Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum
By Kevin Kipp
Coming from Boston, Brent Benjamin was surprised how warm St. Louis is...the people, not the weather.
Benjamin, the Saint Louis Art Museum’s new director says, “The welcome has been amazing and overwhelming.”
Benjamin’s first big hug from the St. Louis community was back on May 2 at an open house. The event featured Benjamin, Beckmann and Paris, and cake. It drew a steady stream of trustees, commissioners, docents and well-wishers.
“A few of the folks who shook my hand said they really came to see the show or have cake,” he chuckles, “but I was gratified that so many people came.”
Benjamin, 40, arrives in St. Louis after 12 years at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, most recently as Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs. That put him in charge of collections, programs, exhibitions, the library and archives.
And he was responsible for establishing the MFA’s first permanent galleries for African, Oceanic and pre-Columbian art. He also spearheaded the formation of a sister-institution relationship with a museum in Nagoya, Japan. And he has lectured or published on topics ranging from museum architecture and administration to cubism and Dutch landscapes.
What, no gift shop experience?
Perhaps that gap in his background is offset by his tenure as a director of the organization in Cambridge, Mass., that governs the Head of the Charles Regatta, the largest boat-rowing race in the world.
He also rowed competitively in Cambridge; here his single-seat scull is just for exercise on Creve Coeur Lake. He is also an avid skier.
Benjamin acknowledged that the Saint Louis Art Museum’s strength in pre-Columbian, Oceanic, and other areas of art contributed to his decision to accept the position here. But there was so much more.
“I had been working in one of the great museums of the world with one of the best collections...the entire range of artistic achievement,” he says. “Besides quality, they have masses and masses of objects...great depth.”
The Saint Louis Art Museum, too, has a comprehensive collection of high quality, with depth in several areas he says. “But most of what’s interesting to look at is on display. Still these are objects of tremendous quality.
“There is a difference between a great Monet, and so-so Monet. And we have great ones always on display,” Benjamin says.
Moreover, this museum’s collections of ancient American and Oceanic arts (and 20th century paintings and decorative arts) are far larger than the galleries can accommodate.
Benjamin sees the St. Louis museum’s other charms, too: “its location in Forest Park. Also the incredible strength of the institutions in town besides the art museum: the symphony, history museum, the zoo, botanical gardens, opera, the Muny, the universities.”
After a breath (but not as an afterthought) Benjamin adds, “And the Cardinals, the Blues...it’s a very rich collection of institutions here that speaks to the vitality of this city and opportunities to collaborate with others who are passionate. Clearly there’s a lot happening here.”
Hook this guy up with the economic development people.
Benjamin applauds diverse activities and institutions. He respects all manner of human achievement, athletic and aesthetic. This eclectic appreciation reflects his and his four younger siblings’ upbringing in Owatonna, Minn., 45 minutes south of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Benjamin on Benjamins: “My parents thought that you should take advantage of what was around you. We were encouraged... actually, escorted to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and children’s theater, ball games and hockey games, all the things that a city like Minneapolis-St. Paul or St. Louis offer. Among our childhood experiences loomed the arts, which my parents thought was part of being a well-rounded citizen.”
After high school (Benjamin was captain of the swimming team), he went off to St. Olaf in Northfield, Minn., and received his undergraduate degree cum laude in 1981. He followed that with a couple of years in Houston at Rice’s Graduate School of Architecture.
Then it happened. He signed on as a curatorial intern at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
“I loved it!” Benjamin says.
His work included both intellectual and physical contact with art: researching it and packing it up for shipment.
“I worked with motivated, passionate people,” he says. “It was wonderful, and I asked my advisor, ‘How do I do this for a living?’
“She said, ‘Get your master’s at Williams College.’”
He did, graduating in 1986, first-in-his-class at a first-class college in Williamstown, Mass., tucked away in the northwest corner of the state.
He’s worked art museums since.
In St. Louis he’ll work on the museum’s recently advanced 10-year strategic plan. It’s premature to be specific, he says, but offers, “Every director wants to leave the museum a better place. I hope my successor will think I did.”
Kevin Kipp is bubble-in-chief at Bubble Communications, a creative services and community relations firm in St. Charles.