Jim Cuno '73 transforms a fascination with art history into a profession

by University Communications,

The full version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Willamette magazine.

One good conversation with Jim Cuno '73 is all it takes to debunk the cliché of the “art guy.” He’s unpretentious, relaxed, funny. He roots for the Red Sox, making him both a long-distance loyalist and a moderated optimist. And he is endlessly curious.

In fact, Cuno’s remarkable career — leading the Harvard Art Museums, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and Chicago’s storied Art Institute — could be seen as a tribute to curiosity, and to a group of young, forward-thinking Willamette faculty members who encouraged and savored it in their student.

From Air Force brat …

Cuno’s a great storyteller, so we’ll let him set the stage:

“I was an Air Force brat, so we moved around a lot. I graduated from high school at Travis Air Force Base. I had intended to go to the Air Force Academy, but I didn’t get in. The backup plan was to spend a year at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School that specialized in helping athletes ‘beef up,’ learn some military drill and take SAT prep classes.

“I had a fabulous time playing football, including an unforgettable game against the Colorado State Penitentiary team, which only plays ‘at home.’ But over the holiday break, my dad asked me how things were going, and I said, ‘I’m not sure the Air Force Academy is going to be for me.’ He countered, ‘Hang in for a year.’ I listened, I went back, and I quit three days later. I was 17 and I didn’t have much of a plan.”

After dropping out of the educational mainstream for the first time, Cuno headed to London, where his father was stationed, and got a job as a short order cook on the Air Force base.

“That period of time,” Cuno says, “was transformational. I was alone with my thoughts. I was provoked by all the strange and wonderful things I was seeing. And slowly I began to consider going to college. I remembered that a friend had mentioned some college in the Pacific Northwest that had a pretty good law school, so I thought I’d try it.”

… to Willamette activist …

That college was Willamette. When Cuno stepped onto the campus in 1969 — just 18, never having visited — he walked right into the Vietnam moratorium.

“It was a tumultuous year,” he says. “There were lots of political activities, and we were right across the street from the state house. Students would come to march in protest. With some freshman friends and upperclassmen, we’d do crazy things.

“One night, we called up U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse. He had been one of two votes against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, expanding U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. He answered the phone and actually talked with us, encouraged us.”

Meanwhile, reading Plato’s “Republic” at an 8 a.m. class, five days a week, in the basement of the social science hall with professor Ed Stillings, Cuno’s intellectual life deepened.

“Everything was thought-provoking and new to me,” he says. “A group of us decided that a class president was an anachronism and that the office should be a collective. So we ran together and won. For one year, we did away with the singular office of class president.”

… to intellectual awakening …

By this time, Cuno knew he was living in a big, wide world, and he wanted to see more of it. So, once again, he dropped out.

His parents, by then stationed in Germany, arranged through friends for their gifted, restless son to spend a year in Luxembourg in a European Studies program. That year, he went to his first museum — the Louvre.

“It was different then,” he said. “We could roam free around the museum without being scheduled.”

The next year, he was back at Willamette, and in a stroke of luck, while he was away, an astonishing cadre of bright young faculty members had been recruited. Cuno lingers affectionately over each name: Bill Duvall in history, Roger Hull in art history, Bill Braden and Ken Nolley in English, Tom Berczynski in Russian literature.

Cuno recalls conversations with these young educators so vividly, it’s as if they took place 40 minutes — not 40 years — ago:

“Bill Duvall was a master of the Socratic method, keeping ideas flowing. Bill Braden was so generous with time and books. Berczynski made an exotic world available to me, and Roger Hull, a young, articulate analyst of beautiful objects, gave me access to a way of thinking about these things.”

One peak experience was the class in Modern European Cultural Environment (MECE), team-taught by Duvall, Berczynski and Hull.

“I was learning from three of the most inspiring teachers,” Cuno says. “But not only in the classroom, out of class and with other professors.

“Bill Braden was so generous with his time, lending me records from his fantastic jazz collection and poetry books of all kinds. And I got a taste for theater, acting in plays — including (Samuel) Beckett’s ‘Endgame.’”

The relationships influenced not just Cuno, but the young faculty members, as well.

