An Antiquarian Abundance on 37th Street

by Ben Diamond Photographed by John Calabrese and Graham S. Haber
Thursday, November 1, 2018

All museum directors, like all curators, love art deeply and passionately. But being a museum director requires skills wholly unrelated to art: the capability to lead a small army of curators, restorers, and archivists, all of whom have no real choice but to listen to your every word; the ability to command a room, whether at donor events, gallery tours or otherwise; and even—at least at some institutions—the fortitude and vigor to live for free in an elegant townhouse.

So perhaps most important is a certain quickness of the tongue, an ability to communicate smoothly with donors and patrons, to toss off quips and insights and make it all look easy.

Watching Colin Bailey make his rounds at the Morgan Library’s Fellows Reception, in the lobby of the museum’s new Renzo Piano building, one notes this quality about him. “I tend to run around just saying hello to people,” Bailey says of his role at a function like this. And indeed, it’s hard to think of this as anything but the vital role.

One wonders if it’s less than fun, having to spend so much time conversing with people who are perhaps not as interesting as the library’s founder J.P. Morgan himself. Sure, the museum has some truly fascinating patrons, like longtime Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau (who apologized to the director for not staying longer—he needed to make it to Bruce’s Broadway show). But most of them aren’t like that, and watching them talk to Bailey about other, irrelevant art exhibitions they’ve seen, or their high school reunions, is painful. Yet Bailey has that rare and much appreciated quality: the ability to seem like he gives a damn. He’s able to find that sweet spot between idle chitchat and a focus too intense to break. In groups, he’s willing to let others speak, venturing an opinion only when necessary. One on one, he listens. Most people, he seems to have realized, really just like hearing their own voices.

But when he does speak, people listen. Bailey speaks quietly, and it can be difficult to hear what he is saying. But what is a tremendous disadvantage for, say, a reporter following him as he greets donors, is undoubtedly a strength otherwise.

Bailey doesn’t see any of this interpersonal stuff as being particularly unique to the director’s job, and is quick to push against the notion that he needs to. “All of us, everyone, are ambassadors of the institution,” he says. “It’s my primary responsibility with the board to talk about what we’re doing, identify the needs, and ask people to help us, and sometimes that’s very clearly a process with foundations and applications and you follow that, but there’s nearly always a personal connection.”

But good as he is at establishing said connection with his artsy constituency, Bailey never intended on being a museum director. In fact, as he tells it, his entire career in art stems from a series of fortuitous coincidences. Growing up in London, he was not entirely lacking in art exposure—the music school he attended on Saturdays was right next to the Wallace Collection, a house museum comparable to the Frick—but had very little experience in the way of academic preparation. “There was no art training or art history in my education,” he says. “When I was at university you couldn’t really study art history. I didn’t really have a desire to anyway.” It was only with the guidance of a few charismatic professors at Oxford, where Bailey studied history, that art even became a possibility for him. “It was on the strength of two people,” he says. Francis Haskell—“a great empiricist art historian”—and Simon Schama, at the time very young. “[He] had come to be a professor at our college, and introduced art history books into the curriculum for straight history,” Bailey says. “I credit those two people. I think this happens with lots of students: someone engages you.”

From there, Bailey intended to pursue a career in academics, beginning with a PhD in art history. But his first museum fellowship would again nudge him from his expected path. It was the early 1980s—“the dark ages,” he says, “when in England at least, there wasn’t really obvious training”—and Bailey took a fellowship at the Getty Museum, in Malibu. “A program where you spent one year in a department that was appropriate for your work, half of the time writing your thesis or book, the other half working for the department.” It was his first experience working for acquisitions, researching objects and “talking in front of a painting rather than writing about it in an academic way.

“Being around the object was a bit of a revelation to me,” he says.

It was an important enough experience that Bailey changed his focus entirely, and embarked on a career in museums rather than academia. From that first fellowship, he would go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and from there to a slew of prestigious institutions, including the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the National Gallery of Canada, the Frick, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where he became director in 2013.

