After Richard Aste announced in June that he’d be leaving his position as executive director and CEO of the McNay Art Museum, the board of trustees undertook an international search for the museum’s fourth leader in its 69-year history.
In December, the McNay announced the hiring of Matthew McLendon, former director and chief curator of the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, praising his art scholarship, fundraising acumen and community engagement.
Board President Don Frost noted McLendon’s curiosity, empathy and humility, three qualities he finds essential in a leader, and McLendon’s former employer, Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa, called him “a great talent.”
McLendon, 45, completed a doctoral dissertation on the Italian Futurist movement of the early 20th century, which he said helped prepare him to lead a modern and contemporary art museum that focuses on a vast array of artistic mediums, from painting and sculpture to performance and theater arts.
On Monday, his first day in his new role, the native of Palatka, Florida, sat down with the San Antonio Report to talk about his interests, past experience and plans for the museum.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
San Antonio Report: How are you finding San Antonio?
Matthew McLendon: One of the things that was immediately apparent was how genuinely kind everyone is, and genuinely interested in you. That was a little overwhelming in the best possible way. I grew up in the Deep South, which is famed for being friendly, and I just came from Charlottesville, Virginia, which was a very friendly place. But this was really next level. The other thing that’s struck me already is how proud of San Antonio San Antonians are. That’s really infectious, and I’m already feeling that myself.
SAR: What are your first impressions of the McNay?
MM: One thing that speaks to my own background in museum work is the combination of the historic spaces and the new spaces. It reminds me somewhat of my time at the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota. We had the Ringling house adjacent to the museums, and so I’m already quite interested in those juxtapositions and transitions. This is already starting to get my wheels turning, thinking about the landscape of the grounds surrounding the museum as another gallery space.
SAR: How would you compare the Fralin’s collection to the McNay collection?
MM: The Fralin collection is a typical university collection, so very broad, we might say, comprehensive in that it spanned history and spans the globe. Not particularly necessarily deep in any one section, but a wonderful, very broad collection that was great for teaching across the university. At UVA, we interacted with around 40 different departments a year across the university. So having that kind of broad collection really suited that type of work.
[The McNay] is a little different for me. I’m a modern and contemporary [art] person by trade, but I’ve never worked in a modern and contemporary museum. I’ve always worked in museums with broader remits to that, other than my earliest days at the Tate [Modern in London, where McLendon served as an undergraduate intern in the early 2000s]. I’ve always loved working in museums with broader collections, using the contemporary art or modern art to speak to the older parts of the collection, to help visitors understand why those are still as relevant today as when they were created. And I think contemporary art and artists can really help with that conversation. It’s really exciting to have a new opportunity to come into an institution that focuses on what my passions are, personally, so I’m excited about that.
SAR: What in the McNay collection has immediately grabbed your eye?
[During a walking tour of the galleries, McLendon pointed to Veronica from The Cocktail Party by artist Sandy Skoglund, a seated feminine figure covered in cheese doodles.]
MM: This is, from what I understand, just a small part of a much larger installation. So the fact that we have cheese doodles — I have dear friends in the museum world who are conservators — so my first impression is that there are so many conservation questions around this work. I’ve already been told we have a backup supply, for when a cheese doodle goes awry. But I just love this — this is so much fun. When I was an undergrad transitioning out of music and art history, I took an amazing course that looked at the materials of 20th century art. It was the first time I learned about installation art and what that could be, all the different ways that installation art can be approached. It was one of those truly mind-expanding moments. I think work like this is so great for people who might be intimidated by contemporary art … and might put people at ease in a way that’s really important in museum spaces.
Just looking around this morning, I’m realizing there are a number of artists here that I don’t know. That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to this field in the first place and one of the reasons I’ve stayed in it for so long, I’m really driven by curiosity.
SAR: You’ve described yourself as an eternal student.
MM: Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in museum work, we get to be lifelong learners. Every day I get to go to class again, which I find really exhilarating.
SAR: Is curiosity part of a CEO’s job?
