Arthur R. Blumenthal is not your traditional museum director. The tall, distinguished, slightly quirky art scholar will tell you as much himself. Blumenthal, 63, has been with the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College for almost 18 years, and he gets bored at museum director association meetings.
"Museology [the discipline of museum design, organization and management] is deadly boring," Blumenthal says, his soft voice full of dramatic emphasis and dry humor. "I love art. My life is about art."
As proof, Blumenthal and his colleagues raised $4.5 million through private donations, achieving what some thought was at best unnecessary and at worst impossible. And although the achievement was a team effort, it was Blumenthal's personal vision and determination that provided a worthy home to the 6,000 works in the Cornell's permanent collection, which is lauded as one of the most distinguished collections in the Southeast. "Our collection is mini-encyclopedic," Blumenthal says, in that it has significant breadth and depth of art from both historical and style perspectives.
Accreditation by the American Association of Museums is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a museum, and the Cornell has carried that distinction for more than 25 years. The grueling review process takes place every 10 years, and "signifies excellence within the museum community. It is a seal of approval and strengthens individual museums and the entire field by promoting ethical and professional practices," explains the AAM website. Of the 60 art museums in Florida, only 24 are accredited.
And now, after a year of dark galleries in the Cornell museum thanks to a renovation that saw almost 80 percent of the 1941 building replaced with new construction growing from 5,000 square feet to 9,000-plus it's almost time to welcome the public again. The grand reopening is set for Jan. 22.
Blumenthal started at the Cornell in June 1988, hired by then provost Dan DeNicola. It only took him about a year to start pushing for change. "Thad Seymour was president of Rollins at that time a wonderful man," says Blumenthal. "We both had worked at Dartmouth College; he was the dean there and I was the curator. I had started complaining to the provost, my boss, that there was no space to store things, that there was no space to exhibit things, that the galleries were dark and small and the offices were totally inadequate. And he said, 'Why don't you start a building campaign?' It was such a simple thing," he says with a laugh. "So now in 2006, almost 17 to 18 years later, three [Rollins College] presidents later, four architects later, after 20 or 30, maybe 40, different board members of the Board of Visitors, our advisory council, and of course, after many new trustees, thousands of new students, a complete change in staff at least two complete changes in staff and growing from maybe 200 individual members to close to 1,000, here we are. Growing, growing, growing."
YEARS IN THE MAKING
It's instructive to compare Cornell's revival to the scramble to build the Orlando Performing Arts Center. As the nonprofit OPAC board struggles with its ambitious $250 million downtown project, many associated with the highly politicized center complain about the lack of an impassioned leader. Too many players with personal agendas are pushing and pulling, and there's rarely a mention of the "art" that will be happening inside beyond the dollars it may generate. OPAC's hefty price tag is to be paid by philanthropic donations same as the Cornell although no fund-raising campaign has taken shape.
The biggest disappointment for Blumenthal was the last-minute loss of a substantial state Cultural Facilities Grant in 2003, which was desperately needed after the tanked economy post-Sept. 11 made fund-raising much more difficult. As Blumenthal recalls, Cornell scored No. 10 on the state's funding list, but that year, for the first time, there was only money available for the top six projects.
"The wonderful boom years of the '90s were melting away until we came to 2001 and suddenly the economy did not do well. … It was the state of Florida who we were depending on for a major grant … and we thought we had it … so it was a terrible shock when we didn't receive it," says Blumenthal.
The biggest compromise for Blumenthal was the decision to start charging admission. There is a price to pay for the growth. After a history of operating on a donation-only basis, the Cornell now will charge $5.
"Yes, and that is unfortunate. That is just one of the downsides," says Blumenthal. "The administration no longer pays for our guards, and we have to find a way to earn money to do that. We earn money for exhibitions by traveling our exhibitions, and we earn money from special galas and so forth for acquisitions, but we must earn money for our guards."
Blumenthal and membership coordinator Dana Thomas are hoping an admission charge will entice people to become members to the museum, because then they get in free. "All Rollins students, full- or part-time, will still get in free," he says. "And full-time students anywhere who have identification will get in free, as well as all children."
