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An Artist Guarding the Art
One of the main things Jock Reynolds wants to do for the Yale University Art Gallery is get more people inside it. Reynolds, who became director of the gallery last August, believes that it could do a lot better than its current annual attendance figure of about 115,000.
“Unless one constantly says ‘welcome,’” says Reynolds, “people tend to think of this as a private place. We need to improve our sense of greeting.” To that end, he plans to put an information desk at the building’s front door and “rotate all the staff through there—including me.”
“The best way to build attendance is on the ground,” says the director. “It’s a person-to-person effort with lots of time spent making connections.”
Reynolds speaks from experience, having spent nine years as director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. There, he built a community outreach program that helped increase the annual number of visitors to the Addison from 9,000 to 65,000.
What’s more, Reynolds feels he accomplished this without compromising the Addison’s primary mission as a teaching museum, a fact that bodes well for a gallery whose directors have not always been able to satisfy students as well as the public. “I don’t see any conflict in balancing Yale’s needs with the community’s,” says Reynolds, who adds that he is counting on a planned expansion to help relieve space pressures that sometimes force the gallery to choose between its constituencies.
Expanding the museum and making it more inviting are just two of the many things on Jock Reynolds’s “to do” list. A working artist who collaborates regularly with his wife, Suzanne Hellmuth, Reynolds is accustomed to a busy life. But since taking over as director of the gallery last August, he has discovered how much time it takes to operate a museum with 71 employees and 86,000 works of art. When he is not on the road meeting with potential donors, his days are tightly packed with obligations within the gallery and across the University. Coming to a museum that spent a year without a director (Helen Cooper, the gallery’s curator of American painting, served as acting director) after the departure of African art specialist Susan Vogel in 1997, Reynolds is advancing plans for the gallery’s expansion, for extended outreach and education programs, and for increased involvement with contemporary art and artists.
One might expect such bureaucratic and administrative details to be intolerable distractions for a practicing artist, but Reynolds dismisses the stereotype of the creative person as an outsider or rebel making art in the quiet vacuum of the studio. “There are a lot of myths about who artists are and how they’re supposed to behave,” he says.
Reynolds, a genial 51-year-old Californian who favors the preppy uniform of gray trousers and blue blazer, disproves many of those myths. He is unapologetically comfortable in places like Andover and Yale, having grown up in the shadow of the University of California at Davis, where his father was a professor of microbiology. (His wife’s father was an economics professor at Oberlin College.) “As faculty brats, we have an appreciation and understanding of institutions,” Reynolds says.
Their interest in institutions has informed much of the art he and Hellmuth have created, which often employs archival photographs dealing with the history of places as diverse as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Carnegie library in Braddock, Pennsylvania. The exploration of such worlds, Reynolds explains, is part of their life and work. “What I do as museum director is always intellectually engaging,” he says. “If what I did was draw all day, and this job meant I couldn’t draw all day, I’d be frustrated. But the way we think about art isn’t so different from what I do here.”
Reynolds was trained in a time when the definition of art was undergoing a dramatic expansion. After attending secondary school at Andover, a school that he says “considers visual intelligence to be important and meaningful,” he returned to California, taking his BA from the University of California at Santa Cruz and his MFA in sculpture from UC-Davis. “Suzanne and I came into a time of great interaction among artists,” he says. “We were part of the first generation of Baby Boomer artists, and we came from colleges that were started after World War II. Being trained in liberal arts universities allowed us to be more fluid, and as a result the boundaries between disciplines were very permeable.”
Moving to San Francisco after graduation, Reynolds soon became involved in the city’s art scene. He met Hellmuth, who was trained as a dancer, when he began working with a dance company with which she was connected. The pair soon collaborated on a series of performance and visual theater projects and became a couple, marrying in 1977 and settling in a loft in the South of Market district along with a number of other artists.
