Museum Directors Talk Accessibility, Role of Museum, Time at UC Davis

Neal Benezra and Jock Reynolds, both graduates of UC Davis art department
Neal Benezra and Jock Reyonlds

Neal Benezra and Jock Reyonlds have been leading major museums for years, but in the 1970s both were graduate students at UC Davis. Reynolds has headed the oldest art museum in the nation, the Yale University Art Gallery, for 20 years. Since 2002 Benezra has been director of one of the newest, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

Both were back at UC Davis recently talking about the role of the university versus the civic museum, their time studying here and what they saw as possibilities for their talk’s venue—the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. Manetti Shrem founding director Rachel Teagle moderated the talk and made her own observations.

All three stressed accessibility, with Benezra and Reynolds praising UC Davis for having a museum that is “free and open to all” (also a museum slogan).

The Yale Gallery has always been free (although not necessarily accessible to all), noted Reynolds, who earned an MFA from UC Davis in 1972. Free admission encourages people to stop by frequently, to get to know the place, its collection and people, and to spend quality time with artworks rather than rushing through to get their money’s worth, he said.

“Look, learn and linger is what we encourage,” he said.

Teagle says people who work at UC Davis have told her they duck into the museum briefly to see exhibitions “one work at a time” on their way to the parking garage.

Admission to SFMOMA is $25, a price that Benezra admitted can be restrictive, so the museum raised money to provide free admission to those under 18.

“The money we most quickly and easily raised was that which made it possible to make the museum free to young people,” said Benezra , who earned his master’s degree in art history from UC Davis in 1978. “I think we’re more proud of that than anything.”

A similar fundraising effort at Yale, to make all programs free, was also a hit with donors.

“We have supporters who are concerned about the economic divisions in the country and wanted to do their part to bridge that,” Reynolds said.

Accessibility also has a physical face.

At Yale, a 12-year-long renovation of several buildings made the museum (which stayed open the entire time) and more of its collection available to the campus and community, Reynolds said. The SFMOMA, founded in 1935, got a new building in 1995 that was “Fort Knox-like” and “opaque,” Benezra said. The museum reopened last year after a three-year renovation and expansion that he said makes it more inviting.

Creating a physically inviting building was a key goal with the Manetti Shrem Museum, Teagle said. The building has a giant canopy that serves as a welcoming portal and invites activity. The museum can also be seen and is readily accessible from Interstate 80 and is open until 10 p.m. every Thursday.

Benezra and Reynolds encouraged the Manetti Shrem and UC Davis to use the relative isolation of Davis to make the museum a special place that offers a unique experience.

“We have a lot of cookie-cutter museums,” Benezra said. “What can you get here that you can’t get anywhere else? Some of my best experiences have been going (to a museum) out of the way, places that you have to want to go.”

The teaching role of the Manetti Shrem Museum ties back to the founding of the UC Davis art department in the 1950s. The university brought together a diverse group of artists who created a place where variety, freedom, experimentation and creative and personality friction were part of the magic. Founding members of the art department, including Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri and others, are subjects of the exhibition Out Our Way at the museum.

“Thiebaud and Arneson didn’t need to keep teaching—they had big art careers,” Reynolds said. “I was treated like a peer while studying here, a real generosity that I’ve tried to live up to.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science