UC Davis Grads and Museum Directors Talk About Role of University Museums

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Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director, in front of Sol Le Witt’s Wall Drawing #786A, Yale University Art Gallery

Feb. 3, 2017 - They lead major museums, but the directors of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yale University Art Gallery have another thing in common – both attended UC Davis.

Jock Reynolds (M.F.A. ‘72) became director of the Yale University Art Gallery in 1998. He guided the museum’s buildings through a 12-year, $135 million renovation and enhanced and enlarged its endowment and world-class, globe-spanning collection.

Neal Benezra (M.A, art history, ‘78) has headed the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (SFMOMA) since 2002, managed its recent three-year, $305 million renovation and expansion, and oversaw its Campaign for Art that garnered nearly 3,000 works by artists including Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock and David Smith. 

The two will join Rachel Teagle, founding director of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, in a roundtable discussion Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. at the museum. It is free and open to the public.

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Neal Benezra, director of SFMOMA since 2002 (Photo by Beth LaBerge; courtesy SFMOMA)

“These directors bring knowledge of UC Davis art and artists that is both scholarly and personal,” Teagle said. “They will discuss their time here, the interdisciplinary aspect of the program and how it has informed their work as museum directors. We’ll talk about the role of the university museum and how university and civic museums differ and complement one another. We’ll look at how university museums contribute to the cultural landscape and their role on a campus today.”

Continuing ties to UC Davis

Both Benezra and Reynolds have kept ties to UC Davis and the artists who taught here.

Even though Reynolds’ has spent most of his career on the East Coast, he grew up in Davis and spent a lot of time on campus where his father was a microbiology professor. The final exhibition he will organize at Yale before retiring next year will be by Manuel Neri, one of his professors at UC Davis.

The first exhibition Benezra curated was a 1986 show by Robert Arneson, who taught at UC Davis for 40 years. A native of the Bay Area, Benezra also studied at UC Berkeley and Stanford University. 

Director Artist Collaborator

Jock Reynolds and his wife Suzanne Hellmuth, a dancer and choreographer, met in the 1970s when he was designing sets for dance companies in San Francisco.
The two are artistic collaborators on works that are as much about performance and staging as proper visual arts. Their most recent was at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

“What we’re really doing is paying tribute to UC Davis and what it did for us,” Reynolds said. “The teachers were so generous, they were very encouraging and treated us as they treated one another. What I saw and experienced at Davis was rare, but I didn’t know how unique it was until later.”

Along with Neri, Reynolds studied with Tio Giambruni, Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest, Roland Peterson, Robert Arneson and William Wiley—all of whom are included in the Manetti Shrem exhibition “Out Our Way” about the founding members of the UC Davis art department.

Collaboration and community building

The collaborations among the arts, theatre and music departments that he was part of at UC Davis served him well as a museum director, he said. 

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A flyer for a 1970s "Out Our Way" event Reynolds was part of.

“I worked with composers and theater directors and designers as well as other visual artists,” he said. “I learned about community and collaboration and I see directing a museum as a creative and imaginative life that’s founded on those principles.”

Because of Reynolds’ role as a practicing artist, a former art professor and the child of professors, working at a university-affiliated teaching museum like the Yale Gallery of Art, and supporting those like the Manetti Shrem, are important to him. 

“A teaching university museum provides students with an understanding of the visual world that doesn’t get mentioned often enough,” he said. “I believe strongly in that and never wanted to leave the teaching museum world.”

- Jeffrey Day, content strategist, Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies. jaaday@ucdavis.edu