Insider Interview with New Director Robert G. La France

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The David Owsley Museum of Art has made some astounding changes recently; from the opening of the new galleries last year to the hiring of a new director, Robert G. La France, this year. After La France settled into the office this past week, I asked him a few questions about his position and took a stroll with him through the galleries.

Amanda Knigga: What does your position as director at the David Owsley Museum of Art fully entail?

La France: The job of director entails overseeing all aspects of the museum’s operations including collection management, art acquisitions, research, publications, education, student engagement, exhibition planning, management of budget and staff, donor cultivation, fundraising, and public relations.  But that answer sounds too much like an official job description.  In other words, a good university museum director plays many roles including that of scholar, teacher, mentor, coach, manager, and impresario.  And that’s what I intend to do.

AK: Could you summarize a trajectory of your previous educational experiences, studies, and positions that led you to your new position as director?

La France: I suppose it began with undergraduate art history courses at Cal State San Bernardino, a public university about the same size as Ball State. I spent my junior year in Florence, Italy, and returned there to earn a master’s degree at Syracuse University’s program. I’ve held internships at the Getty in Los Angeles and received a PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.  My professional experience combines academic, museum, and university museum work at institutions such as CASVA at the National Gallery of Art, Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, and a fellowship at the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti. I’ve organized exhibitions and published several articles and a book on European art topics ranging from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, and even edited a volume on an American sculptor. To make a long story short, all of these and several other experiences prepared me to research and write about art, work closely with scholars, manage budgets, create exhibitions, and engage with museum audiences.

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AK: Could you tell me what your initial impressions of the DOMA collection are?

La France: I was surprised and deeply impressed.  I make it my business to know the university and public collections in the Midwest, and I hadn’t heard about the Owsley before I first visited in the fall of 2013.  That’s because even though the museum has older roots, the name is quite new and, frankly, it acquired a large portion of the collection only recently. The quality of those acquisitions is extraordinary. As the name implies, many are gifts from David Owsley, who brought his own curatorial experience to his collecting and helped to expand the museum’s scope to encompass several centuries of art from around the world. In addition, former Director Peter Blume, Associate Director Carl Schafer, and Exhibition Designer Randy Salway did a wonderful job planning, building, and installing the multi-hued galleries in a way that suits the building’s distinctive Gothic Revival architecture.

AK: What are some of your intentions or aspirations for your time here as director? What would you like to see happen?

La France: I’d like to see the David Owsley Museum of Art’s collection recognized not only locally, but also throughout the region and nation. But the outcome of this aspiration depends very much on the museum’s financial and human resources, so I can’t elaborate until I’ve had a chance to discuss future goals with the university community.

AK: How would you like to see the collection grow?

La France: It is growing every week, with new purchases, donations, and especially gifts from David Owsley, a great patron of the arts and a scion of the Ball family.  I look forward to working with donors, Ball State faculty, and museum staff to continue to refine and strengthen the collection

AK: How would you like to see an increase in student and community engagement happen?

La France: I believe—and I’m not alone in this—that the museum is bursting with potential for transformative encounters between students and art.  They already happen regularly when art history, art education, studio art, and other classes are taught in the museum. But they also occur when faculty and students in fields as diverse as rhetoric, gender studies, history, all of the sciences, and mathematics use the collection to hone observation skills and stimulate critical thinking. The Owsley is also an important part of the Muncie and ECI community, and a resource for all residents from K-12 students to young professionals and seniors.

AK: What are a few of your favorite works of art in the collection? Could you elaborate a bit on what draws you to favor these pieces?

La France: It really is too early to tell. I’m sure I’ll have a new “favorite” at least once a week, but here’s a few.  I am of course attracted to the Italian Renaissance portrait of a lady by Domenico Puligo(1492-1527); I’ve known this painting from poor photographs, and finally had a chance to see it in the flesh. It is a brilliant demonstration of sixteenth-century Florentine fashion and manners.  I am also enamored by the lovely French Rococo Fête champêtre (a painting of well-dressed, amorous couples cavorting in a pastoral landscape) by Jean-Baptiste Pater(1695-1736), which just entered the collection. I had seen this jewel offered at auction and lost all hope of finding it again—only to discover that David Owsley had purchased it for the museum. I am spellbound by the monumental, mystical head of the Bodhisattva Maitreya from China’s Song Period (960-1279 CE). It’s another Owsley gift that recently entered the galleries. Maitreya is associated with the future and love—and those aren’t bad things to contemplate. I am also drawn to the incredible profusion of imagery carved into the elephant tusk from the African Kingdom of Benin. The South Asian collection is studded with gems, like the little seventeenth-century ivory carving with Christ as the Good Shepherd from Goa, India; and I haven’t yet mentioned the stunning Pre-Columbian art or the virtuoso treatment of light and atmosphere in the American Impressionist paintings. I have too many favorites to choose one, or even a few.  It’s like asking a parent to name his or her favorite child!

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Portrait of a Lady, about 1525, Domenico Puligo
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Head of a Bodhisattva, Northern Song Dynasty
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Royal Tusk, Edo people, 1850/1875

When asked why students should come to the museum and what it has to offer for them La France responded, “The museum provides a direct, authentic experience with quality works of art that communicate across time, geography, and cultures. Skipping the museum and looking at images of art on the web is like watching a ball game on TV rather than actually playing the game. Go to the galleries. See how these objects are actually made, how big or small they are, consider why they exude such power, and why they’ve been preserved for ten, a hundred, or a thousand years. You can also learn something about Buddhism, meditate in one of the weekly sessions, and sketch in the galleries. Build your skills in the arts of observing, describing, researching, and persuading through looking closely at art. I also believe that experiencing art from around the globe in a museum expands a student’s cultural horizons and promotes new ways of perceiving the world. These are just a few of the reasons to come to DOMA. It’s also a great place to go on a date (and it’s free).”

Be sure to stop by with a friend or date to sketch, meditate, or get a bite of culture in the galleries you may not have known were here!

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One thought on “Insider Interview with New Director Robert G. La France

  1. Tom Schwartz

    I have always been impressed with the art museum ever since I was a child growing up here, but in the 8 years since I’ve retired, recent changes and additions to the museum make it totally outstanding.

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