“The early ’70s were heady and exciting times, and Jim was always interested, always engaged,” says Hull, professor emeritus of art history and senior faculty curator at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

“In our MECE class, Jim really rose to the occasion. He was very confident, not showing off or being a braggart in any way, always congenial and accepting of many different personalities. As I look back on those days, I realize that having Jim as such an involved, committed student gave us all wings as young faculty.”

… to the world of art …

Cuno’s self-generated process of intellectual development continued to unfold beyond the Willamette campus.

After graduation in 1973, he moved to San Francisco, worked as a stock clerk for Design Research, got involved in contemporary music, formed a Dada group, toured at universities and art galleries, and made friends in the field, including a promising young head of new music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, John Adams.

After another brief stint at Willamette — this time as a janitor in the theatre department while cooking up still more theater in his spare time — Cuno committed to a path in art history.

He earned a master’s at the University of Oregon, married fellow Willamette student Sarah Stewart and, as he describes it, “applied to all the fancy schools I could find addresses for. For some reason, Harvard accepted me, and I made an important discovery about art history: It took place in museums.”

Those museums became Cuno’s new habitat. “I liked teaching, but I loved museums,” he says. “I love working with people who know more about something than I do, and learning from them. And I enjoyed the external dimension as well — working with visitors, volunteers, donors, other experts in the field.”

Each job — Harvard (1991–2002), Courtald (2003–2004), Chicago’s Art Institute (2004–2011) — grew more complex and more rewarding. And then the Getty came calling.

“I wouldn’t have left Chicago for another museum, but the opportunity to lead the Getty and its four entities dedicated to art, conservation, research and philanthropy was compelling,” Cuno says.

“Most of all, I was inspired by the challenge that Harold Williams, the Getty Trust’s founding president, issued just 30 years ago. His directive was that the Getty should do what others cannot do: to make a difference in the field. To be transformative.”

Though Cuno claims not to be a tech guy, he offers up Getty’s take on technology as an example.

“We don’t need another ever-more-clever website or app; we need to pursue ideas that will make a lasting difference in our areas of competence. So we canvassed leading figures in art history, museums and conservation, and asked, ‘What’s keeping you from going further with digital technology?’

“The answer was clear: They didn’t know what to do or how to do it, and they were a little afraid to figure it out on their own. So we funded three summer workshops at labs around the country — at Harvard, George Mason and UCLA — and accepted 20 applicants in each training session. Those participants are already contributing to the field in new ways.”

… to the art of sharing museums with a curious world.

Museum attendance is up around the world, and not just because of tourism or blockbuster exhibitions. Cuno’s theory is inspired by what first interested him in museums — curiosity about the world.

“Museums are very populist institutions,” Cuno says. “They’re not like universities. You don’t have to pass a test to get in our door, and we don’t quiz you on your way out.

“We want you to have your own experiences. I enjoy seeing all the ways people make use of the Getty — strolling in the gardens, having coffee or a meal, choosing which galleries are of interest to them on any given day.

“That ability to see something new and wonderful, to learn something different, is what first stirred me as a young man. Now, I’ve come to believe that access to strange and different objects, experiences and places promotes tolerance in the world.

“My hope is that wherever people go to see art — here or elsewhere — that their curiosity will be met with the generosity of governments. We all benefit from the circulation of works of art.”

In a sense, this is Cuno’s manifesto when advocating on behalf of what’s known as encyclopedic museums — institutions that collect and exhibit materials from many different cultures.

He believes art makes us curious, and curiosity leads to discovery, which builds empathy with other peoples and cultures. It’s also Cuno’s answer to the politicization of arts — in questions of everything from provenance to access.

“Museums provide access to the intersection between the sacred site and the public square,” he says. “And whoever you are, you will have your own experiences and derive your own meaning.”

Two years ago, Cuno added another entry to his list of volunteer and professional pursuits when he became a trustee of Willamette University.

“It gives me an excuse to visit,” he says. “And it’s an honor.”

Even before becoming a trustee, in the theme of “there are no friends like old friends,” Cuno showed up on campus in spring 2010 to celebrate the retirement of mentor-turned-friend, Roger Hull. The best educations, like the best friendships, last forever.