Location: Bowdoin / Magazine / Features / 2010 / To Make the Old New

To Make the Old New

Story posted May 07, 2010

Author: Edgar Allen Beem
Photography: Dean Abramson

On a cool, quiet evening in October, Kevin Salatino delivered the Sixth Annual James M. Carpenter Lecture in Given Auditorium at Colby College in Waterville. Salatino’s provocative topic was “Fuseli’s Phallus: Drawing Sex in 18th Century Rome,” a talk based on research into the erotic drawings of Swiss-English artist Henry Fuseli begun when he was curator of graphic arts at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Slim, bespectacled, dressed conservatively in a gray business suit, his salt and pepper hair cropped close, Salatino surveyed his audience of Colby faculty members, students, and local residents and spotted an elderly woman sitting in the front row. Taking a seat next to her, the solicitous Salatino gave the lady a polite heads up.

“The material in this lecture is a little strong,” he warned, choosing the adjective carefully. “If you have trouble with it, I won’t mind at all if you leave.”

The older woman looked at him and replied forthrightly, “I think I can take it, but thank you.”

For 45 minutes, Salatino waxed eloquent and erudite on the social, psychological, and art historical dynamics of some very graphic drawings, but not before his lecture was delayed for 15 minutes as a Colby professor made frantic calls in search of a microphone that had not been put in place. The mike that eventually showed up didn’t work.

“You’re making Bowdoin look really good,” Salatino quipped good-naturedly as a Colby student struggled with the microphone.

As interested as the small central Maine audience may have been in the erotic art of Henry Fuseli, it’s a good bet they were even more interested in getting a look at the new director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Kevin Salatino, 53, arrived in Brunswick in August, having previously served as the head of the department of prints and drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was appointed in April to succeed director Katy Kline, who left the museum in 2008 after 10 years, during which time she oversaw the dramatic $20.8 million renovation and expansion of the museum’s historic Walker Art Building.

As it happens, Kevin Salatino’s appointment came as part of a wholesale changing of the art guard in Maine. Over an 18-month period, the directorships of the Portland Museum of Art, Farnsworth Art Museum, Maine Arts Commission, Ogunquit Museum of American Art, the University of Maine Museum of Art, and the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor have also changed, leaving Sharon Corwin, who was appointed director of the Colby College Museum of Art in 2006, as the senior art director in Maine.

Sharon Corwin believes Salatino’s “scholarship is particularly well suited to Bowdoin’s impressive collection.”

“Kevin’s focus on 18th century European art is interesting for us in Maine,” she says, “because we don’t have that much European art in the state. With Bowdoin’s collection, he’s particularly well suited to its depth in European art and antiquities.”

Kevin Salatino is an animated, energetic, and approachable gentleman with a ready sense of humor. Eight weeks into the job, he had not yet settled into his new office. Working out of boxes with borrowed furniture, no art on the walls, and unable to master the lights, he nonetheless hit the ground running.

An exhibition of prints by the great African-American artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) had already been planned when Salatino came on board, but he was quickly able to augment the Bearden prints with a selection of the collages for which Bearden is most famous. He secured the collage loans by contacting halley k harrisburg ’90, director of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in midtown Manhattan.

“Kevin is well-liked in the art world and that goes a long way,” says halley harrisburg. “You want to help him. You want him to succeed. I believe he will fill those new museum spaces with energy and vitality.”

Salatino brings to his first museum directorship not only a wealth of curatorial experience but also the art world savvy and connections acquired while working at much larger institutions. He ticks off his ambitions for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in an excited staccato.

“More, bigger, and more important exhibitions,” he says, “organize them ourselves, make a statement, get national coverage, draw an audience we may not have at the moment.”

“Kevin will illuminate on a national level – while still serving the Bowdoin and Maine communities – the richness of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art,” says halley harrisburg. “I am very excited about his leadership and the direction that he will take the museum.”

