Phillip M. Johnston announced this week that he is leaving his position as director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, although he will stay on until his successor is named. A renowned scholar of American art and antiques and an influential figure in the museum world, Johnston has left a powerful legacy at the SBMA, and he will be missed. Board member Les Charles characterized Johnston as “a man without a lot of ego, and with a lot of integrity.” Johnston has presided over several key projects at the museum, including: an ongoing re-evaluation and display of the permanent collection under the rubric “Art of the Americas”; a major touring show welcomed from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, “From Renaissance to Rococo”; and the current Rufino Tamayo retrospective, which originated at the museum and will tour internationally.
In addition to these programming achievements, Johnston provided crucial leadership at a time when the museum faced significant challenges, particularly in meeting its financial obligations. Charles recalled the situation as a dire one, saying of the museum’s finances at that time, “We had sprung a leak. The boom years of the late 1990s had come to a halt, and expenses needed to be brought into line with the museum’s income and endowment.” Johnston said he was aware of what he was walking into and knew it would not be easy, but “There was nothing else to do. Running a museum is people-intensive work, and there was no way to balance the books here without layoffs, which are always hard.”
Charles said he and other board members were concerned at first, because “Phillip was so self-deprecating and humble that even after we hired him, we weren’t sure that he would be tough enough for the hard decisions that were coming his way. We were happy to find out we were wrong. He was not only strong; he was great about it, and he did not spare himself when it came time to cut corners in the budget. We were all very impressed by that, and by how wonderfully well he did at getting to know people here, and listening to their concerns. He was definitely the right man for the job.”
Coming from the museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, Johnston embraced the opportunities available at SBMA. Among his accomplishments, he noted with special pride a list of quite varied achievements, all of which reflect his comprehensive imagining of the museum’s role in contemporary culture. “All my life I had wanted to be able to craft an overall program for an independent museum,” he said. “Given all the strengths of this collection, I felt that there must be some inventive use to which it could be put, some way to find a suitable balance between stability and change.” He spoke animatedly about such initiatives as the redesign of the museum’s park wing entrance, a project he spearheaded and for which he raised the money. “There’s still some polishing to do,” he said of that project, “but I like to think that we have already made the museum more outward-looking-the park wing entrance ought to look like a second front door, and not the ‘back door’ that it was always referred to as.”
Johnston is effusive about SBMA. “The scale of the place is so appealing-you can actually see it in a day,” he pointed out. “That’s not true of the Met, and I think it’s a plus. The museum also neatly avoids the ‘Bilbao effect,’ as it is architecturally interesting without ostentation. The location on State Street is crucial. What a lucky thing to be there now, with all that is happening and going to happen in the area over the next few years. If only there were a way to open things up further and create a visual link or sense of a through-line between the Santa Barbara Courthouse on Anacapa and the facades on State Street.”
When asked about the process of choosing a successor, both Charles and Johnston were sanguine. Charles said the position was “definitely more attractive than when Phillip came. He has accomplished so much.” Part of Johnston’s motivation for announcing his departure has to do with timing. He wants the new director to be in place before the museum fills another key opening, that of head curator. In a characteristic display of self-awareness and generosity, Johnston wishes to leave that hire to his successor.