Throughout it all, his seniority has steadily increased, although, as he puts it, this too was a fluke. “To be perfectly frank, I did not aspire to being a director for much of my curatorial career,” he says. What he did aspire to was greater exposure to different roles within the museum. “At the Kimbell, I had very little administrative responsibility, the director was very present in everything. You just had a much less encumbered administrative world. I felt I needed some experience in that. Going to the National Gallery of Canada, being chief curator and the deputy director for all the art departments and the library and conservation, and doing my own curatorial projects, that really expanded, and I thought that was a very good balance, to be able to keep doing my own work, exhibitions, acquisitions and publications and then also have a role shaping the departments that reported to me.”

And then, inevitably, during his long tenure at the Frick, he started to think about leadership roles. “At some point maybe in my early fifties, I realized there is something I hadn’t done that I would like to do, and the challenge was how do you become a viable candidate for a directorship.” Fortunately for Bailey, the Center for Curatorial Leadership, a sort of incubator for museum directors, had just been established, and the then-curator applied.

From there, he would go on to the directorship of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, full expecting a long tenure there. But he would only stay for twenty-one months. The unexpected had again reared its head, and he was approached by headhunters from the Morgan.

It was a difficult transition at first. In his first weeks on the job, he set off alarms walking through areas he shouldn’t. “I’d go through tours when I wasn’t supposed to!” he says.

“Coming back to New York was not a learning curve, but being here was, even though it was familiar, still very overwhelming, since there’s such depth in each department.”

Since he took over, he’s come to appreciate the little things, like the Morgan’s illuminated manuscripts, a cornerstone of the collection, and the big things, like the museum’s truly generalist focus.

But he has also brought a level of organization to the museum, and instituted regular meetings. And, yes, there have been some staff shake-ups since his appointment, though he describes them as all coincidental. But by and large, the director has stayed the course. “I would say that the institution has always been very well stewarded, financially and programmatically,” he says.

The Morgan has a reputation, perhaps once deserved, for stuffiness. Like the Frick (where Bailey served as both chief curator and deputy director), its genesis comes from the collection of a rich white guy who died 100 years ago, and is located in the former home of said rich white guy. And J. Pierpont Morgan and his ilk, along with their wives, have been the museum’s principal financiers since its founding. Just walk in and notice the wall of donors, with Morgans aplenty, along with Mellons, Rockefellers, Lehmans and more. Notice, as well, the fact that placed directly in front of them is the “Nautical Bell from Pierpont Morgan’s third steam yacht, Corsair.”

But it has always had much more range, and exciting exhibitions than most people realize, and under Bailey’s leadership that has only continued. On the slate now is the exhibition of a seldom-seen Pontormo altarpiece that has never been exhibited before in the United States; an exhibition of Tintoretto paintings and drawings; and the season’s marquee exhibition, “It’s Alive: Frankenstein at 200,” a collection of art, drawings and memorabilia relating to Mary Shelley’s original gothic novel and all the subsequent adaptations. Is there a through line for any of these shows, some guiding principle for how a Morgan exhibition should look and feel? It’s hard not to notice a certain interdisciplinary quality to the shows that the library has mounted, and a fearless willingness to ask for big pieces from other institutions. “I’d like to think that when there is an opportunity for the Morgan to be a host of something that might not otherwise be seen in New York, within the parameters of our collection, and if we can find the appropriate space and the appropriate curatorial support for it, that’s something I’d like to do.”

But beyond that? Bailey, ever diplomatic, demurs. “I want the shows to be object-based or quality-based.”


CORRECTIONIn the paragraph referring to Bailey’s career in his early fifties, the tense of his quote was incorrectly rendered in the present tense.  He was speaking in the past tense.  Due to a misunderstanding of his recounting of his resume, Bailey’s tenure at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco was also misstated.  He spent 21 months there. 


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