Colin B. Bailey is the Director of The Morgan Library & Museum. He was Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, before that Deputy Director and Chief Curator at The Frick Collection, and he is a specialist of 18th-19th century French art, especially Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He was Deputy Director at the National Gallery of Canada, he worked at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. He studied history and art history at Oxford University, and he attended the Center for Curatorial Leadership in New York. He did an art residency at the Louvre with its Director Henri Loyrette. At the Morgan Library he succeeded William M. Griswold, who took over the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Colin, how do you feel about being back in New York as Director of The Morgan Library & Museum?
I am over the moon, and feel so lucky to return to New York which is a city that I love. In some ways I am returning home, and then there is the discovery of The Morgan, this extraordinary collection. I never really knew it from the inside, just as an outsider. It is an enormous privilege now to be leading it.
What are you going to do?
My first job has been to get to know the staff, the 200 people who work here, and to learn the Renzo Piano campus.
Why do you call it a campus?
You have the celebrated 1906 Neo-classical building by Charles McKim that was the original Morgan Library. Mr. Morgan died in Rome in 1913, and a little over a decade later his son created a building in a similar architectural style that now houses our main exhibition galleries; and then in the late 1980s the institution acquired one of the Morgan family townhouses on the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue. These were the three historic buildings, and in 2006 Renzo Piano found a way of vastly improving circulation around them by the addition that linked all three. He created a new entrance on Madison Avenue and a large, glass-enclosed central court that brings light into the entire complex. As you enter The Morgan you enter in a flood of light.
And what else did Piano accomplish?
New galleries. Centres of education, and extremely well thought-through underground storage for works of art and manuscripts. I have to learn my way around.
Is a library like The Morgan mainly a museum?
It is both a museum and an independent centre of research and scholarship.
How do you intend to run it?
It is already very well stewarded. Each department has exciting projects over the next two years, more or less ready. I would like the excellence of the permanent collection to have more visibility.What are the masterpieces of the collection?
Three Gutenberg Bibles; two Shakespeare First Folios. There are manuscripts related to all of the major authors and poets, as well as probably the greatest collection of mediaeval and Renaissance manuscripts. And then there is a collection of ancient Mesopotamian seals. There are also very important Old Master and modern drawings. The museum has just started to collect photography and contemporary works on paper. At the moment you can see the fantastic exhibition of 150 years of “Alice in Wonderland” from our own collection and with spectacular loans, and you come away understanding the story of Victorian culture in a way that you could never have imagined before. At the same time there is an astonishing show of portrait drawings from Dürer to Schiele, for the most part from the permanent collection.
Is The Morgan a private foundation?
It is most like The Frick Collection. It started as a family collection but now is a public museum with a Board of Trustees that governs it.
You just came out of a two years’ experience in San Francisco where you were Director of the Fine Arts Museums. Did you learn a lot about new technologies and the internet that could be useful at The Morgan?
When I arrived in San Francisco one of my first requests was for the website to be improved, so that the enormous collection could be accessed by the general public more easily; and one of the last things I did was to hire an excellent Head of Information Technology. When I arrived at The Morgan, which is much smaller than the two museums in San Francisco, I was incredibly impressed at how many of the manuscripts and drawings were perfectly digitized and available. Where I hope we can use technology more at The Morgan is to engage the younger generation and excite them about the musical, literary and artistic treasures that we have; and make The Morgan a destination as well. Social media is one very important tool.
It seems that people like you, who have studied in Oxford and Cambridge and have a European background, are utterly appreciated in the museum world in the United States. Why is this so?
I have worked all my life in North America, in Canada, Texas, and California. When you come into these institutions that have a deep and important collection, not just in New York, and you have ambition, enthusiasm and you are prepared to work hard, there is an enormous appreciation and support. In some way it can be explained by the absence of bureaucracy and the absence of entitlement. In America you have to prove yourself, but I think there is an enormous respect for scholarship and expertise.
You will have seen that in Italy they have made a sort of revolution in the running of the major state museums like the Uffizi in Florence, the Brera in Milan and the Capodimonte in Naples. Many of the new directors are foreigners and have had American experience. What do you think about this?
It is audacious, brave, and, I think, very exciting. Remember that over the last two decades in England and France there has been a gradual opening up of the profession, but what has happened in Italy is beyond anything previously done. It seems to me that there is a real melting pot of experience now in operation in Italy. Everyone who has been chosen has excellent scholarly and curatorial credentials, and they will now have to learn managerial skills. There will be challenges that can only be learnt on the job. We are all looking at them to see how well they do.
In your world of Old Masters and 18th-19th Century art, is Italy still a very important center?
Yes, and a great partner. I am committed to maintaining some of the collaborations with Italian institutions I am proud of, which allowed great Renaissance Italian pieces to travel to North America. The Morgan as well has had important recent partnerships with the Uffizi and with the Biblioteca Reale of Turin. I think that this should continue and it will be another Renaissance.
Is contemporary art diminishing the interest in Old Masters and ancient objects?
I think it is impossible such interest will ever be diminished or extinguished, but all museums want to remain vibrant, finding ways of showing modern and contemporary art to add to their collections. One of our next shows at The Morgan in 2016 is devoted to Andy Warhol’s books. What better place to show this little known aspect of his production? For the next two years we have in front of us a pretty well organised programme, and one of the projects I am most excited about is the showing of the Eugene Thaw collection. It is one of the most remarkable collections of Old Master drawings and nineteenth-century drawings ever assembled.
How many visitors do you have at The Morgan?
Under 200,000 a year, and we deserve, and we will have, more and more.
26th August, 2015
Enjoy this interview? Share it with your friends.
Photo of Colin B. Bailey by John Calabrese.
Images courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.