In April 2011, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) announced that Bonnie Pitman would be stepping down from her post as the Museum’s Eugene McDermott Director this month due to health reasons. Ms. Pitman was gracious enough to grant Dallas Art News an interview to discuss the highlights of her tenure at the DMA.
After speaking to Ms. Pitman for only a minute we could tell that her ailment had weakened her voice. By the end of the interview we realized her spirit and love of art was fully intact. We only requested 15-20 minutes for this interview, but we feel that Ms. Pitman would have gone on for hours talking about the Dallas Museum of Art, the talented curatorial staff, their wonderful collection, the generous donors and you, the reason for every thing she had done for the last eleven years.
We asked Ms. Pitman about her favorite exhibits, works of art, acquisition and directorial perks, but we failed to ask about her accomplishments. Following up with Ms. Pitman through the DMA, she felt remiss for not mentioning the Center for Creative Connections, which opened in 2008. Ms. Pitman said the Center has quickly become one of the most popular destinations in the Museum, visited by about 2400 people a week. The interactive and innovative learning environment has provided a new model for art education and interpretation. Ms. Pitman, whose career started out in museum education, is especially proud of the Center.
This month Ms. Pitman was named as recipient of the 2011 American Association of Museums (AAM) Award for Distinguished Service to Museums. Ms. Pitman will receive her award at the AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in Houston next week.
The Dallas Museum of Art kindly provided us some images from Ms. Pitmans career at the Museum. Click here to see the gallery of images at the end of the interview.
Q&A with Bonnie Pitman
Q. We see you started out as an artist but you switched to art history at Sweet Briar College. Do you still paint and draw?
No, I don’t. That is something I think about for the future. Being an administrator and curator overcame my creative abilities at some point.
It takes an enormous amount of time, passion and focus to be a good artist. I vividly remember realizing the moment when my hand was not as alive as it used to be. And so I put aside painting and drawing and decided to come back to it at another time, out of respect.
Q. Since you arrived at the DMA in 2000, can you tell us about a few of your favorite exhibits?
Oh, yes, there have been countless ones.
One of the great highlights for me was the J.M.W. Turner exhibition, which we were partners with the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum. I love Turner’s work and it was an extraordinary exhibition.
Another exhibition that was important because of our great collection was the exhibition on Mondrian (The Transatlantic Paintings: Work by Piet Mondrian, 2001) that we did when Dorothy [Kosinski]1 was here. We took the exhibition from the Harvard Art Museums because we own the great James H. and Lillian Clark Foundation collection. It put our Mondrians into a beautiful context and helped our audience to more fully understand his work. For me it was one of the shows that [signaled] a turning point in our making the connections between our collection and special exhibitions.
The Fast Forward (Fast Forward: Contemporary Collections for the Dallas Museum of Art, 2006/7) exhibition over took the whole first floor of the Museum, including the Sculpture Garden. It was a celebration beginning in November 2006 and went through May 2007. Fast Forward was part of the joint bequest announced in 2005 to the Dallas Museum of Art from the Hoffman, Rachofsky, and Rose Collections, along with other promised gifts from Gayle and Paul Stoffel, Amy and Vernon Faulconer and Nancy and Tim Hanley among others. It also showcased our incredible contemporary collection. I can close my eyes and still see moments of that exhibition so clearly. [Fast Forward] was almost 70,000 square feet by the time we were all done. It was a massive exhibition curated by Maria de Corral (guest curator).
The beautiful Mayan show (Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, 2006) was another really great exhibition that showcased some of the masterworks works in our ancient American collection. We were able to encourage our community to then go to the fourth level and see the collection of this important material.
The one I loved that just closed was Roslyn Walker’s2 exhibition on African masks (African Masks: The Art of Disguise, 2010/11). I thought it was a brilliant installation in terms of the presentation of the costumes and the regalia that the artists used. We did such amazing programming around it. And the smARTphone tour will be a permanent addition to our collections. I think this exhibition really brought to life a new level of understanding of African art. It was an incredible show and a surprise to everybody and got terrific attendance.