An Intuitive Interest in Art
Kevin Salatino was born in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1956, the son of a firefighter and a working mother. He attended local Catholic schools and then the Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. for two years with plans to enter the foreign service. In the nation’s capital, however, exposure to the National Gallery, Hirshhorn Museum, and Phillips Collection galvanized an early interest in art.

“I remember forcing my parents to subscribe to the Time-Life great artists series – Giotto, Michelangelo, Titian,” Salatino recalls. “My interest in visual art was intuitive. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it’s that I’m Italian. I don’t know.”

Having decided that he wanted to become an art historian, Salatino transferred to Columbia University.

“Columbia changed my life,” he says. “First, I discovered myself and what I wanted to do. Second, it introduced me to the great works of the past in every field – literature, philosophy, history, art. It was eye-opening for a boy from the suburbs. And my classmates were all brilliant. They were intimidating but stimulating.”

In the fall of 1979, having completed his undergraduate work at Columbia, Salatino entered the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a PhD, an academic odyssey that he jokes took him “three decades to complete.”

At Penn, Salatino was mentored by and became the research assistant to Leo Steinberg, the eminent Renaissance scholar and art critic. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the 15th century Italian Renaissance frescoes of Fra Angelica in the Chapel of Nicholas V in Rome. But while he completed his course work in 1983, Salatino did not receive his PhD until 1991. His doctoral work indeed spanned three decades in large part because he spent three years living and traveling in Italy, returned to work for Leo Steinberg for two years, and spent a year as an intern in the Paintings Department of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. Then he got a job teaching.

“My intention was always to go into academia,” says Salatino, noting that museum professionals tended to be looked down upon by art historians as “connoisseurs obsessed with objects.”

“Twenty years ago, the museum world was not taken seriously by many academics. There’s much more crossover now.”

In 1989, Salatino took a one-year appointment to teach at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he suffered chilblains from living in an uninsulated A-frame ski chalet. He says, being an avid cross country skier with plans to take up snowshoeing, he is not worried about making the climate adjustment from sunny California to wintry Maine, but others worry for him. Upon his appointment to the Bowdoin museum, Salatino received a note from former Bowdoin curator John Coffey, now deputy director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, congratulating him on being selected to lead “my favorite museum” but warning him, “Beware of February!”

In fact, Kevin Salatino might have come to Maine almost 20 years ago when he was an unsuccessful candidate for a teaching position at Bowdoin.

“No hard feelings,” says Salatino, who clearly landed on his feet after the Bowdoin rejection.

From 1991 to 2000, Salatino was employed by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles where he worked his way up from collection development specialist to curator of graphic arts. He describes his decade at the GRI, where he had the luxury of acquiring great illustrated books, incunabula, fine prints and drawings, and artists’ letters and archives, as “a velvet chain.”

“I was there longer than I should have been.”

While at the Getty Research Institute, Salatino published Incendiary Art: The Representation of Fireworks in Early Modern Europe and began his research on Henry Fuseli, a project that grew out of a lecture on the Grand Tour entitled “Sex and the Eternal City: The Grand Tour as Erotic Pilgrimage.” Before moving to Portland, Salatino discovered that Boston University professor Bruce Redford, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Society of Dilettanti, an 18th century London dining club made up of alumni of the Grand Tour of Italy, is also a Portland resident.

“Maine, I’ve discovered is the nexus of all things in the universe,” Salatino quips, ticking off a list of connections that range from finding the childhood friend of his next door neighbor in LA living two floors below him in Portland to the fact that Portland resident David Becker ‘70 is an expert on the 19th century French engraver Rodolphe Bresdin, one of the artists featured in a forthcoming exhibition Salatino is curating for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Flowers of Evil: Fantastic and Grotesque in French Art, 1850 to 1900.”

David Becker, who like Salatino is a print curator, has known Salatino for 10 years.

“Kevin has a great eye. He’s bright and energetic and funny as hell,” says Becker. “He has a combination of scholarship and a real degree of showmanship, in the best sense of the word. I still can’t believe our good luck in getting him.”

