John E. Schloder is not the kind of person who leaves much to chance. He has been a museum man for about 30 years and in museums, long-range planning is the subtext of almost every facet of their management.
Yet much of his professional life has been shaped by the unexpected, unplanned opportunity that has pointed him in one way instead of another.
And serendipity also informs his most recent decision to retire, after nine years, as director of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.
A project commissioned by the French National Museums will take him full circle, back to Paris and the beginning of his career in the arts.
"I really want to get back into education," he says.
Appropriately, a gala in his honor June 12 will benefit the museum's education programs.
Though his primary love has always been education, his primary job when he arrived at the museum in 2001 was more hard-edged: Get a new wing built.
Any successful museum has an active, involved board and committed staff behind it. But the way those resources are marshalled is up to the director and so it has been at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The $21 million Hazel Hough Wing opened debt-free in 2008 and will be considered Schloder's greatest legacy though he has also tripled the permanent collection, overseen the most highly attended shows in the museum's history and significantly increased attendance and membership numbers. His longtime relationship with Dale Chihuly kick-started the city's association with the Washington glass artist.
But the bricks-and-mortar thing was really something he had never done, the thing he coveted.
"Most directors want and need a building project on their resume," he says.
Schloder, 62, did not plan as a young man on coming to St. Petersburg. Or building projects. Actually, he never planned on being a museum director when he landed in France in 1969 with an exchange program for medical students, which he was planning to be, having just graduated from Duquesne University with a degree in biology.
"It was an experimental program," he says, "and wasn't working. The other students went home but I stayed because I started loving the culture and the language."
He "just happened" to have a family friend who managed all the historic chateaux in the Loire Valley (serendipity at its best) who offered him a job to help organize an exhibition at one of them. He went to Paris to do research.
"The librarian said I was very good at it and told me I should study in Paris at the Louvre. It was my lightbulb moment. I took her advice."
His conservative Pennsylvania parents were taken aback. He never looked back.
Schloder received another degree in art from the Universite de Paris Sorbonne and L'Ecole du Louvre in 1973, then transferred to Columbia University for a doctoral degree. He completed his course work and had embarked on his dissertation about the art collection of Cardinal Richelieu, the powerful minister to Louis XIII.
"My adviser suddenly died," he says, "and no one on the Columbia faculty could take over, so my professors at the Sorbonne said they'd be happy to oversee the dissertation." (Another case of serendipitous contacts.)
He got a day job that would support him, while he wrote his paper, as an assistant curator in the education department of the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the great museums in the United States founded in the early 20th century.
After his boss sent him to the Getty Institute in California for a course of study on museum management, "I realized I was also comfortable with the business side of museums," he says. "I began to aspire to being a director."
Evolving with changing times
Museums have changed profoundly during the past 50 years. Physically, they still look like cultural bastions but their functions have shifted. In the old days, museums were passive receptacles of art, operating under the assumption that if you have good things, people will come to see them.
"When I first worked at the Louvre," Schloder says, "there were no guided tours."
In the late 1960s Thomas Hoving began to change that. The colorful director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art ushered in the era of the blockbuster and promoted the idea of art exhibition as populist spectacle. The museum's role was seen as a duty to engage the public actively, to draw them in with collateral activities such as musical performances, theater, movies, kids' events.
Schloder benefitted from the Cleveland Museum's progressive ideas about education and in 1988 he was appointed head of the education department and an assistant director.
It was the same year Thomas Krens became director of the Guggenheim Museum, one of the premier institutions in the United States. More than any other individual, Krens personified the new museum director. He had a master's degree is business but no art credentials and marketed the museum more as a brand than a cultural institution. He also developed the concept of satellite museums: Guggenheims in Las Vegas, Berlin and Bilbao, Spain. He drew criticism and controversy but enriched the endowment by almost $100 million.
"Everyone started to have this discussion," Schloder says, "about what degree a person really needed to have as a museum director."
He was solidly with convention: Schloder received a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne in 1988, writing and defending his dissertation in French. He graduated with honors.
He got his first directorship in 1991 at the Birmingham Museum of Art, an excellent regional institution of the South. He landed a big coup with a show that featured the Chinese terra cotta warriors, one of the first museums to exhibit them. (More serendipity: One of the curators had a connection to the curators in China overseeing the sculptures' conservation.)
He also met an artist who would play an important part in the growth of his career, a glass sculptor named Dale Chihuly who was acquiring an international reputation for his dramatic installations. In 1996, Chihuly was commissioned to create one for the Birmingham Museum.
But ambitious museum directors have to stay mobile. So he moved to Omaha, Neb., when the Joslyn Art Museum offered him the job as its director in 1997. It was a smaller museum but had just added a prestigious wing designed by Norman Foster and needed the collection reinstalled, another important component of a full resume.
Among the exhibitions there during his three years was a wildly successful one featuring Chihuly's glass art.
Chihuly suggested he apply for the director's job that had recently opened up at the Naples Museum of Art. Schloder was wearying of the harsh Nebraska winters and wanted to live in Florida. The relatively new Naples Museum had great growth potential and he needed a building project. So he came to Southwest Florida in 2000.
Schloder said that almost from the start he knew the job was a mistake for him and that there would probably not be an expansion.
He quit and, for the first time since his days as a foreign exchange student in 1970, had no idea what he was going to do.
"I have always loved teaching," he says, "so that's what I did. I taught English as a second language to Haitians in the Naples area. It helped a lot that I spoke French since they also speak a form of it."
Still, serendipity seemed to be failing him.
Several months later, Michael Milkovich, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, called him. He was retiring and thought Schloder should consider applying.
It was everything he sought in a job: a building campaign, potential for expanding its permanent collection, the location.
"So really," he said, "even though it seemed like a disaster, the Naples job got me to Florida and I was available for this job that was perfect for me. So I consider that very serendipitous."
Period of great growth
Even in the midst of a recession, the Museum of Fine Arts collection has grown from 5,000 works to 15,000. They're mostly works on paper — lots of photography — but there have been significant and singular works. The most spectacular was the gift of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting about two weeks ago that was a complete surprise. The first work of video art was added to the collection on his watch as well as a painting by the beloved Andrew Wyeth.
The exhibitions during his years at the museum also illustrate his artful balance between the scholarly and pragmatic. His friend Dale Chihuly had a big show that brought in a largely non-museum crowd and French impressionist Claude Monet starred in one that received coverage from learned arts journals. (It was also a commercial success, however.)
He could have stayed on, but museum directors tend to be a restless group.
"The minute a project's done," he says, "we start looking around for something new."
He says he has stayed a year longer than he planned because the board of trustees asked him to, wanting the stability during a difficult economic downturn. A professional company is handling the search for a successor, to be announced Aug. 1.
Meanwhile, Schloder commutes between St. Petersburg and Paris now that the Richelieu exhibit planning is in high gear. (The show opens in March 2011.)
After that, more independent curatorial work, research, writing, teaching. He's not sure. He figures he'll get lucky.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.
A seated, black-tie dinner honoring John Schloder is 6:30 p.m. June 12 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. Tickets $250. Proceeds will support the museum's educational programs. For tickets, e-mail [email protected] (please note "Director's Gala" in subject line) or call (727) 551-9598.