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As curator of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Robert Henning formed strong relationships with collectors, artists, colleagues, and students alike. Here, he stands next to “Herakles,” a gift from Wright S. Lundington. An expert in 19th-century French art, one of his favorite places was the Château de Chenonceau on the River Cher in France’s Loire Valley. | Credit: Courtesy

Robert Henning, 1938-2019

Robert Henning, gifted with abundant intelligence, gentle wit, and refined sensibility, died on June 7, 2019, at Serenity House, from complications following surgery. He led a fascinating, highly accomplished life, with his love of art, music, and books as guiding lights. Santa Barbara knew him best as the chief curator of the city’s Museum of Art (SBMA) for more than two decades before he retired in 2003.

Robert’s education included undergraduate studies at Kenyon College and Ohio State University; graduate studies at University of California, Berkeley, where he received a Master of Arts and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship; a second MA degree from Case Western Reserve, where he completed an internship at the Cleveland Museum of Art; and lastly, at the Getty Museum Management Institute.

His long career as an art historian, curator, and museum administrator began with his appointment as gallery manager/curator at Ohio State University in 1969 and then as curator of the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester in 1972, followed by the curatorship at the Springfield Museum of Fine Art/George Walter Vincent Museum in Massachusetts in 1979.

During his 22-year tenure at SBMA, Robert worked with five directors, saw the museum’s footprint expand through two major additions, and was instrumental in the dramatic growth of its collections and exhibition programming. His expertise, discerning eye, and sincere commitment to establishing an institution of international reputation have had a profound and lasting impact on its exhibitions, collections, publications, visitors, and the greater art community.

Photo: CourtesyRobert Henning

Bruce Robertson, director emeritus of UCSB’s Art, Design, & Architecture Museum, who worked with Robert on a number of UCSB/SBMA collaborative projects, praised him as “the consummate curator: he knew his collection, his institution, and his community and constituency. His brilliant acquisitions built the collection from every angle. He bought key 19th-century British paintings to complement the 20th-century British collection, one of the strongest in the country, as well as extraordinarily beautiful French 19th-century paintings to enhance the SBMA’s world-class Impressionist collection. Robert worked with a community of supporters, and with limited funds, accomplished those objectives at a level of quality any curator might envy.”

Celebrating the role of collectors in shaping and building the Museum of Art was Robert’s highest priority. Barry Heisler, former curator of collections, remembers Robert’s ability “to nurture relationships with donors, collectors, and artists. When I think of the gifts the museum received during his tenure, it is an impressive list of works.” Upon Robert’s retirement, SBMA boardmember Lorna Hedges commented, “The defining and refining of the museum’s permanent collection has been a long, involved process, and Robert is the one person who was involved from the beginning.”

Robert’s warm relations with many collectors in the community, including Christine and Robert Emmons, the late Mercedes Eichholz, and Leslie and the late Paul Ridley-Tree, resulted in important additions to the collections and memorable exhibitions, among them Diverse Directions: Selections from the Charles Craig Collection (1988) and Master Drawings from the Collection of Alfred Moir (2001). Just before his retirement, Robert recalled, “It was a tremendous privilege to have known Wright Ludington, Margaret Mallory, and Suzie Davidson. These were exceptional collectors of wide but discriminating interests. Their bequests to the museum speak to their philanthropy.”

Although Robert’s specialization was 19th-century French art, his curatorial duties led him into a surprising diversity of exhibition projects, ranging from Regionalism: The California View (1988) to the remarkable 2001 exhibition Destined for Hollywood: The Art of Dan Sayre Groesbeck, which demonstrated the influence of American illustration on early Hollywood film. He took a leading role in overseeing the conservation and re-installation of the antiquities collection in Ludington Court and Thayer Gallery. And, somehow, in the midst of many demanding projects, Robert built a superb collection of 19th-century French sculpture while also acquiring important paintings, drawings, and prints to enrich various collection areas for the viewer’s pleasure. 

Robert enjoyed working with younger colleagues as they mastered the sometimes arcane work of the museum world and all of its complications and rewards. Cody Hartley, executive director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, observed, “When I was an SBMA assistant curator, Robert taught me how be an art historian: How to look and think about our shared past and the remarkable history of human creativity, and also about how to be a curator, to balance ideas with realities. Most importantly, he showed me through his daily example how to find joy in beauty, to demonstrate grace under pressure, to be generous in doling out patience and kindness.

“Intellectually, the breadth of his expertise was matched only by his curiosity. He was all-encompassing in his ability to appreciate art from many periods, in many media: from the spiritual to the satirical, from ancient classics to modern masters. And still, he created room for others to make meaning, opening opportunities for colleagues and young staff to stretch and grow, providing space and support in equal measures. I’ve never worked with anyone like him since and count myself fortunate every day for what he gave me as a mentor and friend.”

Photo: CourtesyRobert Henning

Independent art conservator Travers Newton recounted, “When Robert invited me to meet a class of UCSB art history students for a tour of the SBMA painting storage, they said with delight that no one had ever shown them how to examine an actual painting.” Newton said Robert asked them: What is the technique? Describe the brushwork, the condition of the paint surface, the support (wood panel? canvas?). What clues do the materials provide about the age? Can you tell if it has been restored or altered? Is the painting authentic, or a fake? “RH was an excellent teacher,” Newton said, “and an excellent judge of quality.”

Robert led travel tours with museum members and collectors, including Robert Emmons, a former museum board president, who remembered, “We traveled together to Saint-Étienne, France, to view their art museum. I was CEO of Smart & Final at the time, and our partners were headquartered there — important contributors to the museum’s collections. While there, Robert arranged for an important part of their collection to travel to Santa Barbara for the exhibition titled Discoveries! French Masterpieces from St. Etienne [1992], which was extended for three months due to its popularity.”

Longtime family friend Jeffrey Dwyer recalled that “Robert introduced me and my wife, Elizabeth, to Clarence Kennedy’s photography, saying, ‘Dwyer, you should know about this guy. He’s important.’ And now, it is logical that having decided to donate our portfolio of Clarence Kennedy photographs as a promised gift to a fine arts institution, our first choice is for them is to be at the SBMA, donated in loving memory of our dear friend Robert Henning. RIP, Roberto.”

Robert is predeceased by his parents, Genevieve and Bob Henning, and his wife, Caroline Arnold. He is survived by his life partner of 39 years and spouse, Brian Stenfors; daughter, Alys Piper, and son-in-law, William (Bill) DeMattia; son, Seth Tully Henning; granddaughter, Sara Henning; sister, Linda Henning; and, brother, James (Jim) Henning.

Donations in Robert’s memory can be made to Serenity House, Santa Barbara Visiting Nurses Association, and/or Cottage Health System — all of whom were there for us at our moments of greatest need — and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

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