In 2000, Salatino became the head of the department of prints and drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a position he held until Bowdoin came calling. At LACMA, he was responsible for many landmark exhibitions, including “Picasso’s Greatest Print: The Minotauromachy in All Its States,” “The Prints of Ed Ruscha,” and “Van Gogh to Picasso: 19th and 20th Century French Master Drawings.”

“Kevin has many special qualifications to make the leap from curator to director,” says LACMA director Michael Govan, “most importantly, his enthusiasm for art and his ability to share that with others – with colleagues, the public, and those who contribute to make the museum and its programs possible. His broad range of knowledge and interests is impressive and inspiring. And finally, he believes in institutions and is ambitious in what he wants to accomplish within them.”

Bowdoin Comes Calling
When Los Angeles art dealer Stuart Denenberg '64 heard that then Bowdoin College Museum of Art would be looking for a new director, he immediately contacted Kevin Salatino and urged him to apply.

“I knew Kevin had gone into a museum leadership program, so his head was on that trajectory,” says Denenberg, a private dealer with 45 years in the art business. “I thought he’d be well suited to a learning environment because he handles the intellectual content of art with such aplomb and, with his background at the Getty and LACMA, he had really terrific experience. And personally, he’s a charmer with a wicked sense of humor.”

Initially, Salatino was not interested. He was busy, however, preparing for the next phase of his museum career.

In 2009, Salatino was one of 10 curators selected for a prestigious Center for Curatorial Leadership fellowship, a six-month intensive that enables curators to acquire the management skills to become department heads and museum directors. Between January and June, he studied with faculty from the Columbia University Business School and was mentored by two of the world’s foremost museum directors, Glenn Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Sir Nicholas Serota, CEO of the Tate Museum in London.

“It’s the reason I’m here,” says Salatino of the Center for Curatorial Leadership fellowship.

As it happened, Laurie Nash of Russell Reynolds, the recruiting firm Bowdoin had hired to assist with the director search, spoke to the CCL fellows about career advancement. And it seems that, in addition to putting the Bowdoin bug in Salatino’s ear, Stuart Denenberg, a Bowdoin grad with a wealth of art world connections, had also been solicited by Russell Reynolds to recommend potential candidates. He highly recommended Kevin Salatino.

Sir Nicholas Serota also gives Salatino high marks.

“Kevin Salatino is a curator with real achievements behind him, in terms of scholarship and exhibitions, who also has the potential to lead an organization in a new direction,” says Serota. “His insight and sharp wit, coupled with his ability to engage with others, make him a stimulating colleague. He has an impressive breadth of interests that will serve Bowdoin well.” 

While Salatino was studying in New York, Nash took him to lunch and persuaded him to apply for the Bowdoin position. Even once he had thrown his hat in the ring, however, Salatino says he was telling friends that he was just doing it for the professional experience and to understand the search process.

“Why would I leave LA for Maine?” he’d say. “I’m not insane.”

But Salatino found he really liked the people on the Bowdoin search committee and he knew that the Bowdoin College Museum of Art had a deep collection and a world class building that had just been renovated and expanded. When he visited the campus and met with President Barry Mills in February (“Beware of February!”), Salatino decided he really did want the Bowdoin job after all.

“Bowdoin’s stealth weapon is Barry Mills. Everything changed with Barry,” says Salatino. “He has incredible vision and energy. I thought, ‘Wow, this is someone I can really work with.’”

“When I met Kevin,” says Barry Mills, “I pretty quickly realized he is a unique talent, because he has all the knowledge and scholarship to really lead a substantial art museum that is integral to the mission of an academic institution combined with the very charismatic and very imaginative public persona to meet our other mission, which is to be a public museum for mid-coast Maine, the state of Maine, New England, and beyond. This was a guy who could really lead the museum on both fronts.”

When Salatino informed LACMA that he was considering the Bowdoin position, he was offered a promotion to deputy director in hopes that he would stay in LA. The choice between staying at a public museum he knew well and taking over an academic museum that was entirely new to him led to “the worst 48 hour period of my life,” at the end of which Salatino opted for Bowdoin.

