Women have played an important role in my life; commencing with my upbringing by my mother. In these reminisces, I write not of personal but professional relationships with women; I am grateful for their support, hard work and friendship.
Over the years, I witnessed dramatic changes in the role of women in academia and museums. As I write these few words, our country has just elected its first African American President, Barack Obama. He won his party's nomination over Senator Hillary Clinton. The Republican candidate for Vice President was a woman, Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska. Times are changing! RS 11/05/08
Loja Saarinen, sitting in front of "The Cranbrook Tapestry", designed by Eliel Saarinen and woven in the studio of Loja Saarinen,1934/5.
The 8'x10' tapestry shows Cranbrook Schools, Institute of Science and Academy of Art.The sculptures of Carl Milles, formal gardens and pool are also represented.
My mother Millicent Roberts, known by everyone as "Milla" c1979 Saarinen House studio.
Women have always played an important part in my life. Of course, I must start with my mother; known to everyone as ‘Milla’. I wrote earlier in “Childhood” about my mother being widowed, when I was two and a half years old; and the days of the Blitz. She remarried and, with my step father, supported me through my college days; I lived at home. In the Army, serving in the Far East, her constant correspondence meant a lot to me; as ever she was supportive and loving. Her love was not coddling or cloying; she wanted to be my friend and, indeed, she was. I was fortunate that I could have her come visit me in the USA, starting in the early 70’s. Again a widow, she did visit regularly, spending months with me in Washington DC and, later, Michigan; Milla, was part of my life at the Corcoran and Cranbrook. She befriended artists, curators, journalists, staff, students, patrons and trustees; she was a beautiful woman in every way.
My mother was well read, spoke a little French, had beautiful handwriting, would talk easily and listen well. With her sense of humor, curly white hair and smiling blue eyes, Milla was beloved. My mother had never had a life like she had with me in America. Milla came with me to parties, receptions, gallery openings and events; many a tale can be told. At one formal function in Washington DC, we were at a dinner; me in a tux, my mother stately in black. Making conversation, a lady asked my mother what was my favorite dessert. Smiling demurely, my mother responded, loud enough for the table to hear, “Roy loves Spotted Dick”. Well that was a conversation stopper; particularly as she added, in the silence, “And he likes his Spotted Dick with treacle on it.”! Hastily, I had to explain that Spotted Dick is sponge pudding with raisins, a traditional English dessert. Everyone sighed a breath of relief; my mother smiled, blissfully unaware of what she had said.
Of course, more occurred at Cranbrook, where mother lived at Saarinen House. She had her own room with back stairs giving easy access to the kitchen; that is where she spent most of her time. The kettle was always on, the tea pot full, with cookies for her visitors; she loved to chat and everyone loved to listen to her lilting Welsh accent. On one occasion, I came into the kitchen to find her chatting with a famed artist; discussing the problems, as a widow, of bringing up an only child. The artist was our dear friend, Yoko Ono.
Many artists and writers came to the Academy; even ambassadors and royalty. My mother was present when I received my knighthood “Order of the White Rose of Finland, Knight First Class” from the Finnish Counsel. Probably, my mother was the only person, other than myself, who truly appreciated the knighthood. No one else seemed to understand; free tickets to a baseball game may have caused more excitement to my colleagues at the Academy. Mother and I were proud of my knighthood; even more so when I was honored again. This time by Sweden; I was awarded my second knighthood, “The Order of the Polar Star”. Later, King Carl Gustav and Queen Sofia of Sweden visited Cranbrook; my mother was thrilled.
After her death, I came across a small book of poems and writings. Included was a description of the royal visit in which my mother wrote, in her firm hand, “Their Majesties were invited to Cranbrook to celebrate the reinstallation of the Orpheus Fountain by Carl Milles, the well known Swedish sculptor.” She goes on to describe the preparations, arrival and ceremony. Milla continues, “Several guests came to Saarinen House at 3.45. Then the King and Queen arrived with the lady-in-waiting and entourage. They went upstairs to freshen up and then came down to meet the guests. Roy introduced me to them and we shook hands. We were told not to courtesy or bow, only to say ‘Your Majesty’. They said they were pleased to be here and I said it was an honor. They mingled with the guests…..As they were leaving, Roy and I stood outside and we shook hands again. I didn’t want to wash my hand after that. It was a wonderful experience.” She concluded, “Now, we must get down to earth again”. How true for my mother was the most down to earth person that you could ever meet. Her favorite event at Cranbrook was the annual Guy Fawkes Ball, particularly the huge bonfires. Milla dressed formally for the occasion, pearls and all; she dined, wined and danced.