And the [Gustav] Stickley show (Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement, 2011t) that just closed [this month]. Six of our pieces were the framework for that exhibition and Kevin Tucker3 did a terrific job of creating that room and the style and the artist. His catalog added measurably to a new understanding of this artist’s work at the turn of the century.
There were some amazing shows. That is the wonderful part of being an encyclopedic museum is that you can see art from all over the world and throughout time. Of course Tut was great, but that was not an exhibition that we created. We presented it. So I picked shows the DMA created.
Q. How did you improve the DMA’s collection during your tenure?
The greatest joy of any director or curator in a museum is working on the growth of the collection, because that is something that will be forever in the community. That to me is the core of our responsibility.
There have been a number of ways we have worked on that. One is bringing in great curatorial talents in over the years: Roslyn Walker, African curator; Olivier Meslay4, European and American art; Jeffrey Grove5, contemporary art; Heather MacDonald6, European art; and Kevin Tucker, decorative arts and design. These great curators attract new energy for the Museum’s collection and bring in collectors and donors.
First you have to focus on the talent and then you have to cultivate the collectors in your community. And we have a lot to be grateful for because we have had new acquisitions in our European collections that Olivier and I had been working on with the Caillebotte (Yellow Rose in a Vase) and the Kirchner (Four Wooden Sculptures, rector / Ice Skater, verso) and the Signac (Comblat-le-Château, the Meadow, Opus 161) and the Vuillard (Chestnut Trees). I’m sure you have seen these new works on the second floor. These four major acquisitions were funded by the Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund. They have transformed that collection. For example we acquired our first German Expression work ever by Ernest Ludwig Kirchner.
The ability to work with the McDermott Art Fund consistently over the years acquiring works of excellence for the Museum has been one of my great joys. The Signac takes your breath away when you’re on the second floor. You just know when a painting is right for our collection and when you see it in the gallery and how it relates to other works of art there your heart stops and you just fall in love.
The McDermott Art Fund also acquired last year two very significant gold pieces7 for the African Collection, the first ever.
In the contemporary area it is amazing the growth in this collection. We have gotten so many works and recent gifts. [Like] the acquisition of the Marlene Dumas, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Jim Hodges, and still this, which is a dazzling ten panel gold leaf painting that he did. The Olafur Eliasson was recently up. There are so many works. The David Altmejd8 that we had up when we had the Performance Art exhibition that it is just a huge, broad range of growth in that collection.
Then you have when you talk about the global collections, the recent gift from the Pollock family of the Mayan eccentric flint9 from 600 A.D., which is a companion piece to the great eccentric flint we have on the fourth floor. They are both up now. And that is such a unique piece. The story is equally riveting. Lonnie Pollock bought this piece at the same time the DMA bought our eccentric flint. He loved it so much that he and his wife Shirley kept it in their home. It wasn’t until Shirley passed away that it came to the Museum. But we always hoped that it would come here. And this great Mesoamerican piece, that has been part of the Dallas community, to then see the family give it to the Museum all these years later is the story of Dallas. There are people who love art and then want to share it with their community.
The Barrett family10, Nona and Richard Barrett, have given so generously of their Texas collection of historical Texas early 20th century and more recently a few years ago contemporary collection.
It is extraordinary that people love art and they want to share it and the Museum is the forum or vehicle which is that place that that can happen. So our job is to share it and make it come alive in the community. There are so many wonderful donors and collectors to thank. These are just a few of them.
So, I’m really proud of the growth of the collection. A major part of the work we focused on together.
Q. In your book, Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums (2011), you mention four clusters: Observer, Participant, Independent and Enthusiast. Which one are you?
That’s a great question.
I think everybody is some combination of different clusters. There’s no question that I fit into two categories, which we learned in the research. One is I love art and I am definitely an Enthusiast because I just love going to museums and seeing them and participating in them in all ways. There’s no question about that. But I am also an Independent. I also love going to art museums and having art experiences on my own – just looking quietly and reflectively with the art. I think I am a combination of those two, the Enthusiast and the Independent. It just depends on what the moment is.
What are you?
We enjoy seeing the art. When an exhibit is really crowded, we enjoy looking at the people because they become so much more interesting.
