Monday, 27 February 2017
May / June 2011
It's a Wonderful Life
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After two decades at the helm of the Johnson Museum, Frank Robinson— director, cheerleader, and occasional Easter Bunny—retires. The good news is, he's not going far.

By Beth Saulnier

Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson's father was an eminent classics scholar, a professor of ancient Greek and Roman history at Brown who published some two dozen books in his field— works so authoritative, his son notes, the family is still receiving royalties more than forty-five years after his death. But the senior Robinson never craved the role of administrator; although he was offered high-level leadership positions over the years, including a college presidency, he always turned them down. "He died without really knowing the guts of an institution—the weeds," Robinson says.

His son, on the other hand, revels in the details of running the Johnson Museum of Art, a position he has held for two decades. "I love dusting the cases, clearing the sidewalks," he says, "getting to know electricians and plumbers and custodians, how good they are, how important. You can't run a museum without guards in the galleries—who may hate the art they're guarding but feel a responsibility to protect it." By embracing the quotidian minutiae as well as the big picture, he says, "you really understand how an institution works, maybe how a society works."

'This is not an image on a screen or a picture in a book.This is what Rembrandt himself touched—the piece of paper that he pulled off the copper plate. It shows this guy who is from what we would call today the lower middle class; his father ran a mill that ground up maize. In the early 1630s he comes to Amsterdam and he's tremendously successful, and he begins to compare himself to the great masters of the Renaissance a century earlier. Here he's dressed up in clothing that is absolutely unusual for the seventeenth century but usual for the sixteenth. But there's a reality to the man, the frizzy hair. In the midst of all that pretension, there is the reality of him as a human being.'

One minute, Robinson can expound on the first piece he ever bought on behalf of the University (Houses, Roofs, Towers, a 1920 oil painting by Squire Vickers); the next, he's quoting the weekly rental cost ($10,000) for the giant crane hefting portions of the museum's new wing. As he walks through the building he greets every employee by name, from the woman pushing the cleaning cart to the receptionist in the lobby. When that fact is pointed out to him, he seems genuinely unimpressed with himself; of course he knows everyone who works for him. How could he not? "Nobody is unimportant," Robinson says, then adds with his signature deadpan wit: "Show me somebody whose job is unimportant and I'll get rid of that job, because we need the money."

Since Robinson took the helm of the museum in 1992, he has been its public face and most ardent advocate—a tireless fundraiser and unabashed cheerleader whose favorite word seems to be "wonderful." (That might come across as cloying—except that every time he says it, you get the feeling that he means it.) He is that rarest of creatures, a maven of high culture with precious few pretensions; the man who did his Harvard PhD thesis on seventeenth-century Dutch painter Gabriel Metsu has been known, on more than one occasion, to dress up in a bunny suit for Easter.

In short, it’s hard to imagine the Johnson Museum without Frank Robinson. But at the end of June, after three and a half decades in museum administration, Robinson is retiring from his position as the Richard J. Schwartz Director. He says he’s content with the state in which he’s leaving the institution—on firm footing and with the expansion slated for completion in October. “It’s good to leave at your peak,” he says. “The place is stabilized financially. It has a new wing, wonderful staff, wonderful support from our Museum Advisory Council.” (There’s that word again.)

Why is Robinson leaving just a few months shy of its long-awaited expansion? Well, that wasn't his original plan; construction was initially supposed to be finished before the end of this academic year, but the completion date was postponed and Robinson opted not to push back his retirement. And in fact, Robinson will remain on campus: in September he's starting a part-time job as a fundraiser in the development office. He'll also continue his regional museum tours and Cornell's Adult University trips, including a May 2012 excursion to London. He says that he and his wife, Margaret—they've been married "forty-two years, poor woman," and have one son, a former rock musician who's now a Web designer—have no desire to decamp from Ithaca to warmer climes. "I really love the snow," says Robinson, who previously taught art history at Dartmouth and Williams, which have plenty of it. "It's strange, I know."

One of five museum directors in his family—including Margaret, former head of the Wellesley College museum—Robinson fell hard for the art world at thirteen, when his father took the family to Rome on a one-year teaching assignment. "It was a vulnerable age," he says. "It was overwhelming to walk down one block and have three great churches. Rome is overflowing with art, with architecture, with the world of the imagination. I just fell in love with it. By the end of that year I knew I had to spend the rest of my life in art."