief conservator, Reynolds did not feel constrained by the stringent restrictions on who was allowed to maneuver the box. “Jock would come to the gallery and switch them all on,” Snow said. The museum guard confronted the director and told him the box could not be turned on and off at the director’s whim. It was “hard news” for the energetic director.
“It’s Jock. He’s fascinated. He loves to share. He brings important people here, including donors. He needs unfettered access,” Snow said.
But Reynolds’ energy in anything he does, be it racks of paintings or grander pursuits, was what drew Kanter from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — arguably the world’s finest museum — to be the YUAG chief curator in New Haven.
Kanter said Reynolds is able to open up possibilities that even very well-endowed museums such as the Met do not have available.
“It is rare to come across a museum director of his kind,” Kanter said. “He is very ambitious, so energetic that he follows up on all of his ideas rather than just sitting around a table and saying ‘you do this, you do that.’”
One of the many ideas that Reynolds has carried through is sharing Yale’s collections with other university museums, most of the time without asking for anything in return. Reynolds, intent on boosting the educational value of the YUAG, manages the museum like “a net exporter” of artwork. The European art department alone made five loans in the last month.
But as Reynolds expands the educational outreach of the art gallery globally, Yale students remain at the heart of his mission.
“If he sees a group of Yale undergraduates, he will run over there, grab them and say ‘come look at this sculpture.’” Barringer said. “He just has to do that.”
Barringer worked closely with Reynolds during his tenure as director for undergraduate studies and then for graduate studies in the art history department. Reynolds accommodated Barringer’s need to arrange up to 17 sections in his popular western art survey course that covers the Renaissance to the present day.
Reynolds’ dedication to education has attracted like-minded people to join the gallery from afar. McClure cited the gallery’s commitment to teaching as a deciding factor for his career move. As the chief conservator, McClure has been encouraged to teach classes himself, including one this fall called “Technical Examination of Art.”
In addition, the Jane and Richard C. Levin Teaching Gallery built under Reynolds’ supervision allows professors to request the reinstatement and reframing of art objects in the art gallery’s storage. The teaching gallery opened on the fourth floor of the Swartwout building in 2012. Barringer said that the teaching gallery is a “very, very unusual” practice and illustrates the way Reynolds thinks about teaching.
Reynolds understands deep down that although the art gallery has “Yale” in its title, it has an equally important, if not more important, role to play as the only art museum in New Haven.
“It’s his aspiration to get every child in New Haven to get into this space, to feel they belong, and these may be kids who feel they don’t belong in many other places,” Barringer said.
Education is only one of the many pursuits Reynolds has thrown himself into. At the midpoint of his two-decade tenure, Reynolds set out to pump his energy into the gallery’s conservation scene.
In 2008, he hired McClure and Snow as part of his initiative to bring more conservators on board. Besides extending the existing conservation facilities located at the gallery, Reynolds had in mind West Campus had just acquired under the presidency of Richard Levin.
A set of new facilities took roots at West Campus in the years that followed, including a technical studies lab, an aging diagnostics lab and an imaging lab. These additions put Yale firmly on the map of the global art conservation scene.
The facilities are shared by the art gallery, Yale Center for British Art, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Yale Peabody Museum for Natural History. For McClure, the collaboration not only makes sense financially, but also provides an exciting opportunity for experts with completely different backgrounds to work side by side. Working on similar objects, a researcher from the Peabody might look at it from an anthropological viewpoint, while an art historian would appreciate its artistic virtuosity.
The variety of initiatives with which Reynolds has involved himself points to his deep curiosity. To his colleagues, Reynolds appears to have an endless number of interests.
“We’re never surprised to see him show up anywhere and have an opinion on anything,” Kanter said. “I don’t now feel I have a clearer-cut understanding [about his interests] as I did three or four years ago; but it’s still a very broad mandate.”
Reynolds, who has made himself a model of accessibility for his colleagues, turned down my interview request because of a packed schedule and a reluctance to talk about his own greatness. But thanks to Joellen Adae, the YUAG communications director, I witnessed the man himself in action in an early Saturday afternoon.
I had my expectations going into the encounter. From what I had gathered from his colleagues, Reynolds is someone who has a “real presence.” Attention follows him wherever he goes.
Part of the dominance is physical.
“He is quite tall. A big person, not a fat person,” Barnes said.
Part of it is vocal.
“He doesn’t shout, but his voice carries very well. You know when he is talking,” she added.
And then another part of it is his hometown.
“He’s from California. He’s a Cali. I think that goes very deep,” Barringer said. “He’s totally at ease meeting a ninth-generation Yale family. He has no sense of awkwardness, but he doesn’t belong. His mind is somewhere in the desert of California.”
The Saturday event did more than just confirm all of these points. It was a memorial celebration Reynolds had organized for a close friend: the former Dean of Yale School of Art Richard “Chip” Benson. It was the first memorial I have ever attended, the closest I have been to death. It was not easy for me, and certainly not for Reynolds.
The state-of-the-art lecture hall in the YUAG basement was packed. Many of the people in attendance were at least in their sixties. I took a seat behind Reynolds when he was busy greeting friends and family of Benson.
The lights turned off. The audience quieted down. The memorial began with a video of Benson testing an enormous steam engine that looked like it came directly out of the Industrial Revolution. With a loud explosive sound, the video ended with Benson successfully fixing the machine. It drained some grief from the air.
Benson’s daughter and son took the stage, followed by his colleagues and friends. Memories of playing Lego in the art school’s basement were shared, visits to Benson’s house were recounted, and Benson’s obsession with building the everlasting clock was told.
To have the first peek at someone’s life at a memorial is a special feeling. It was quick, direct and visceral. I shed my first round of tears when an old man seemingly in his eighties took the stage. He started his speech with an apology for not knowing where to start. In his low, shaken voice, he told us that he and Benson had started a practice of having a video chat every day at six o’clock in the morning after they found out about their deteriorating medical conditions. The video chats lasted for more than a year.
“After Maria [my wife], Chip was my best friend,” the old man walked off the stage, one step after another, his body bending over.
Reynolds got up from his seat and patted the old man on his back. I could not see Reynolds’ face, but his hand was as steady as ever. He hugged, shook hands with, or patted everyone after they gave their talk.
In the swirl of despondence, Reynolds was an unshaken presence. He lost a dear friend, but he did not falter. He could not falter. We need him. Yale needs him.
Jingyi Cui | firstname.lastname@example.org