Mother spent more time and more time with me; she also visited relatives in Canada. Eventually, she left her flat (apartment) in Wales; returning annually to visit her younger half sister. In 1991, she died in a Nursing Home on Woodward Avenue, across from Cranbrook. I was by her side, so was my wife Agnes and her mother, a dear friend to Milla. These two elderly ladies, one from Scotland and the other from Wales, were short, plump and grey; almost impossible to tell apart. One day, Agnes and I saw them walking down the street towards us; from a distance, our mothers looked the same as they walked and talked. My mother died at the age of 84; a memorial service was held at Christ Church Cranbrook. The church was overflowing with her friends, faculty, families, staff and students; evidence of the real love felt for Milla.
At the service, I read the following, again written in my mothers clear handwriting. My reading brought tears to us all, as does typing this touching text. To this day, I am not sure whether she copied this or if the words are hers, the distinctive penmanship clearly is.
“Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away to the next room. I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name; speak to me in the easy way you always used. Put no difference in your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effect, without the ghost of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolutely unbroken continuity. What is death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well.”
Matriachs & Monarchs
Other than my mother, the two great influences from my early life were Queen Elizabeth the First and Queen Victoria. My grandfather, born in the Victorian Era, brought me up to admire Victoria Regina and the times of the Raj. Both monarchs ruled at the most dominant and bloody times in British history. I will not bore the reader with that history; suffice to say that the British Empire came into being because of these matriarchal monarchs. Indeed, I was brought up in a matriarchal society; the men worked, brought home their pay packet and were given beer money. The wives and women ruled the household as they ruled the land. During the war, the Queen Mother stayed in London with the King; they comforted the survivors of the Blitz and, indeed, strengthened us all. (As they both got older, my mother looked more and more like the Queen Mother, elderly and elegant.) In 1953, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second was hailed as the “Second Elizabethan Era”; Edmund Hillary had conquered Mount Everest and, later, the Beatles reined supreme, as did the Queen. Unfortunately, conservative capitalists and staunch socialists clashed and the country suffered, going into decline. In 1967, I left for America, the land of opportunity.
Deans & Directors
In the USA, unlike the UK, with its famed Queens ruling the land, a woman has never led this nation as President of the United States. Moreover, I found women did not hold leadership roles in education or art museums. Although the same may have been said of England, there were signs of change. I had served under a woman, who, as President of Clarendon College in Nottingham, had appointed me to her faculty in 1960.
In this country, ten years later, I attended my first conference of College Presidents and Deans. The National Association of Schools of Art (NASA) was meeting in Los Angeles; about 200 individuals in attendance and only one woman. Sister Mary Rose Ellen represented St Mary’s College, Notre Dame. I got to know her well and served on an accreditation team with her; indeed, I visited St Mary’s for an accreditation visit. Slowly, there were signs of change. I did have the privilege of speaking at the inauguration of two colleagues and friends who became College Presidents: Barbara Price at Moore College of art and Ellen Meyer at Atlanta College of Art. Unfortunately, both their tenures were not long enough; due to circumstances not of their making. Ellen has just been appointed President of Watkins College. Even so, men still seem to dominate in academia?
Within art museums, the situation was the same. When I was elected as member of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in the early 70’s, the only woman present was Adelyn Breeskin. At that time, she was curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts. She was the first woman to direct a major American art museum; having been director of the Baltimore Museum of Art 1947-62. Adelyn was most kind to me as was her assistant, Dianne Pilgrim. Over the years, Dianne and I have remained close friends; she became Director of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, now Emeritus.
In recent years, the AAMD membership, now about 180 directors, has changed dramatically; nearly half the elected members being women. Women are directors of art museums throughout the country; major museums are headed by women from the American Folk Art Museum to the Wolfsonian. These directors continue to develop and shape art museums and their missions. In contemporary art, the late Marcia Tucker at the New Museum was a major advocate, with challenging exhibitions and ideas. As I review the membership list of AAMD, I see the names of many more women that I regard as colleagues and friends; these directors play an increasing and influential role in the culture of our times.
In June 2008, Anne d’Harnoncourt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art died; she was appointed in 1982 and was the longest serving and most highly respected of women directors. I regarded Anne as a respected colleague and her presence will be missed; particularly with the Women Art Museum Directors. This group met regularly at AAMD meetings for support and advancement of women directors. In 1999, in San Diego, I was invited to speak to the group, the first man to do so. I was the ‘Mystery Guest’ at their luncheon meeting. I remember looking at Anne during my talk; she nodded as I spoke, supportive as ever or so I hoped.
The theme of that AAMD meeting was ‘Today’s Artists/Tomorrow’s Museums’; dealing with how to involve the artist, who often felt neglected and forgotten, with the art museum. I spoke as an artist and equated the artist with women decades ago: on the outside looking in. I talked about the challenge of art, the need for art, the changing role of the museum, my own experiences as an artist and director. I concluded by stating, “How to encourage and embrace that art of the future, I leave to your expertise and imagination. For decades, women were on the outside, were not museum directors, and were ignored: just as many artists feel today. You are well qualified, and experienced enough, to bring the artist of today into your museum of tomorrow.” To this day, I am not sure who invited me or why; I do know that, during the course of that meeting, many women directors came to thank me for my comments.
