The Dallas Museum of Art made two major-major hires in the spring this year, but both administrators didn’t actually arrive in town until September. So the DMA’s director, Bonnie Pitman, threw an eat-and-meet today — wisely waiting until after things died down elsewhere in the Arts District. This was the area media’s first chance to chat with Olivier Meslay (Oh-LIV-ee-AY Meh-LAY), the new head of the DMA’s European and American art departments, and Jeffrey Grove, the first senior curator of contemporary art at the museum.
So: an opportunity to eat free food from Seventeen Seventeen, the DMA’s restaurant, while pretending to know something about large paintings in gilt frames and large blocks of carved marble. Couldn’t keep us away.
Because Meslay, a French native, spent nearly 17 years at the Musee du Louvre, the first question out of my mouth — when we were chatting amiably before the press meeting actually started — was, “Why in the world did you ditch Paris for Dallas?”
Not to bad-mouth our High Plains, but let’s face it. Museums, art, France, large paintings in gilt frames, senior position, large blocks of carved marble, art, Paris, art, the Louvre, art: It all seems to add up to a dream for any top museum professional. Why leave Paris for anywhere else? In my defense, I note that when Pitman opened the floor to questions from the assembled journalists, a variant of my blurted query was exactly what WRR’s Quin Mathews asked: What made you decide to come here?
For Meslay, it was a case of too much management, not enough curating. He was the chief curator of a new satellite — Le Louvre-Lens — being built in Lens in the Pas de Calais in northern France. Le Louvre-Lens is more than just some branch library. Because the Louvre is split up according to departments set up more than 200 years ago, the new satellite was seen, in part, as a way to experiment with new cross-period, cross-national displays and organization. Consequently, much of Meslay’s work since 2006, he said, has been diplomatic, departmental, bureaucratic, etc., etc. Sounds exciting, n’est-ce pas? For him, the DMA is a chance to get back to dirtying his hands pawing through archives, researching auction receipts and writing up (and putting up) his discoveries. Besides, he’s been States-side before (a year at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA), and he and his family enjoyed it.
In contrast, for a contemporary art curator, moving to the Dallas Art Museum makes a lot of sense.
People can debate whether the DMA already has a supremely interesting contemporary art collection, but make no mistake, it’s going to have one. Back in 2005, Dallas collector-couples Marguerite and Robert Hoffman, Cindy and Howard Rachofsky and Deedie and Rusty Rose all decided to deed their notable collections — making up more than 800 works of contemporary art valued then at $215 million — to the DMA. So in moving here from Atlanta’s High Museum, Jeffrey Grove — if nothing else — is making a smart bet on a big future.
But like Meslay, he also enjoys rummaging around in the past. Oftentimes, he said, people in an area arts scene like Texas’ — or even in an individual museum — don’t know what they have the way an outsider might who pops in and says, OMG, do you realize how important this is?
So, as much as anything, the two men, since moving here, have been getting to know the collection.