It is to be hoped that James Cuno isn’t the kind of person who hates goodbyes, because the one he got was a doozy.
Cuno, director of the Harvard University Art Museums, has been appointed director of the Courtauld Institute of Art to lead its transformation into an independent college of the University of London. He will leave for his new job in early January.
The staff of the Art Museums bid their boss farewell on Dec. 17 with a party that featured a baseball theme. Cuno, a longtime Red Sox fan, appeared in baseball regalia on a specially created souvenir trading card. The card was concocted through the magic of Adobe Photoshop, but the stats on the back told the real story of Cuno’s achievements as an art historian and museum director.
The following evening, Cuno was the guest of honor at a gala event in the Fogg Museum courtyard. President Lawrence H. Summers led off the roster of speakers paying tribute to the departing Cuno, who has raised $60 million for the museums during his 11 years as director and added 13,000 new works to the collections.
“There are conservators, and there are leaders, and Jim has been both,” Summers said. “He’s been a moral leader in the museum community, condemning trendiness and commercialization, but also standing up for the proposition that there is no idea that is not worth considering. Most important, he has made the Art Museums something very much at the center of the intellectual life of this community. Jim, thank you for a job splendidly done.”
A musical interlude followed Summers’ remarks, with two selections sung by baritone Neil Davidson ’03. Richard Benefield, the Art Museums’ deputy director, provided piano accompaniment
Two of Harvard’s poets-in-residence, Peter Sacks, professor of English and American Literature and Language, and Jorie Graham, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, commemorated Cuno in verse. Sacks read two poems written specially for the occasion. The first referred to a lecture Cuno had given on a fragment of ancient Greek pottery. The second was on a column from a 12th century Spanish church, now part of the Fogg’s collection. As a Harvard graduate student, Cuno once alarmed a Fogg official by turning the column so that he could view the other side.
Graham apologized for not following Sacks’ example. “I froze and couldn’t write anything new.” She did, however, rededicate one of her poems to Cuno, appropriately titled “Pollack and Canvas.” Not only did the poem refer to an artist whose work is represented in the museums’ collections, but its theme could be applied equally well, Graham explained, “to Jim’s relationship to chance, his openness to chance and transformation.”
Emily Pulitzer, chair of the Museums’ Collections Committee, was the last to pay tribute to the departing Cuno.
“It’s been a joy and a mind-expanding experience working with him,” she said.
Pulitzer also announced that 140 works of art, including paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, ceramics, and other objects had been donated to the Art Museums in Cuno’s honor.
Her voice breaking with emotion, Pulitzer expressed the poignant combination of joy and regret that seemed to fill so many on this night of leave-taking.
“Lucky Courtauld, and lucky London!” she said.