Saving beauty


Grant Holcomb, director, Memorial Art Gallery

Grant Holcomb, director, Memorial Art Gallery

I learned yesterday that Grant Holcomb is retiring from his position as director of the Memorial Art Gallery here in Rochester, after nearly thirty years of service to the museum. He’s been ambivalent about concluding his tenure at MAG for many years, but now that he’s pulled the trigger he sounds happy to embark on his next chapter.  And he isn’t completely disappearing from the organization. He’s going to stay in Rochester, continue to participate with MAG and, well, write a few books. Speaking of next chapters. (By the way, thanks for making me feel like a slacker, Grant.) What surprised me is that only one of his books will be about art: a catalog exploring the 2009 MAG exhibition “Lincoln in Rochester.” That’s definitely up his alley. He’s been a Lincoln geek, in the best sense of that word, for most of his life, and he can summon up almost anything about America’s greatest president at will. One of the other books he’s planning will be about Ed Crone, a Rochester man who was a prisoner of war with Kurt Vonnegut in Germany and became the inspiration for Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. Finally, he wants to write a book about the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe detective novels. In other words, his plate will be as full as it has been at MAG all these years.

A couple days ago, he sent me his prepared remarks when he announced his departure (as of next July) to his board and staff. It made me laugh out loud a couple times, yet the humble, appreciative quality of his words are emblematic of his personality and beloved leadership. In their own way his words reflect, in places, why most painters get up every day, or nearly every day, and try to make art. Part of why he’s going to be deeply missed at MAG is easily discerned in what he says here:

If I refer to my notes and keep drinking from a bottle of water, forgive me and remember that even Brett Favre choked up when he retired, as did Peyton Manning when he was traded. In fact, knowing this would be a difficult message for me to convey, I googled “How to Announce Your Retirement with Dignity” and what popped up was “Three Early Signs of Dementia.” I feel a bit like Lincoln when he faced an emotional trial . . . he said, “I feel like the young boy who stubbed his toe and said, ‘It hurts too much to laugh, and I’m too big to cry.’”

I was recently told that, today, the average tenture of an art museum director is four years—to extend that tenure by a factor of seven is due to the quality of the people I have worked with for now close to three decades. Early one morning this summer, I walked the Centennial Sculpture Park with a cup of coffee in hand. Starting at the western end, I approached the lyrical sculpture of George Rickey, swept by the “Unicorns” of Wendell Castle and looked beyond to the open grounds and the elegance of Jackie Ferrara’s sidewalks and the playful delight of the Otterness Plaza. Walking east, I turned the corner and looked north to see what I consider to be one of the best works by Albert Paley.

I knew right then that together we had created a magical, poetic, in fact, award-winning Sculpture Park. Together we have left a lasting legacy for both the Gallery and this community. I knew the timing was right (for retirement) when Dana Gioia spoke at the Gallery ten days ago. This was not only our last major Centennial event, it was an event that wrapped up everything we have worked for, cared about, and treasured together—the importance of the arts to our lives as individuals, as members of the community. Gioia spoke of Shakespeare’s “sweet . . . lessons of adversity” and he intoned Dosoevsky’s belief that “beauty will save the world.” The Centennial Year of the Memorial Art Gallery ended on not only a high note but the perfect note. This staff and board have enriched my life. You have enriched the lives of my children. And you have even enriched the lives of two of my ex-wives! I owe you so very much.

Beauty may help save us, but only if people like Grant are returning the favor, now and then.

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