by Daniel Brown
The recent death of Millard Rogers, Director Emeritus of The Cincinnati Art Museum, not only brings back some extremely fond memories for many of us who knew him well, but also reminds me that we are searching now for another director of the art museum. I am hoping that we can remember so many of Millard’s strengths as we continue to search for someone to be hired for this same job.
Millard arrived in 1973, as I recall, and his first public pronouncement as director was to declare photography a legitimate art form, then a relatively radical thing to do, as photography was still considered a craft by many. Millard thus directed his staff to bring out the photographs stored in the basement, and install them as part of the museum’s permanent collection. It turned out that the museum owned some very fine photographs, and Rogers placed photography with prints, under the curatorial direction of Kristin Spangenberg, thus making her curator of prints, drawings, and photographs (works on paper). Eventually, Kristin added Dennis Kiel to her staff, who became a kind of de facto curator of photography, under her leadership. Spangenberg has long been known for her elegant taste and incredible knowledge of prints, and she approached photography with her usual enthusiasm and scholarship, which is what Rogers wanted.
It’s the word scholarship that pops to mind when I think of Millard. I believe that he was our last director to hold a Ph.D. in art history, as successive directors were encouraged to have business skills, though none has had an actual MBA (Director Barbara Gibbs had a master’s degree in arts administration, which does include business classes). Millard loved old master paintings, drawings, and prints, and his enthusiasm for them was entirely catching; if you were lucky enough, as I often was, to look at European art in these fields with him, you not only learned a lot, as his didactic nature always came through, but you also caught his enthusiasm—his love—for the art at hand. One assumed at that time, that the director of a museum knew a lot about art, and I am not certain that the kind of scholarship that Millard brought with him here, is expected in our current directors (or board members). Rogers’ tenure as director may well be seen as the last time that scholarship and connoisseurship is at the top of the food chain of what a museum is about, what its primary purposes are. Rogers, of course, was expected raise money, which he did rather quietly, and without complaint. He was lucky to have a board chairman, Jack Schiff, who fully believed in him and in the directions that Millard chose for the museum. They were an excellent match.
And so it was common, in those days, for catalogues to be commissioned and written, not for marketing purposes, but to show the museum world and its allies that Cincinnati could produce catalogues of lasting excellence, which built the collections’ reputation. I remember Kristin taking a good year off to research and write one of her many fine catalogues, and I wonder now, with the symbolism of Millard’s death, and the radical changes that Director Aaron Betsky made to the print department (he removed all drawings away from one area, and placed them with others, so that European drawings were moved to the curator of European art, and the like, which actually a European model of a museum). And Betsky hired the museum’s first curator of photography, the most important upgrade of photography since Roger’s original decision about that field.
But I wonder whether this level of connoisseurship is encouraged with the dedication and the passion that Rogers brought to the entire museum; catalogues have become a relatively rare phenomenon, the way scholarly lectures have become somewhat marginalized: everything has to have a marketing subtext nowadays, so that funds can be raised. In other words, the business aspects of running a museum seem to have superseded the scholarly side, which was Rogers’ most lasting legacy, I believe.
Millard was also a very accessible man, and he was fun to be with, as his very human side was always in evidence. He and his wife, Nina, and son Seth, who was a little boy when Millard arrived, and now a father of three, were one of those family units that appealed to one’s sense of stability. They bought a house in Mariemont which they stayed in until very recently, and Millard frequently hosted meetings of the Graphic Arts Forum at his house, which was also a welcoming one.
I am not suggesting that Millard’s era represents a lost Utopia, but I am suggesting that he ran the museum as a director should: he directed it, as he was the director. One of his most lasting contributions: he was the man who reached out to the contemporary arts lovers in this area, and built a bridge that had not existed between The Art Museum and The CAC. Under his tenure Alice and Harris Weston not only showed their massive collection of contemporary art at the museum, but also announced that they were bequeathing it to the museum that same night. From then on, one would see a change in the mix of people on the museum board, as more and more former CAC board members (George Rieveschl, David Reichert, Lois Rosenthal, and Alice Weston) all come to mind as the museum looked holistically at its role in this community. I mention this because many may remember Millard as a conservative presence, and, indeed he believed in conserving the best of our museum, but he also built bridges in ways that were very radical as well as healing at that time, and, thus, changed the permanent direction of this museum for the better. The museum also participated, under his leadership in what was then called Arts 86 and Arts 87, if my years are correct, which were elaborate and wildly successful collaborations between the art museum, the Taft, and the CAC. Those collaborations were a high moment, and involved contemporary dance as well as contemporary art, and still serve as a model for the collaborations that ArtsWave is currently and correctly so encouraging.
I always liked Millard as well as respected him. He was a kind, decent, ethical man who served, with hindsight, as a very important transitional figure between the “old boy” museum as it was under Director Philip Adams, to the high point of the museum under Director Timothy Rub. The other two directors since Millard retired were Barbara Gibbs and Aaron Betsky, whose legacies are less clear.
And so I ask the search committee and those members of the board who will be hiring the new director to try and remember the best of the Rogers era, and what made the museum seem so user friendly, then, as they move towards the hiring of a new director. Although, marketing and business skills are necessary in running a museum, let us not forget that museums all have scholarly purposes, which is what makes them truly enduring.