Hedy Tung, Staff Photographer
On April 1, 2021, Deputy Director for Collections Scott Wilcox GRD ’78, PHD ’84, retired from the Yale Center for British Art after 38 years at the center. This step comes after a two-year phased retirement which began on April 1, 2020.
Wilcox first came to Yale as a graduate student in art history in the late 1970s. He joined the YCBA in 1982 as assistant curator in prints and drawings and continued to rise in the museum’s ranks in the decades that followed. His colleagues at the YCBA described him as dedicated, intelligent and extremely knowledgeable about British art. During his time at the YCBA, Wilcox focused on making the museum’s collections accessible to the public and increased the prominence of British photography in the collections.
“Scott is deeply respected by his colleagues not only for his curatorial and administrative ability but for his intelligence,” said Jules Prown, founding director of the YCBA. “At staff meetings, when problems and other issues come up for discussion, everyone awaits Scott’s analysis and conclusions and almost invariably follows his lead.”
Prown recalled his interview with Wilcox when he applied for the position of assistant curator in prints and drawings after graduating from Yale. Prown said that Wilcox distinguished himself from the other candidates by “the accuracy of his eye in making attributions” and aesthetic judgments. Wilcox accepted the position with plans to stay at the center for about five years.
“I ended up never leaving,” Wilcox said. “With my particular love of British art, there was simply no other place I would rather be.”
From assistant curator in prints and drawings, Wilcox rose to the rank of senior curator in the department. Then in 2014, Amy Meyers GRD ’85, the director of the YCBA at the time, appointed him as deputy director for art collections. Meyers described Wilcox’s familiarity with the collection’s holdings — which she considers the largest and finest holdings of British art outside the United Kingdom — as “unrivaled.”
“Indeed, it was Scott’s knowledge, along with his intellectual acumen, his extraordinary good sense, and his wise counsel, that ultimately led me to appoint him deputy director of art collections,” Meyers said.
Meyers and Wilcox first met as graduate students at Yale, in a seminar on John Ruskin taught by art historian and Yale professor George Hersey, one of the first classes held at the newly opened YCBA — the museum opened in 1974. Even then, Meyers was impressed by Wilcox’s knowledge of British art history, along with his passion for the field.
During their 20 years working together at the YCBA, Wilcox and Meyers collaborated to increase the center’s nascent holdings in photographic art. Meyers said that together with several others at the YCBA, they established “one of the great collections of British photographs in the United States.”
Wilcox said that during his early years at the center, there was an ongoing debate about the role of photography in the YCBA’s collections. Photography had not been a collecting interest of YCBA founder Paul Mellon. But the center’s then-Director Duncan Robinson, who held the position from 1981 to 1985, felt that even if the center did not build a photography collection, it should nevertheless acknowledge the medium’s importance through a series of temporary loan exhibitions. As the curator with the most serious interest in the medium, Wilcox became responsible for the center’s photographic shows.
Amy Meyers, who was director from 2002 to 2019, was more open to creating a photography collection, Wilcox said. Through gifts and a purchase arrangement with private collectors Chuck Isaacs and Carol Nigro, and a substantial gift from the Joy of Giving Something, Inc., Wilcox said they were able to put together “the foundations for a serious photography collection.”
Wilcox also supported the hire of the center’s first associate curator of photography, Chitra Ramalingam, according to Meyers. Wilcox and Ramalingam worked to establish the foundation for the center’s growing photographic holdings in tandem with Elisabeth Fairman, the YCBA’s chief curator of rare books and manuscripts, who retired earlier this year; former YCBA Senior Curator of Prints and Drawing Gillian Forrester; the center’s current Deputy Director and Chief Curator Martina Droth; and Deputy Director for Advancement and External Affairs Beth Miller.
In addition to his photography-related efforts, Wilcox spearheaded efforts to digitize the center’s collections and improve its accessibility to the public. According to Meyers, Wilcox took the helm of the institution’s first Department of Collections Information and Access and, working closely with others at the center, made the museum the first in the world to digitize the whole of its art collections online in high resolution and to offer these digital holdings to the world fully free and open-access.
“This was something that I had long felt was important for the institution, and we had made some tentative steps forward, but when Amy Meyers committed to embracing digital open access, we were able to make serious strides, at a time when we were not necessarily leading the field but were there in the forefront,” Wilcox said.
Additionally, Meyers said that Wilcox has notably curated several in-house and traveling exhibitions over the years. Most of these were accompanied by major catalogues edited by Wilcox and published by the YCBA in collaboration with Yale University Press. Wilcox worked with Yale undergraduates and graduate students to complete all of these projects, and Meyers said he is “especially revered” by these students, many of whom now work professionally in the field of art history.
Of these many exhibitions, Wilcox’s personal favorites are a 1992 exhibition featuring Victorian-era landscape watercolors — eschewing the prevailing belief that the use of British watercolors was on a decline by the mid 19th-century — and a 2009 exhibition featuring the work and research of English landscape painter David Cox called “Sun, Wind, and Rain: The Art of David Cox.”
In 2015, following the conservation of the center, Wilcox also put together an installation he is “particularly proud of” titled “Britain in the World.” According to Meyers, this installation presents the collection’s works in the context of global concerns for the first time, inciting new questions about the history of British art.
At the moment, Wilcox is working on a center-related project called “Photographs of Italy and the British Imagination, 1840-1900.” His work will be published as a book in the spring of 2022. Even though Wilcox is retiring, he said his interest in British art remains “as keen as ever.”
The Yale Center for British Art, which is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is located at 1080 Chapel St.
Correction, May 6: A previous version stated that Wilcox would retire on Mar. 1, 2022, — WIlcox’s original retirement date — when in reality Wilcox’s retirement date had subsequently been pushed forward to Apr. 1, 2021. This version has been updated to reflect this.