Director to leave Krannert for Houston

Director to leave Krannert for Houston

CHAMPAIGN – Before the Menil Collection in Houston began recruiting Josef Helfenstein to become its director, he and his wife, Dorothee, visited Houston just once, in 1989, specifically to see the art museum.

"We agreed it was the most beautiful museum we've ever been to," said Helfenstein, who at the time was living in his native Switzerland. "When they contacted me, I was very surprised. I was speechless."

Helfenstein, who just began his fourth year as director of the Krannert Art Museum on the University of Illinois campus, tentatively has been selected as the new director of the Menil by its board of trustees. He expects to sign a contract any day now and to start the new position in mid-January.

He had not wanted to publicly discuss the new position until after signing the contract. But on Friday, The New York Times reported his appointment in its "Inside Art" column, and Thursday, The Houston Chronicle reported that Helfenstein was expected to become the fourth director of the Menil.

The Houston newspaper described the Menil as "a jewel in the community of international art museums, both for its home, a 100,000-square-foot building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, and the depth of its holdings, especially in the areas of surrealism and Byzantine art."

The newspaper also said that the appointment will end a search that has been ongoing since Ned Rifkin resigned in November 2001 to become director of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Helfenstein would take over from interim Director James Demetrion, a former director of the Hirschhorn.

Krannert Art Museum staff members expressed sadness over Helfenstein's impending departure, with one comparing it to the loss of former UI basketball Coach Bill Self and others describing themselves as "heartbroken." However, they said the Menil directorship is a "dream job," and Helfenstein has left the Krannert on firm footing.

"We are very fortunate that Josef's direction and plans for exhibitions, collections and programs have put the museum in an extremely strong position on the local and national scene which will be of great assistance to the next director," said Karen Hewitt, associate director. "We look forward to recruiting someone with an equally strong vision for the future of Krannert Art Museum."

Kathleen Conlin, dean of the UI College of Fine and Applied Arts, which oversees the museum, said Friday that a search for Helfenstein's replacement will begin immediately.

"Josef was a superb director of the Krannert Art Museum, and he really did an excellent job of advancing the mission of the arts on campus," she said. "His ability to work with faculty and graduate students in particular and to open the museum to the university and the Champaign-Urbana community was extraordinary."

When Helfenstein took over, Krannert had few exhibitions planned and had experienced staff turnover. He built up the staff, particularly in the area of curators, and has planned exhibitions that will carry the museum into the next two or three years.

During his leadership, gift giving increased as well. Since Helfenstein took over, the museum has received 550 to 600 works of art, including works by internationally known artists as Louise Bourgeois, Jacques Lipchitz and Pierre Daura.

Helfenstein had the long-term goal of creating an endowment for the museum. The Krannert Art Museum Council recently announced that it will donate $10,000 to start the endowment fund.

While here, Helfenstein developed an ambitious schedule of exhibitions and programs, among them the exhibitions "Drawings of Choice from a New York Collection" and "Louise Bourgeois: The Early Work." Both were accompanied by catalogs, traveled to other museums and received press attention outside Champaign-Urbana.

Another goal was to increase diverse community participation in the museum, which Helfenstein met in part by mounting "Here and Now: Art from Greater C-U," an exhibition of art by about 45 local artists this past summer. The opening reception drew more than 800 people, one of the largest crowds ever at a single event at the museum.

Glen Davies, an Urbana artist whose work was in the show, said he is disappointed that Helfenstein is leaving but that he deserves the new job.

"He's a really good person," Davies said.

"I feel like he's a scholar but at the same time approachable. He did a really good job of helping to reveal to the community some of the treasures of that museum. A lot of the shows were related to his own scholarship, which was natural, but they gave us a chance to see things we would normally not have been aware of here. His legacy is that the museum seems more a part of the community."

Helfenstein, 46, began his museum career in 1983 as assistant curator at the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland. In 1988, he became chief curator of the Prints and Drawings Department at that museum as well as of the Paul Klee Foundation. In 1995, he became associate director at the same museum. Since 1989, he has headed the project Catalogue Raisonn Paul Klee, edited by the Paul Klee Foundation.

Helfenstein is considered the world's leading authority on Klee (1879-1940), a Swiss-German artist. Helfenstein was planning a show at Krannert of Klee's work but said Friday that he doesn't know whether that show will happen now.

Helfenstein said he, his wife and their sons, Anatol, 10, and Julian,13, were happy here, but that he could not pass up the chance to take over at the Menil. The museum has an $11.4 million budget and a $160 million endowment. Besides its main museum building, the Menil Collection has a building housing works by Cy Twombly and a gallery of works by Don Flavin. The famous (Mark) Rothko Chapel is also on the Menil grounds.

"It's an enormous honor," Helfenstein said of his new job. "The beauty of the collection and the buildings is really outstanding. It's a very unique institution. It's not very big. In most comparable institutions, the first impression a visitor would receive is of a gift shop and restaurant. There, it's the primacy of the art and the commitment to art. You can feel it immediately. I think it's rare now in the big-museum world, which is driven now by commercial pressure and the pressure to build big attendance figures."

The Menil Collection opened in 1987 to preserve and exhibit the art collection of John and Dominique de Menil. It is considered one of the most important privately assembled collections of art and houses about 15,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs and rare books.

You can reach Melissa Merli at (217) 351-5367 or via e-mail at

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