Anna Hammond: You took an unusual path to becoming a museum director. Could you talk about it?
I came into this field as a practicing artist and as a teacher. I guess what first led me beyond my studio or an academic institution was my involvement in the mid-1970s co-founding 80 Langton Street, one of San Francisco’s premier alternative art spaces. That was a place where visual artists, poets, dancers, installation artists, all kinds of people came together and supported each others’ work.
I never saw this early experience leading to a career as an art administrator. But when you look back on it, my directorial training really came from artists’ organizations such as Langton Street. Then, in the early 1980s, I was asked to run Washington Project for the Arts, an artists’ space in the nation’s capital. My wife and I had had one show there and loved it as an organization, and when the director, a former student of mine, left, I was asked to take the job. I was supposed to be there for a one- or two-year leave that turned into six years.
Following my work at the Project, I was offered my first museum job—at my alma mater Andover. They called me up and asked me if I would come for a year to run the Addison Gallery. Within three and a half months they asked me to stay permanently and that turned into nine years. Now it’s been six years at Yale.
So yeah, it’s an odd path. Certainly I wasn’t trained in any way to work formally in a museum. By the time I came to Andover, I’d been on the committee for the gallery as an alumnus, and I’d guest-curated a show or two. But it was initially at the Washington Project for the Arts where I got much more involved in doing big exhibitions, and much more aggressively involved in fundraising, because the place needed a lot of money to keep going. I had to meet a payroll for the first time in my life and we did many ambitious and wonderful shows across all disciplines. So, no, I didn’t plan to become director, and it seems kind of odd some days [laughing] that I’m doing this, to tell you the truth.
AH: What are the skills that you bring as an artist that you think you’ve applied to being a director?
I think my direct interest in art itself, my visual intelligence and love of visual art, and an understanding of art beyond its immediate historical significance. There are some things artists just understand about how things are made, materially, and how they look, which we just feel confident in engaging.
I’ve tried to bring what I would call the same sense of curiosity or creativity to the work. I think that creating the program for a museum can be an imaginative act, just the way it works in one’s studio. Of course in a museum you’re aware of a much broader sense of context in which you’re operating imaginatively and creatively. I like that. And I enjoy working with other people. Supporting others' talents and vision is a big part of what a museum director does. So at a place like Yale, more and more my job is to get together the support for the work that all of these wonderfully talented people do here.
AH: What advice would you give someone thinking about pursuing a museum career?
I think you have to be in love with art to do this job, and you have to be in love with the notion of teaching and actively helping people learn, no matter what kind of museum you work in. For me, that’s very easy because I like both of those things very much. I particularly like that the Gallery is affiliated with an institution of learning and that students are constantly coursing through this place. The advice I would give is—be a teacher, no matter what you do.
The thing that was really important to me as a fairly homesick 14-year-old starting boarding school, interested in biology, was wandering into the Addison. It was in sitting in that museum on its couches in front of great paintings by Eakins and Homer and Hopper and so on that I started to make connections with the things I had looked at so closely in my science classes. That training was invaluable. It was that experience, in that context, where I had those long moments to be in personal dialogue with original works of art, that really changed my life. I was blessed to have this engagement with great art at an early age, parents who cared about and supported it, and then frankly to have had fantastic teachers at Andover and then at U.C. Santa Cruz and U.C. Davis. When a student walks into the Yale Art Gallery, we care about what they show an interest in. We help them do their student journal or find that painting that they may want to write about or that may help them take a next step in their studio practice. For me it was that one-to-one engagement with fantastic teachers and original works of art that made me committed to wanting to be in an institution that uses its collections to promote active learning. That’s why I’m at a place like Yale. I’d advise anyone wanting to pursue a museum career to think about whether or not you want to be a teacher and a learner in every part of your job.
Jock Reynolds spoke with Anna Hammond on June 14, 2004.