MM: Today’s CEOs are called to be curious and look at diverse viewpoints and perspectives, and to bring those on board and synthesize those to move forward productively. Curiosity is at the heart of any CEO’s job today.
[McLendon stopped to point out Femme Accroupie (Crouching Woman), a 1958 painting by Pablo Picasso, hung across a doorway from La Duquesa de Alba/Black Alba, a 2004 photograph by Yasumasa Morimura.]
This is a great way to show the kind of great work that’s being done at the McNay. I love the Picasso next to the Morimura, that juxtaposition and the juxtapositions that are happening throughout this gallery help the more contemporary work speak to the work that might seem older and more traditional. This shows how those conversations can continue to happen and why both works continue to be relevant today.
SAR: How do you plan to transmit your enthusiasm to a museum audience?
MM: If a person has come to the museum, I hope they already have an openness to listening, or an openness to exploration. I’ve always found, you know, in my own work with students, it so often comes down to engaged listening on both parts. For us as museum professionals, it’s incumbent on us to ask what would help you in this process? What are we missing? What are the barriers to becoming the enthusiastic, passionate museum audience member that we want you to be? We’ve got to do a good job of listening to our audiences, and that’s why our education and outreach departments are so critical to what we do today. They’re the brilliant museum professionals that are frequently frontline and hearing from the audience and then are able to take that back and move forward.
SAR: Do you foresee structural changes to the museum staff to facilitate that level of engagement?
MM: Because I’m new to the McNay, I’m new to San Antonio, I’m new to Texas, these first weeks and months are about deep listening and processing, so that any vision that comes out during my time as director and CEO of the McNay isn’t my vision, it’s our vision. It has to be a shared vision for anything to work.
SAR: You have a background in musical theater, having studied opera and performed on stage during your college years at Florida State University. Did the McNay’s Robert L.B. Tobin Theatre Arts collection have particular appeal in attracting you to this job?
MM: During the selection process, I did my own reconnaissance of the museum and came into this exhibition [Something Wicked: Susan Hilferty Costumes]. All I could think about was what an exhibition like this would have meant to me when I was a young kid with dreams of going to Broadway or the operatic stage. I didn’t see anything like this when I was a kid. So having this in San Antonio at the McNay, I just kept thinking about young people in San Antonio who also have those aspirations and dreams and what it would mean to them just to see the art that goes into a major production like Wicked.
You think it’s just the performers on the stage, and then when you come to an exhibition like this, you learn about all the other people that are involved in creating that performance. So maybe you thought you wanted to be on the stage, but then you see an exhibition like this and you realize that you can be a costume designer, or you can be a milliner, or you can be a wig designer, and have such an incredible impact on living theater.
It’s the same with coming into a museum. You might think curator is the job of the art museum, but then you come in and start looking around back of house and you realize, ‘Oh, if I have an interest in marketing, or building and tech, or education, there’s a place for me in the museum.’ It’s not just the art which is so magnificent and almost overwhelming in an exhibition like this, it’s also what it teaches you — whether you’re interested in going to the performing arts or not — it gives you a better understanding and appreciation for all the things that have to happen before that curtain goes up.
SAR: How have those early experiences informed your approach to taking on a museum leadership position?
MM: Performance is about collaboration on the deepest level, and I at my core am a collaborator, so I’m really interested in hearing a multiplicity of opinions and thoughts and then working together to synthesize those into a vision moving forward. I very much internalized that as a student — that it was all of us. It was not just the person on the stage, it was all of us working together to create that moment, that magic that happens when the curtain goes up.
Beyond that, there’s a great deal of trust between a performer and the audience. You’re in each other’s hands. There’s a great deal of trust between what we do in the museum, and the works that we are charged with caring for in the museum, and the public. If we’re a collecting institution, we hold our works in the public trust. That circles back to my parents, both of whom were educators. My father was a community college president for 36 years, he was absolutely passionate about the importance of good-quality public education in communities, and very much viewed his role as a servant to that cause. That really imprinted on me. I think museums serve much that same function: We are about good quality public education, and our communities, and conversation. And I am if I’m doing my job right, I am a servant to that.