There have been countless other compromises, says Blumenthal, from struggles with the college administration (which Blumenthal declines to discuss), to the nitty-gritty details that arise with any old building that requires state-of-the-art security and climate-control systems. On the day of our interview, Blumenthal couldn't figure out how to work the new locks on his office door, even with the help of his longtime girl Friday, executive assistant Vicki Brodnax, who anticipates Blumenthal's reactions with remarkable familiarity after 11 years at her post.
Blumenthal and his five-member staff encounter such frustrations minute by minute, and dealing with them is exhausting. They still haven't had time to enjoy the accomplishment with the opening looming large. There's painting to be done, lights to be installed, entire exhibits to be displayed.
"It's been a long, unbelievably long, process," says Blumenthal. "But it does show one character trait that I'm proud of and sometimes it's negative and I'm not so proud and sometimes it's positive and I'm proud and that is persistence. I'm very, very, persistent."
"Arthur kept the dream alive," agrees Rita Bornstein, president emerita of Rollins College. She says in her 14 years at the top, Blumenthal had to break through a lot of barriers, including convincing her.
"After some important student-oriented buildings were completed, finally after that, we were able to make it happen. And I absolutely share the delight in how this project has turned out. It really has exceeded expectation," she says.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
About 20 percent of the museum, founded in 1941, was left intact; the remainder is new. Then called the Morse Gallery, the original, quaint building was funded by a donation from Jeannette Morse Genius (who was married to Dr. Hugh McKean, president of Rollins 1951-69). In 1978, a million-dollar gift from George D. and Harriet W. Cornell transformed the Morse Gallery into the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. The Tiffany collection that once occupied the Morse Gallery, until 1976, was eventually installed in its own space, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, a few blocks away from the Cornell on Park Avenue. While the institutions are very different in what they offer, the history of these two museums is intertwined and shares a similar approach to the community; both strive to be accessible to everyone, not just the art elite.
The Rollins College art collection started more than 100 years ago with private donations. It is highly lauded for its European treasures, but also has significant American representations. The paintings, photographs, sculpture, furniture and decorative arts range from the Renaissance and Baroque periods to the 21st century. Approximately 900 new items have been added to the collection in the past decade, under Blumenthal's watch. The storage spaces are so stocked that many works of art in the permanent collection have never been shown to the public. Even now, with the added exhibit space, the museum could never display the entire collection at one time. Instead, the museum staff rotates the art to share as much as possible over time.
On a behind-the-scenes tour, Linda Ehmen, the museum's registrar/collections manager, grabs a box and opens it. "I found this the other day," she says of some small pieces of clay tablets inscribed with Babylonian cuneiforms that were found in Iraq and date back to 2,000 to 3,000 B.C. They were donated to the museum in the 1950s and were discovered by archaeologist Edgar J. Banks in 1907. There are many such surprises to come.
The lakeside location of the museum is a favorite spot on the Rollins campus for students and locals to sit and take in the view and wave to passing boaters. Sharing that view is the museum's lavish outdoor patio and garden. This is but one example of how Blumenthal integrated his intimate knowledge of the building and its environment into an aesthetic success.
Cornell has six galleries that flow into each other, including the entryway atrium. Standing at the opening, with the airy atrium to the right, visitors can look down the main hallway and through the glass back doors for view of the lake. Vistas play a big part in the Cornell experience.
"I want to keep the intimate atmosphere that we had in the old building," he says. "The thing I hear over and over from people is that 'you have one of the warmest most intimate pleasant places to be in the arts scene in this part of the world.' I want to keep it that same kind of warm, friendly place we had before, even though we are a much bigger, more professional place."
