BROCKTON — The chill was hard to ignore at the Fuller Craft Museum on a recent Tuesday, but that didn’t concern the new director, Jonathan Fairbanks.
The museum, struggling with a budget crisis, had decided to close three days a week. Fairbanks had no problem with turning down the heat to save money. The doors, though, were another matter.
“If you close your shop, you’re not going to have business,” he said. “We have people knocking at the door. I’d love to let them in.”
That night, at his first board meeting as director, Fairbanks argued his case, and the trustees listened. They agreed to open six days a week, leaving the museum closed only on Mondays.
For Fairbanks, the move represented a small step forward for the Fuller Craft Museum, long considered an underappreciated cultural jewel in the shadow of larger and wealthier institutions in nearby Boston. For the Fuller Craft board and skeleton staff, the push offered a hint of what’s driving the most unlikely director in the museum’s 43-year existence.
Fairbanks is 79, and this is his first time in charge. He’s well known in the museum community, having founded the Museum of Fine Arts’ American decorative arts and sculpture department in 1971 and led it for more than 25 years. He acquired important works in the MFA’s collection and forged relationships with some of Boston’s biggest and most generous art donors. His dismissal from the MFA in 1999 brought protests throughout the art world, to the point that the museum, in a conciliatory gesture, made him curator emeritus.
During the last decade, Fairbanks has kept busy, whether serving as a research associate at Boston University, as editor at large for Antiques & Fine Art Magazine, as exhibition curator, or on the board of the national Decorative Arts Trust. In 2003, he contributed an essay to a Fuller Craft catalog for the show “Craft Transformed.”
Now Fairbanks is determined to use his energy and love of art — and his ample Rolodex — to turn this cash-strapped museum around.
Rising to the challenge
Last November, Fuller Craft director Wyona Lynch-McWhite suddenly resigned; the museum has declined to explain her departure.
When Fairbanks called Chris Rifkin, the Fuller Craft’s board chairman, on New Year’s Day to tell her he would like to be considered for the top job, she was shocked.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” said Rifkin. “How do you say no to Jonathan? This is a gift.”
After Fairbanks called, the Fuller Craft ended its search for a new director. And Fairbanks reported to his new office, overlooking Porter Pond.
“If you take on a job where there’s no risk, there’s no creative urgency to it,” he said in an interview in his office recently. “I’ve always liked challenges, and this is a challenge.”
Fairbanks hadn’t quite realized the extent of the crisis. In the most recent year available, the fiscal year that ended June 31, 2010, the Fuller Craft finished with a $1.1 million deficit on a budget of just over $2 million. Last year, the board laid off four of the museum’s 13 staffers, eliminating its fund-raising chief and education department.
Fairbanks said he is being paid “a secretary’s salary,” or just enough to cover his taxes. Rifkin said the museum doesn’t have a budget as it works to create a new strategic plan, though there is money in the bank to cover expenses. (She won’t say how much.) Every purchase must be approved by Fairbanks.
“I don’t want this to seem negative,” Fairbanks said, reflecting on the budget crunch. “I see a great future for the Fuller and I want to help any way I can. I know what it takes to make a museum work. I’m honored to be asked to be a museum director.”
With his white beard, bright blue eyes, and generous laugh, Fairbanks brings a lightness of spirit to the museum. He says there’s nothing strange about his working there. He’s always loved crafts, and his relationship with the museum dates back to the 1970s, when he would have interns at the MFA stage exhibitions there.
Downstairs, in one of the museum’s galleries, there’s a wood-turned bowl by Ron Kent, a piece Fairbanks and his wife gave to the museum.
This love of crafts is why his daughter Theresa Fairbanks-Harris, the chief conservator at the Yale Center for British Art, wasn’t at all surprised when he took the job.
“For him, it’s about sharing and communicating the message,” she said. “Crafts have not always been supported in this country. This is his opportunity to really do it.”
It is also his chance to work full-time in a museum again.
In 1999, MFA director Malcolm Rogers dismissed Fairbanks and Anne Poulet, curator of European decorative arts, as part of a radical reorganization that involved eliminating two departments. The move by Rogers, who had become director in 1994, was considered so dramatic that some some in the national media and museum community referred to it as “The Boston Massacre.”
Fairbanks says he’s long past being fired. He talks of the catharsis that came soon after on a trip with his younger daughter, Hilary Burton, to Northern Arizona, where they rode horses down a dramatic canyon.
“The cottonwood trees were yellow and the background of the canyon walls were red,” he said. “I said, ‘My goodness. God knows about harmony. This is balance.’”
Today, he said of the MFA: “I love the museum. They have all my blessings.”
Rogers declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding Fairbanks’s dismissal. Instead, he praised him for opening the MFA to craft collecting and for maintaining his relationship with the museum.
“He’s an important figure in the museum’s history,” said Rogers. “It’s also true that he’s continued to stay in touch with us and he’s continued to be a donor to the museum.”
For Fairbanks, art has always been central.
He paints, as did his grandfather, and his works are in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the MFA, and the Boston Public Library. His father, Avard Tennyson Fairbanks, was a sculptor whose works can be found throughout the country and include the creation of the Ram symbol later used for Dodge trucks. Fairbanks, who served in the US Navy, worked at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware before being hired, in 1971, at the MFA.
It was a different time. MFA curators were expected to hustle for potential donors, building department support otherwise unavailable. And with so many holes in the MFA’s collection, a curator like Fairbanks, driven by curiosity and an open mind, could acquire works through particularly creative means.
He speaks with pride about trips he took out west to start building the MFA’s Native American collection. Two 19th-century pieces he acquired during the 1990s, a wooden chest and a dramatic potlach figure carved of red cedar, are currently on view in MFA galleries.
“He’s got sticky fingers,” says Gerry Ward, the MFA’s longtime senior curator of American decorative arts and sculpture and Fairbanks’s successor until his retirement earlier this year. “He gets objects everywhere. He’s a natural collector, both institutionally and personally.”
It was Ward who mentioned the Fuller Craft gig to Fairbanks late last year. He said Fairbanks is an excellent fund-raiser, but it’s in the gallery that he shines.
“He can talk about it as a work of art or as a work of craft,” he said. “You just get him in front of an object, it’s a real experience. It can be a painting or anything. There isn’t a whole lot in the world of art that Jonathan doesn’t know much about.”
Imagination at work
On a recent walk through the Fuller, Fairbanks took delight in everything from the offerings in the gift shop (“one of the great experiences when you walk into the museum”) to works in a current solo show featuring Michael Cooper, an artist whose whimsical devices incorporate machinery, wood, and steel.
“This is fabulous,” he says, pointing to a large piece with a seat and small motors. “This guy’s imagination is incredible.”
In his office, Fairbanks talks of his plans to turn around the museum. Part of that battle is reminding people that the Fuller Craft is actually only a 30-minute drive from Boston. There’s also free parking and the bucolic surroundings of the museum grounds.
On his desk is a list of some 200 potential donors he’s already written to for help and to suggest a visit. These are some of the powerful philanthropists who once helped him at the MFA. During those days, supporters of his department included investments guru Peter Lynch, cable magnate Amos Hostetter, and the late Prince Company president and chief executive officer Joseph Pellegrino.
John Axelrod is one of the MFA supporters who received a letter from Fairbanks. The multimillionare collector, who has donated hundreds of works to the MFA – and who has a gallery in the museum’s Art of the Americas wing named after him – has never been to the Fuller Craft.
But he says he is planning to send the museum a donation. Why?
“Because of Jonathan,” he said.