Their performance collaborations led indirectly to the work with photography for which they are best known. “In figuring out how to document those pieces,” says Hellmuth, “we got to thinking about what is included and what is left out of any visual document.” That thinking led to a series of projects using photographs—their own and others culled from archives—in provocative juxtapositions. In the most ambitious of these projects, called “State of the Union,” Hellmuth and Reynolds pored through public archives and newspaper morgues in California, rephotographing 25,000 images selected from more than 300,000 they looked at. They then composed the images, often in pairs or sets of three or more, to highlight relationships of form or content. In some cases, pieces of a photo were enlarged and reused elsewhere on a page, or certain portions of an image were over- or underprinted to emphasize aspects of a picture that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Meanwhile, Reynolds was teaching at California State University in San Francisco and, starting in 1975, working with 80 Langton Street (now New Langton Arts), an alternative artists' space he co-founded. In 1983, Hellmuth and Reynolds moved to Boston for a year when they received a commission from MIT to create an installation there. The installation, titled “Speculation,” explored the Institute’s role in the development of radar and its continued relationship with the defense industry. In the work, the artists combined photographs—projected, in this case—with model airplanes, tips of missiles, and other artifacts from MIT’s archives.
After the foray into two dimensions of “State of the Union” and other photography projects, Hellmuth and Reynolds were again working with space and three-dimensional environments. “I’m interested in how people enter and leave space—and how they read a space,” says Hellmuth. “Jock’s interested in that too, as a sculptor. He’s a rugby player, and that’s all about figuring out where the space is and where the holes are.”
After working on “Speculation,” Reynolds and Hellmuth (who by then were the parents of two sons, Gurdon and Will) moved to Washington, D.C., where Reynolds ran the Washington Project for the Arts. During his six years there, he organized a number of art events, including a major multidisciplinary project about Vietnam titled “War and Memory.”
In 1989, Reynolds became director of the Addison Gallery at Andover, a 68-year-old collection that now includes 12,000 works, from Colonial times to the present. During his nine-year stint as director, he pumped energy into the Addison’s programs, organizing and curating a number of exhibitions by contemporary artists and launching an active publications program. He also led a multimillion-dollar renovation of the building and expanded the collection.
Remarkably, Reynolds managed to continue collaborating with Hellmuth on installations and other projects during his busy years in Washington and Andover. The pair had a mid-career retrospective that was mounted on three University of California campuses in 1986, and in 1987 they produced a haunting installation in Graz, Austria, that dealt with the Holocaust. Titled “In Memory—A Bird in the Hand,” the exhibit was an arrangement of archival photographs and artifacts in the manner of the MIT exhibit.
Most recently, in 1995, they moved further afield, producing a work that combined public art, architecture, photography, and conceptual art for the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. The heart of the project was a self-guided tour of trees on the campus that had been published 15 years earlier by a forestry professor there named C. Frank Brockman. (The campus is known for its unusual variety of trees.) Hellmuth and Reynolds produced an updated booklet on the tour, using Brockman’s own photographs, and designed a pair of bus shelters (each of which frames a massive Deodar Cedar tree) and an information center at the start of the tour. But while the tree tour is in some ways a departure from their usual emphasis on photography, it corresponds to most other themes in their work—it directs people through a physical space and engages them with the history of an institution.
Reynolds sees the work that he and Hellmuth do as a reaction to what they feel is the visual overload of contemporary culture. “It’s mind-boggling,” he says. “People are having to navigate through barrages of visual information. Our work is a reflection of the time we’re living in. How do you read that landscape of images?”
When their work is seen in this light, the gap between Reynolds the working artist and Reynolds the museum director begins to disappear. Curating an exhibition or hanging a permanent collection require the same kind of aesthetic and intellectual judgments Hellmuth and Reynolds apply to their work. “For the best curators, it’s not just about scholarship and wall panels,” says Reynolds. “They have a poetic visual sense of how things go together. One of the great pleasures of creating exhibits for me is that it’s a compositional problem.”
