The McNay Art Museum celebrated William J. Chiego’s 25-year legacy as museum director with a fun-filled, public event Sunday afternoon. Chiego announced his retirement on June 16, 2015. He will step down from the position on Sept. 30.
Attendees reflected on the immeasurable contributions and inspiring vision that Chiego brought to the former Spanish Colonial-Revival mansion and its surrounding acreage.
Texas Tide, one of Chiego’s favorite bands, played on the Brown Sculpture Terrace while he mingled with guests. Families and people of all ages spread out blankets on the grass, lined up at food trucks, ran barefoot, and played with hula hoops.
Chiego is the second leader of the museum in its 62 year history. He came to The McNay in 1991 from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio. During his career, Chiego spearheaded the restoration of the main building in 2001 and helped double the square footage of the museum. When he first arrived, the museum carried around 10,000 objects of art. Today it exceeds 22,000 pieces.
“(Chiego) has elevated this museum into a world-class museum that can compete with any major museum in the world,” said Daniela Oliver, communications and marketing director for The McNay.
The museum’s estate originally belonged to Marion Koogler McNay, an avid art collector of 19th and 20th century European and American art, as well as Southwestern art from New Mexico. She came to San Antonio in 1926 and commissioned San Antonio architects Atlee and Robert Ayres to design the famous house.
When she passed away in 1950, she left her house, a collection of more than 700 works of art, and an endowment to establish the first museum of modern art in Texas. The museum opened its doors in 1954.
During his tenure, Chiego added important works to the permanent collection, developed an outstanding educational program, and opened the spacious Jane and Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions. Museum membership has grown substantially from 2,800 to 5,000 members since the opening of the Stieren Center.
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The $51 million capital campaign — completed in 2008 — spurred the growth and scale of The McNay’s special exhibition programs. Museum employees used to take down most of the museum’s permanent collection in order to make room for special shows, Chiego told the Rivard Report Friday.
“Today our special exhibition center makes it possible to have complex and grand-scale international shows from abroad and all over the United States,” he said.
When Chiego first arrived, the museum didn’t have an education department. The McNay now offers a strong educational component that includes more than 300 programs a year such as lectures, gallery tours, workshops, and a teacher resource center for public school teachers.
Kate Carey, director of education for The McNay, believes that his advocacy for education and his support for teachers and students is going to be a big part of his legacy.
“He’s so modest, but in his time here he’s really built and cultivated museum audiences and grown our educational outreach,” Carey said.
Personally, Chiego is most proud of the museum’s sculpture collection and its outstanding growth over the years.
“Sculpture is a big interest of mine and we’ve added over 100 works of art and sculpture outside on the grounds but also inside the museum,” he said. “We’re lucky to have 23 acres.”
Chiego’s colleagues and patrons of the local arts community said he will be missed.
San Antonio Museum of Art Kelso Director Katherine Luber said Chiego will be remembered for his “gentleness of spirit that transcends anything else as well as his collegiality, generosity of spirit, and his commitment to sharing and excellence.”
Sarah Harte, president of The McNay’s board of trustees, said Chiego is a strong leader and a cultural icon in the city.
“He’s going to leave behind a stellar cultural institution for San Antonio,” Harte said. “He’s taught us all to seek excellence and trying to replace him is a difficult challenge because of the shoes we have to fill on his behalf. It’s been an honor to work with him.”
As to what’s next for Chiego, he said he will continue to be involved in the arts through teaching, mentorship, and research. He believes that the visual arts are a universal language, one which people react to in unique ways.
“Looking at a work of art, at least for me, is like a romance. If something appeals to me, its something I want to spend more time looking at and studying,” he said. “We gravitate to things that speak to us, that tell us a little bit about the world, history, and about ourselves.”
The McNay’s board of trustees has appointed an international search firm to select a successor.