Last year, September 2007, I gave the keynote address at the Florida Association of Museums; included under the heading ‘Museums’. At that time, I pointed out that art museums and cultural organizations throughout Florida are headed by women. I also referred to comments by Fred Bell, President of the American Association of Museums, who had spoken of the necessity of having ethnic minorities involved in museums from being on the board to serving as directors to being represented on the staff and as artists. Indeed, for the coming decades, this ethnic diversity and representation will be the challenge and opportunity in museums and throughout our society.
Artists & Administrators
Helen Frankenthaler "Nature Abhors a Vacuum" 1973.
Over the years, as a museum director, I have presented the work of many artists. Whether men or women, I have tried to show the best of art today. I have been privileged to meet and work with these artists; I have written of these individuals under ‘Artists’; included are Ray Eames, Helen Frankenthaler and Loiuse Nevelson. Many more names come to mind and, eventually, more will be written.
At the Corcoran, under ‘My Five Years’, I wrote about the fact that women artists and minorities had been neglected. No women artists were included in the 1970 Biennial, resulting in a protest by feminists on the steps of the Corcoran. Women artists became militant and feared feminists; ‘The Guerilla Girls’ came in to being. Their outrage was justified and I was made aware of the need to include women artists in exhibitions; I did so.
In ‘My Five Years’, I mentioned curator Jane Livingstone; assistant Frances Fralin and registrar Susan Grady; staff members who played a critical role during my time as director of the Corcoran. Other women were invaluable: Dorothy Phillips, curator of collections; Donna Ari, curator of education; and my many assistants. Worthy of mention is Marti Mayo; she worked at the Jefferson Place Gallery and, when that gallery closed in 1974, I invited her to work in the curatorial office. Marti became director (1986-1994) of the Blaffer Gallery, the art museum of the University of Houston, and then director (1994-2007) of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. I am proud of her achievements and wish her well. Mary Ann Igna worked with me as a curator at the Corcoran and Cranbrook; she is now a director.
Within the Cranbrook’s founding and history, women had played an important and critical role. The wife of the founder, Ellen Scripps Booth, was most instrumental in the founding of Cranbrook. She proposed and supported Kingswood School for Girls. In their home, designed by Albert Kahn in 1908, was to be seen furniture, weaving, crafts and art. The Booths patronized the Arts and Crafts movement; tapestries designed by William Morris and his daughter were in their bedroom. At the Academy, founded in 1932, there were artists that were pioneers and leaders; weaver Loja Saarinen; designer Pipsan Swanson Saarinen; weaver Maja Wirde; ceramicist Maija Grotell; weaver Marianne Strengell; designer Ray Eames; ceramicist Toshiko Takazeu; and designer Florence Knoll.
When I arrived at Cranbrook, in 1977, Kathy McCoy was co chair of Design; later, I did appoint sculptor Heather McGill and painter Beverly Fishman to be artists in residence. The Academy Office was led by Lucy Harper, Registrar, who was a comfort to the students and to me! Lucy was a devoted and able administrator, knowledgeable and dependable. Words can not express my gratitude; Lucy, quiet and dependable, knew everyone and everything! Her successor, Kathy Willman, has served the Academy well; she has befriended and helped countless students over the years. Many other names come to mind, Margaret, Dianne, Barbara, Al and many more; thanks!
In 1978, Barbara Price was appointed Dean; she had worked with me at the Corcoran and did a great job at the Academy before becoming Vice President at Maryland Institute of Art. Beatrice Sanchez was her successor and later became President of Kansas City Art Institute. The faculty did not like the feeling that they did not have direct access to me, so no more appointments as dean were made. However, in those early days, to have a dean was necessary as I was getting established and had much to do from raising funds to developing long range plans. In addition, as well as being President, I was Director of the Museum. Within the Museum, to assist with the daily and ongoing administration, I appointed Linda Dunne as Museum Administrator; later she became deputy director at the Cooper Hewitt; a position she now holds at the American Folk Art Museum. Her successor was Michele Rowe Shields; both Linda and Michele were invaluable in their work at the Museum; as were the staff members of the Academy.
For my tenure at Cranbrook, I was faithfully served, from 1979 on, by Roberta Stewart, Administrative Assistant. After I left, she became Administrative Officer for the Academy. In all, she served Cranbrook for 28 years; in 2007, Roberta became Director of Administration at Boca Raton Museum of Art. Words can not express my gratitude to Roberta and all who worked with me at Cranbrook; without them, I could not have fulfilled my responsibilities and role within the Academy and Museum.
As I started on a personal note, writing of my mother, so I will end by writing of my wife Agnes. She and I have been together for twenty five years; from the time, in 1983, I appointed her Director of Development for the Academy. For a quarter of a century, each day has been blessed by her presence. To honor her wish for privacy, all I will say is thank you.