Reynolds will have ample compositional problems to solve in the coming years at the Art Gallery. While a major expansion is in the works as part of a larger plan for the University’s “Arts Area,” which also includes the Center for British Art and the Schools of Art, Architecture, and Drama, the Gallery is not waiting to acquire more real estate before making changes. This summer, the galleries on the second and third floors will be switched to create a more sensible chronological progression through the building. Ancient art will remain in the ground floor gallery, but the new arrangement will place the collection of Renaissance art and European art up to the 19th century on the second floor. The 19th-century European works and early modern art will be moved to the third floor, where the early modern works from Europe will connect to the existing American art galleries. In the fall, the 28-year-old installation of American painting and decorative arts will be reconfigured.
Reynolds also expects the permanent collections to be less permanent, at least in their location. One of the first staff changes he made was to hire more art handlers so that the collections can be rotated more regularly. “Museums are trying more and more to keep their collections in dynamic play,” he explains.
The gallery is also hoping to increase the size and depth of that collection during Reynolds’s tenure. The effort got a boost last fall when the gallery received an $8-million bequest from the estate of Essex, Connecticut, artist Simeon Braguin. Interest on the gift is to be used, according to Braguin’s will, to purchase works by living American artists. The Gallery is also embarking on a “Tercentennial Art Drive” in which “a number of friends will give important works of art, whether to fill holes or build strength on strength,” according to Reynolds.
More art, of course, will require more room. Reynolds hopes to gain more exhibit space for the gallery through a proposed expansion into the two adjacent buildings—the Old Art Gallery and Street Hall—which are now occupied in part by the history of art department. While the Arts Area plan is still tentative, the expansion drawings that cover the walls of Reynolds’s office show the gallery occupying all three buildings, with the 1953 building by Louis Kahn emptied of administrative functions and filled with art. (The history of art department may move to a new building north of the Art & Architecture Building.)
But the gallery will still need space to provide access to material that is not on public view but that is of use to scholars, students, and other visitors. Reynolds hopes to realize a long-discussed plan to build a study center for American decorative arts and for large-scale contemporary art. The center, which would ideally be within walking distance of the gallery, would also contain additional non-public functions.
Reynolds also hopes to attract more undergraduates to the gallery, continuing a mission he had at Andover to involve more students. “You can’t believe how many times I’ve heard art collectors—both Yale alums and before that Andover alums—tell me they never even went into the art gallery when they were students. They say, ‘I don’t know how I missed it but I did.’” Already, a student-initiated effort has led to the establishment of a corps of undergraduate gallery guides who give tours to their fellow students and other visitors.
Reynolds is also eager to bring more contemporary artists and art to the gallery. “We sit so neatly between the history of art department and the School of Art, and that illustrates the need for a balance between historical and contemporary art,” says Reynolds. “But I’d like to adjust that balance and engage the gallery more directly with contemporary art.”
For example, the gallery has enhanced its current show on Chinese scholars' rocks (which runs through June 13) with related work by two contemporary artists: drawings by Brice Marden '63MFA, which are heavily influenced by his having seen such rocks in Chinese gardens, and photographs of Chinese landscapes by Lois Conner '81MFA.
All these concerns, in addition to the time he still spends teaching (he has a dual appointment in the School of Art and the history of art department) and curating outside exhibitions, have left Reynolds with a full plate. In addition, he and his wife are now looking for a place to live in New Haven, preferably downtown in the kind of artist’s loft they favored in San Francisco. While Hellmuth and son Will are still living in Andover until Will graduates from high school there next month, Reynolds is spending a year in an apartment above Claire’s Corner Copia on Chapel Street, amid stacks of boxes and makeshift furnishings cast off by the history of art department.
His year as a resident of New Haven has left Reynolds with a positive view of the city as a home for artists and art lovers. “We were in San Francisco and Washington when things were just taking off there, and I expect a similar resurgence around the cultural amenities in New Haven. It’s something you can just smell. I know of no other city in America—per capita—that has the resources this one does.”
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