John Buchanan, who has been for six years the superb Director of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, died last Friday after a protracted bout with cancer. He was responsible for a grand resurgence of interest in the museums, especially with the new de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. This extraordinary building, designed by the firm of Herzog & de Meuron, gave John the opportunity to mount a long string of superb exhibitions, including the 2010 Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay exhibit, the incomparable 2009 Yves Saint Laurent showing and the current Masters of Venice show, among many, many others. The attention to presentation, the insistence on high artistic quality and the way in which all his exhibitions included an important educational element have set a new high mark for anyone's museum experience.
John always knew what he wanted, very enthusiastically so, as I found out a few years ago when Beatrice Bowles and I had lunch with him and his wife Lucy in the offices of The de Young Museum. Bea and I are aficionados of the Argentine tango, and had put on a number of milongas (i.e. tango dance parties) at a few local San Francisco venues. Because Bea's family has been long associated with the Fine Arts Museums here, we were able to meet with John and Lucy, and pitch the idea that we do a large tango event at The de Young.
Most people we have approached have not known much about tango, and we've usually had to make a pretty detailed presentation before getting any sort of response. In this case, we sat down to a delicious meal that John had had catered for us, met Lucy, chatted a few minutes about friends we had in common, how John was enjoying his tenure at the museums, what he had planned for the future. And then, we got into why we had wanted to speak with him.
The de Young has a regular Friday evening music event in its spectacular entrance hall. We were hoping to convince John that we could attract a large number of dancers from the San Francisco tango community and provide the music for what would be a very traditional tango milonga, to entertain the usually substantial crowd of museum-goers that comes to these Friday nights. We had spent a lot of time on our notes, which I had in hand. Bea and I had rehearsed. We had a concise, detailed and well-thought-out pitch.
I got three sentences into it when John looked around the table, broke into a big smile, and said, "Of course we're going to do that!" He then left the table for a moment and came back with Renée Baldocchi, who is the Director of the Fine Arts Museums' public programs and education efforts. He introduced us, explained to Renée what we had in mind, and delivered us into her care. The rest of lunch was filled with humorous conversation, much fellow feeling, delicious food, and the beginning of friendship on all sides.
That first milonga brought in about 200 dancers and an audience of 3,000 museum-goers. It was the most pleasureful, noisy and fun such tango event that we had ever seen, much less organized. We've now done a half-dozen milongas at The de Young and The Palace of the Legion of Honor, and could not be happier with the way we've been treated and the support that John and the museums have always given us.
We'll miss John very much, to say the least. A brilliant curator, a museum director of great ability and intelligence, a humorous and kind man.