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As Eric Lee Departs, Taft Museum of Art Has a Hit

By Steven Rosen · March 11th, 2009 · The Big Picture

As Eric M. Lee, whose last day as director of Taft Museum of Art is Friday, prepares to lead the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., he leaves behind a smash-hit show: Fashion in Film: Period Costumes for the Screen.

“We are trying to reach out to a broader audience with this show and it’s succeeding,” he says. “Our attendance is phenomenal. We are only a month into the exhibition, but I imagine it will give us the highest attendance we’ve ever had for a show.”

Still, Lee, who came to the Taft in 2007, knows he’s leaving for a premiere job. The Kimbell, which is only 36 years old and has a permanent collection of fewer than 350 objects, is the envy of the museum world. With its large endowment and sharp collecting focus — painting and sculpture, roughly from the Renaissance to early- 20th-century Modernism — it is able to acquire masterpieces when they come on the market.

The Taft, which opened in 1932 featuring the house and 690-object art collection of Charles Phelps and Anna Taft, basically doesn’t collect. It was built as a home in 1820 and is a good example of Federal architecture. As a museum, it has an annual operating budget of about $4 million.

The Kimbell also has some of the nation’s biggest touring exhibitions. And it is one of the nation’s — make that world’s — most acclaimed public buildings, designed by the modernist architect Louis Kahn.

“The Kimbell in my opinion is his greatest building, and I think the greatest purpose-built museum building in the world,” Lee says.

Before arriving at the Taft in 2007, the 42-year-old Lee had worked as director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma. He holds advanced degrees in art history from Yale.

Given the raging recession and its $12 ticket price — Cincinnati art-museum standards — Fashion in Film: Period Costumes for the Screen’s attendance numbers are phenomenal. Lee made the decision to bring the traveling show here. (The museum’s 2004 renovation/addition allowed it to book bigger shows.)

Through February, the Taft’s attendance is up 42 percent from the first two months of last year. Admission revenue is up 32 percent, café high by business up 26 percent and shop sales 9 percent. The show previously broke a record at Delaware’s Winterthur Museum & Country Estate. (All this follows a 9 percent attendance increase in 2008 from 2007.)

“It’s a fun show first of all, not entirely what you’d expect at the Taft,” Lee says. “But it fits the mission of the Taft very well. The galleries are basically early-21stcentury interpretations of what earlier periods would have been like. That’s sort of what these dresses are like in film — modern interpretations of what the past was like.”

Still, Lee says, the Taft is positioned for a worsening economy. It canceled a show originally planned to open in May, Last Emperor’s Collection: Paintings from Liaoning, China.

“The economy is a factor for museums coast to coast,” Lee says. “Endowments are being hit in a major way. We will not be able to afford some exhibitions we had in the past, and attendance will come down because of that. And we will not be able to afford the marketing done in the past. And that will affect attendance.

“So it’s a major challenge for museums all over the country. Lets just hope the economy pulls out of it.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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