Ralph Gardner Jr: A Jamesian Era Ends At Vassar

Aug 10, 2019

James Mundy, Director Emeritus of Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
Credit Ralph Gardner, JR.

Some didactic panels – those identifying placards to the side of paintings in museums – are more descriptive than others. But few, to my recollection, are as revealing as those currently on view at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

That’s because the show, “An Era of Opportunity: Three Decades of Acquisitions,” honors the career of James Mundy, the museum’s retiring Anne Hendricks Bass director. And the panels don’t just describe the typical stuff -- the name and dates of the artist and the title of the work – but also how James and Vassar acquired the art.

Even so, the panels don’t always tell the full story.

Take, for instance, “Seated Nude,” by Gaston Lachaise. This is a drawing in bold, simple strokes of a monumental woman, some of the details rather bold indeed.

The panel explains that James acquired the work in 1991, shortly after he was appointed director. It came from Katherine Kuh, a well-known curator and art critic, as well as a member of Vassar’s class of 1925.

Ms. Kuh wanted to donate a work in honor of James’ installation as director and had set out several drawings by the American sculptor Theodore Roszak on her New York City dining room table.

Instead, James looked up, pointed to the Lachaise hanging on a wall and explained that that was the work he especially coveted.

“Impossible,” Ms. Kuh replied.

The panel goes on to explain, “By the end of the spirited – and delightful – conversation about the Lachaise that followed, she had changed her mind and the drawing came to Vassar.”

Did I mention that the panel doesn’t tell the full story? The way the visit actually went down, according to James, says something about the job of a college museum director, or any museum director on the ball. Or, come to think of it, anybody else who’s enjoyed any success in his or her career.

It’s the part that I.Q. tests and SAT scores fail to detect. It sometimes goes by the name “charm” or “interpersonal skills” and it’s the reason, as someone once told me billionaire and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg told her, that “’C’ students run the world.”

Not that I’m suggesting James Mundy’s high school transcript was anything but stellar. I frankly have no idea. Our friendship developed well post high school.

“She said, ‘Let’s have a drink,’” James remembered, getting back to Katherine Kuh, class of ‘25. “She made a pitcher of martinis. We’re drinking martinis and chatting.”

Eventually, James explained that he had to catch the train back to Poughkeepsie. “At the door she says, ‘I’ve decided to give you the Lachaise.’”

As James and I toured the show’s five galleries of acquisitions, which runs through September 8th, he said, sotto voce, “This is the way things happen. Social lubrication.” Pun undoubtedly intended. “That’s what directors do. We schmooze.”

There are lots of cool jobs in the world. Some of them are obvious, lauded, overcompensated and exhaustively examined. Rock star, for example. Hollywood heartthrob. NBA MVP. Fortune 500 CEO.

But I’d have to add museum director, especially director of an impressive college art collection, in that cool jobs pantheon.

If there’s anything lovelier than being surrounded by works of art all day, it’s commuting to work across a campus as leafy as Vassar’s, taking trips to international art fairs and auction houses in search of paintings and other objects to enhance the institution’s prestige, and hobnobbing with successful alumni who might be separated from their heirlooms for the greater good of their alma mater.

The story about schmoozing Mr. Kuh only confirmed my suspicions.

But the panels also flesh out Mr. Mundy’s role across his 29-year career at Vassar. Lest we forget, the purpose of a college art museum isn’t just to give a school bragging rights but also, and most importantly, to offer students the opportunity to study works of art close up. It’s to provide them the experience of an exquisite Circle of Roger van der Weyden crucifixion or Gauguin and Chagall gouaches – all acquired during Mundy’s tenure – in person rather than just on slides in a darkened classroom.

“It’s an educational institution within an educational institution,” James explained of the museum. “We need to build an educational laboratory that reflects the interest of the curriculum.”

It’s also a matter of convenience.

“You don’t really need to make the trip to New York,” James said proudly as we stood before an iconic Francis Bacon portrait acquired before his tenure but that would be the pride of any world-class art museum.

“Most of the food groups are represented,” he added, as we traversed galleries boasting everything from 12th Century Japanese Buddhas to Frederic Churchs and Andy Warhols.

James is retiring but he isn’t quite leaving campus. He’s been given a space in Vassar’s art library that he happily describes as monastic. It’s where he hopes to complete the catalogue raisonné that he started before he arrived at Vassar. It’s of the more than 1,000 drawings of the Italian 16th-Century artist Federico Zuccaro.

One of those drawings, of St. Paul Healing the Lame, is part of the exhibition.

The wall panel explains that the work, which was included in a show that James assembled early in his career, came to Vassar after the now director emeritus discovered it for sale at a Christie’s auction in Paris. It’s a preparatory drawing for a Zuccaro painting in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel.

Waking early given the time difference between Poughkeepsie and Paris he bid over the phone. “When this drawing came up for sale it was as if someone had sprinkled fairy dust in the room – no one bid,” James explains on the wall text. “I made the first bid and it was hammered down and came to Vassar. It was as if it were destined to happen.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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