The director of Harvard’s art museums announced earlier this month that he will be the latest in a series of high-profile departures from the University.
University Art Museums Director James Cuno will leave Harvard next January to assume a new position at the University of London.
Cuno will lead the Courtald Institute of Art in England, which will soon become an independent college within the University of London system.
The move, announced earlier this month, comes at a critical point for Harvard’s museums, as the University seeks to find a location for a new modern art museum. The plans to build the museum in the Riverside neighborhood of Cambridge have thus far been blocked by residents who oppose the construction.
Some have also speculated that Cuno’s departure from one of the wealthiest university museum systems in the world may have been due to displeasure with University President Lawrence H. Summers.
A story in the Boston Globe quoted an anonymous colleague of Cuno’s who called the departure to the Courtald “very much a sideways move.”
But Cuno said the move was not due to frustration with University administration, saying the job carried only that difficulty which “comes naturally when working as one part of a very large institution with multiple and competing agendas.”
Under former University president Neil L. Rudenstine—whose wife was an art historian—the position of University Art Museums Director reported directly to the president. Summers has changed the post so that Cuno reports to Provost Steven E. Hyman.
But Cuno said that this had not been a problem for the museums.
“I’ve only found support from both the president and provost,” he said. “The fact that I’m reporting to the provost instead of president is not a sign of disinterest.”
He said his move was instead influenced by both “professional and personal” factors.
Cuno said his youngest child entering college in the fall provided an opportunity for a big move.
“Here’s a chance for my wife and me to reinvent ourselves and to do so in London, one of the most exciting cities in the world,” Cuno said.
Cuno called his new position at the Courtald “an opportunity to have a role to play in the development of this cultural center in the heart of London.”
The Courtald holds a pre-eminent spot in the British art world, though its collection is substantially smaller than Harvard’s.
Cuno, who will become the first American to direct the Courtald, has shown an interest beyond museum administration, applying his art interests to teaching. At Harvard, he taught several popular classes, including a freshman seminar and a Core Curriculum course on Impressionist art.
The role in London will also give Cuno power to act more unilaterally, without authorization from the myriad departments which oversee the museums at Harvard.
“It’s going to be different because it’s not as complicated an institution, and I am director of the whole thing,” he said.
Cuno departs with an 11-year legacy of having brought strength and energy to the Harvard museums.
In a statement, Summers praised Cuno “as an eminent curator and an institutional leader of skill and intelligence.”
Since Cuno became Harvard’s art museums director in 1991, he has brought in a much-needed influx of money to the museums—which comprise the Fogg, the Arthur M. Sackler and the Busch-Reisinger—doubling the staff and budget of the organization.
He also helped to expand the Straus Center for Conservation, forming a partnership with the Whitney Museum that brought in Carol Mancusi-Ungaro to head up a new Center for the Technical Study for Modern Art.
Cuno is well known throughout the art world. He serves as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and frequently travels the lecture circuit.
Hyman will lead an international search for a replacement this summer and fall, according to a released statement.
The proposal to build a new modern art museum—widely considered Cuno’s pet project—has been held up for years due to objections from the Riverside community.
“The degree of opposition to the museum proposal by the Riverside study committee was really very significant,” said Mary Power, Harvard’s senior director of community relations. “There was very little interest expressed in considering an option that would allow the museum proposal to go forward.”
Many view a new modern art museum, for which schematic designs already exist, as a necessary expansion to exhibit Harvard’s huge—and largely undisplayed—collection of modern art.
The Fogg’s modern collection is limited to a few rooms of the works owned by Harvard—whose permanent collection of modern art, according to Harry Cooper, associate curator for modern art at the Fogg, encompasses over 1,000 paintings, sculptures and decorative arts created since 1900—not even including prints and drawings.
“Of those 1,000 there are about 200 objects of real importance that I, as a curator, would be happy to have displayed on the walls,” Cooper said in an interview in May.
It is also rumored that construction on a new museum in Riverside may be delayed while existing museums are considered for moves to new developments in Allston.
Power, who praised Cuno as an “exciting person to work with,” said Harvard’s physical planning committee was considering “a scenario for Allston that would include facilities for the arts.”
Cuno said these uncertainties were not a factor in his decision to leave Harvard.
“I don’t feel like we are being sacrificed for the development in Allston,” he said.
But other institutional hassles have plagued Cuno’s tenure.
Harvard has considered improvements to the Fogg building, including improved climate control, increased security and revamped infrastructure.
Some say these efforts were delayed because Harvard’s priorities were on other building projects, such as the proposed Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) in mid-Cambridge, which Power said has taken up a lot of energy.
“There a has been a focus of effort recently on gaining the necessary support from the city council for the easement for the tunnel,” Power said, referring to the proposed tunnel under Cambridge Street that would connect the two CGIS buildings.
Cuno said his move was timed to minimize disruption, since the plans for the museum expansions have been completed while community relations work and building lie ahead.
“This is the right time to [leave], because otherwise starting into those projects would mean a commitment of many other years,” he said.
“The next stages are long-term stages.”
—Staff writer J. Hale Russell can be reached at email@example.com.
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