People’s responses to works of art I think are at the center of how we learn. That’s why I think our Museum has been successful because we have taken what we have learned about our audience and really applied it thoughtfully and experimentally. So that has helped us to grow an institution.
Q. What is your jewel acquisition? What is the one piece you are most proud of?
That is an impossible question because it is like a family. You love them all so much.
In some ways the Jim Hodges, and still this (2009), this is this ten-panel piece with the two by two by eights with gold leaf that we bought. I happen to love Jim’s work. This one, if you’ve seen it encircles the viewer with this golden, enigmatic landscape, and I think it’s because I can walk in there and be totally transformed by the experience of that piece. It is probably one of my favorite pieces that we acquired.
I would say the other one that is right next to it is this incredible African gold lion that would have been on the hilt of a king’s staff. It is in the African collection.
And it is not because they are both gold, but because they are fairly recent acquisitions.
There are so many. I just look back over the eleven years that I have been here and fall in love over and over again whether it’s with Indonesian art or the great new Gandharan Buddha that we bought. If you go up to the third floor there is a Thinking Buddha11. You almost feel him rising up. You can see the breath in his belly and the beautiful jewelry all over him and that is the power of art is when you are transported like that.
There are so many pieces. I would be hard pressed to pick just one.
Q. In the great hunt for art, what is the one that got away?
We have had grand chases for many pieces. The hardest part is being at auction these days because you get outbid.
I had a collector recently say to me that she thinks about all the ones that got away because that is the hardest part of it. You remember those.
There were several times we went after [Viktor Schreckengost’s] Jazz Bowl (1930s). We were outbid several times at auction and finally we were able to get one.
If you know the piece that you want you just have to stay present and eventually you will find it.
Roslyn Walker was looking for African gold. We probably looked at 40 pieces of African gold before we found two that we really loved and could present to the collection. It is the question that is sometimes interesting – for there are ones that got away.
Q. What is the best perk for being a director of a major American museum?
I think there are three things. I think it’s being in love with the institution’s mission and its connection to the community. And by that I am saying all the people that make it a great place, the staff, the trustees, the wonderful collectors and of course the audience that comes. For me that ability to connect art and people is at the center of my work and life and to have had the privilege of doing it in Dallas has been one of the great gifts of my career.
Q. If you could do it all over again here in Dallas, would you do anything differently?
The amazing part about Dallas, when I came here, people said to me that they wanted the institution to move forward and they were willing to support the kinds of experiments and changes that we went through like being open 100 hours starting with the Late Nights, experimenting with the website. So, what empowered the staff and the trustees was this partnership about making experiments and taking risks. I wouldn’t change that at all.
I wish there had been even more resources to do even more experiments and changes. The economy has challenged every institution in the community. We could have done more if there had been more.
We did an extraordinary amount with what we had. I don’t look back and think about anything that I would have changed. I just would have wanted to do more.
Q. You would have liked more resources to do more?
Who wouldn’t want that?
We could have bought more art. We could have brought more people into the Museum. We could have had even more extraordinary acquisitions and exhibitions.
What we did do was phenomenal. I think that is the accomplishment and the celebration. The institution has come to a new level of understanding about its role in the community and has a level of recognition nationally and internationally.
I look back with Jack Lane, who was the director before me, and with all our staff and the trustees and I say wow, we did really great work together.
Being a director is about the team. It is about everybody being a part of it. And being true to the mission of the Museum.
Q. How has the internet changed the museum experience? Is interactive content really making the museum more enjoyable?
Yes, and I think it is opening new doors. You can do the smARTphone tour from your office or your home. I think all of the new technologies, whether it’s the use of social media and having conversations on Facebook or participating in a Twitter treasure hunt during a DMA Late Night or presenting an interactive collections-based exhibition, like African Masks.
I’ll never forget when we went on Flickr and we found all these people taking photographs of our Museum. We didn’t even know this. We found there was a whole community out there recording events, the same as on YouTube, and sharing them with other people.
We began to talk with those individuals and communities and bring them into the Museum. You can see the Museum through other eyes, which is very exciting. You can provide more content on the internet or on the smart phone tours than you could ever provide in a 150 word label.