The main hallway doubles as a gallery that will be filled with works including the museum's collection of watch keys. To the right of the hallway, two front galleries will be devoted to the Director's Choice, European Art, 1345-1901 exhibition, which includes what Blumenthal calls "Tender Words" (1901; the painting was recently retitled and was formerly known as "Innocence") by William Adolphe Bouguereau, a breathtaking dreamscape of a young beauty with two cherubs whispering in her ear. Nearby is Blumenthal's own personal favorite, "Crossing the Rhine," by Gustave Brion (1855), the largest painting in the collection. Blumenthal is in his element as he explains the realistic work, which Brion painted in defiance of the prevailing paintings of the time period that mythologized Greek and Roman heroes. The artist chose instead to capture the gritty early-morning scene of workers using poles to push and pull the barges across the river from France to work in Germany. It was grueling work and required massive collaboration and coordination; it's easy to see how the painting illustrates Blumenthal's own undertaking.
Another tucked-away gallery on the left side of hallway will be devoted to 230 Civil War illustrations by Winslow Homer. "Winslow was kind of like embedded during the Civil War," explains Blumenthal, "and he was an artist correspondent for Harper's Weekly." The untrained artist's drawings, many based on photographs by Matthew Brady, were turned into engravings that were stamped onto the magazine's pages. "After the war he became the most famous 19th-century painter," Blumenthal says.
The oldest work in Eye to Eye is an oil on panel, circa 1560, by Francois Clouet; the youngest is a 2005 self-portrait photogravure by Chuck Close. Also noteworthy in this exhibition culled from loans from other institutions as well as the Cornell collection are two portraits from the 1980s: Andy Warhol as Marilyn Monroe taken by Factory scenester Christopher Makos, and a large-scale oil on canvas titled "Rudy" by Alex Katz.
Blumenthal's pride and joy is his print study room, which sits behind glassed doors and is filled to the ceilings with shelves loaded with reference books. Underneath the countertops of working space are scores of narrow metal drawers that hide prints, such as a portrait by American painter Gilbert Stuart, who is best known for his portrait of George Washington. It's a room that can be used by students, scholars and visitors. There's nothing else like it in the state, he says.
AN ART LOVER
Blumenthal and his wife, Karen, have been married for 13 years. He says it's not healthy for the two of them to cook in the kitchen at the same time, but they are collaborating on a book about loving art, based on his "How To Look at Art" class. He's a spiritual man, whose studies make him an intellectual giant: He has a Ph.D. in art history and an undergraduate degree in art education, and at one time taught in the elementary school system in Cleveland.
Still, the director of the Cornell is an astoundingly humble man, and he stays true to his motto: "There's no dumb question." He recognizes his gift of explaining art to those who know nothing about it in a manner that's simple but not condescending, and thoroughly entertaining. At heart, he is an educator. "I was given a gift of words such that I can talk about art in a way that it can elicit an aesthetic experience for the listener."
He honed this skill as he continued his education and wanted to communicate his increasing knowledge of and passion for art to his parents. Blumenthal was raised in Cleveland, as was his father before him. Sidney Blumenthal, a carpenter who never finished high school and was raised in an orphanage, took his son every Sunday to visit The Cleveland Museum of Art. He loved history, says Blumenthal, "and he always encouraged me in art."
He admits that his staff probably finds him very demanding and detail-oriented and that he has a bad temper, which is indeed part of his reputation. But he allows that they would probably say that, overall, he is a good boss to work for. He takes extreme pride in the staff he has surrounded himself with: strong personalities whom he allows to take the lead and who all share a binding passion for the Cornell.
"I think what really drew me here was this outstanding collection on a very beautiful campus in a place that is culturally pioneering. Well, we're still culturally pioneering, but we've certainly made leaps and bounds in the last 18 years. There is still a sense that we don't have the art gallery scene; we don't have the collectors of the arts; we don't have the supporters that bigger, more established cities have. We're still new, too young and still small. But I think it has grown in the time that I have been here into something very promising.
"I hate the expression 'world-class,'" he adds. "It sort of makes me sick every time I hear it. But there is some truth to the fact that we have a superb college museum in a city that you would never think to find one."[email protected]
We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.
Email us at [email protected].
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club for as little as $5 a month.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.