It is opening the whole museum experience up and making it transportable so you can have it right in your office or home. The internet has in fact made the DMA a global museum with an international audience.
When I was meeting with Tom Campbell12, he was fascinated that I could three years ago bring up on my little iPhone and show him not just the web component of the Museum but showed him our smARTphone tours, which are these interactive tours at the Museum. And that led to a lot of changes at the Met.
We have been lucky to be on the cutting edge of a lot of that technology.
Q. Are you looking forward to the new park over Woodall Rogers?
Absolutely. It’s going to be a wonderful bridge between the Museum and the residential community on the other side of Dallas. I think it is going to enliven and connect the Trinity River Project to the new Nature & Science Museum all the way up to the [Dallas] Arts District. I think it’s going to be a great connector for many neighborhoods of this great city.
Dallas is a city that always thinks big. And that is a mindset that I appreciate, admire, and enjoy.
Special thanks to Jill Bernstein, Director of Public Relations at the Dallas Museum of Art, and the staff of the Dallas Museum of Art. This interview would not be possible without their efforts.
The Dallas Museum of Art kindly provided us some images from Ms. Pitmans career at the Museum. Click here to see the gallery of images at the end of the interview.
1. Dorothy Kosinski was the Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture and The Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art at the time of exhibit.
2. Roslyn Walker is Senior Curator, The Arts of Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas and The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art.
3. Kevin W. Tucker is The Margot B. Perot Curator of Decorative Arts and Design.
4. Olivier Meslay is the Senior Curator of European and American Art and the Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art.
5. Jeffrey Grove is The Hoffman Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art.
6. Heather MacDonald is The Lillian and James H. Clark Associate Curator of European Art.
7. New acquisitions in African art come from the Asante people of Ghana, dating from the first part of the 20th century. These works include:
- Linguist’s Staff (Kyeame Poma), made of gold-leaf and wood, is an important addition to the African art collection. Complete linguists’ staffs are not often available because most collectors are only interested in the finial, or sculpted “proverb image.” This linguist’s staff is an excellent example of its type, and exemplifies gold as an important material for making art.
- Sword ornament in the form of a lion, made of cast gold and felt, once adorned a ceremonial iron state sword that had a carved wooden hilt covered with gold leaf and sheathed in stingray skin. The few cast metal sword ornaments are authorized reproductions made from latex molds. This lion is a rare original casting.
8. In 2009, the DMA acquired a major large-scale sculpture by David Altmejd, considered to be among the artist’s most ambitious works to date. Measuring approximately 11 by 18 feet, it is called The Eye. Earlier that year, the Museum acquired The outside of inside, an installation by Olafur Eliasson.
9. In March 2010, the DMA announced the acquisition of a major work of ancient American art, the Eccentric flint with heads of K’awil, the god of royal lineage, from the Maya culture of Guatemala and Mexico (A.D. 600-900). Considered a masterwork of Mesoamerican art, the flint was acquired by the DMA as a bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence S. Pollock, Jr., and it is currently on view in the DMA’s fourth floor galleries of ancient American art.
10. In January 2008, The Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) announced that Nona and Richard Barrett of Dallas gave more than 100 works from their outstanding private collection of contemporary Texas art to the permanent collections of both museums. The Barretts’ gift to Texas’s two largest museums, and to two of the nation’s most prominent artistic institutions, represents artwork from the 1970s to the present, with the majority of the pieces dating from the 1980s and 90s. This gift follows the Barretts’ earlier gift in March 2007 to the DMA of more than 60 works from their collection of early Texas art (primarily from the 1930s-50s) that was on display in 2007 in an exhibition titled Lone Star Legacy: The Barrett Collection of Early Texas Art.
11 Thinking Bodhisattva, Gandharan culture, Hadda region, 4th to 6th century A.D.
Terracotta. Height: 33 1/8 in. (84.138 cm), Width: 24 1/2 in. (62.23 cm), Depth: 7 in. (17.78 cm). Geographic location: Hadda region, Afghanistan
Dallas Museum of Art, Wendover Fund, gift of David T. Owsley via the Alvin and Lucy Owsley Foundation, Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund, and General Acquisitions Fund
12. Thomas P. Campbell is the director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art