“I didn’t want to implement someone else’s vision,” he explains. “I was also keen for change. What I’d like to see happen at Bowdoin is radically different than what I’ve done in the past.”

A Vision of the Greater Museum
Kevin Salatino has national ambitions for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

“The museum renovation was the first tool in the kit,” he says. “Now we have to encourage gift-giving on a large scale and fundraising on a large scale. The building says we are serious about art at Bowdoin. We have created a safe space for art. Everything is state of the art now.”

To announce the museum’s new ambitions, one of Salatino’s first orders of business has been to begin planning “a big, popular exhibition of the kind the museum hasn’t had recently.” That show will be “Hopper in Maine,” an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s paintings of Monhegan, Ogunquit, Cape Elizabeth, and Rockland planned as a highlight of the 2011 season, when the Bowdoin museum celebrates the 200th anniversary of its collection.

While the Bowdoin museum has acknowledged strengths in many areas, including 18th and 19th century American portraits and landscapes, Old Master drawings, and photography, Salatino hopes to be able to acquire art works “in areas the museum is not strong in” such as non-Western art, Asian art in particular.

“At the same time,” he says, “we have to build on the contemporary collection. That’s where the alumni come in.”

While the museum has long had an advisory committee, Salatino hopes to create a new collections committee of alumni and friends who can make financial and gift-giving commitments to the museum.

“It’s really about transforming the funding base for the museum,” he says.

Creating a broad base of funding will be key to realizing several of Salatino’s other plans for raising the profile of the museum and its collection. He would like to see the museum publish both a new handbook and a coffee table book featuring highlights of the Bowdoin collection. Such publications both promote a museum and provide information for potential donors. Salatino also hopes to see most of the collection digitized so it can be made available online and to create a set of downloadable audio tours of the collection for handheld devices. The Museum website has already created a blog, and Salatino wants it to have its own Facebook page and Twitter feed. ‘This is all part of engaging with now,’ he says.”

When he envisions the long-term future of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, the new director sees an even more daring development.

“We need to expand,” Salatino says. “We need another building.”

The Walker Art Building is the jewel of the Bowdoin campus and one of the most beautiful buildings in Maine, but while it is ideally suited to the exhibition of the museum’s deep historic collection it lacks the kinds of wide open spaces often required for large-scale contemporary art and installations.

Thinking of former industrial spaces such as the old mills that house the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, the printing factory that became the home of the DIA Foundation’s DIA: Beacon space in Beacon, New York, and the transformation of military and commercial buildings by the Donald Judd Foundation that turned little Marfa, Texas, into an international art Mecca, Salatino imagines an expanded presence for the Bowdoin museum both on and off the campus.

Ultimately, Kevin Salatino sees all of these initiatives – the renovation of the Walker Art Building, major exhibitions, important acquisitions, promotional books, online images, audio tours, alternative venues – in service of the same aesthetic and intellectual ends.

“It’s our goal,” he says succinctly, “to make the old new.”

And a lot of folks believe the new museum director who can pull it off.

“I think Kevin is going to bring to the museum national visibility and global reach,” enthuses art dealer halley harrisburg. “The Bowdoin College Museum of Art can be a destination unto itself. He is working for a president of the college who has the same vision and philosophy. Barry is very supportive of the bigger vision.”

“It’s important to dream and dream large for the museum,” agrees Barry Mills. “I’m encouraging everyone on campus to dream large.”

Currently, Salatino is dreaming large ice sculpture. As a trial foray outside the museum box, he is in the process of inviting several prominent contemporary artists to participate in ‘FREEZE,’ an exhibition of monumental ice sculptures to be created on the Quad in February 2012 as part of the Museum’s 200th anniversary celebrations. Imagine, for instance, one of Jeff Koons’s kitschy balloon dogs rendered twenty feet high in crystal clear ice, then melting slowly away before Frisbees and Hacky Sacks return with the spring.

Beware of February, indeed! If Kevin Salatino is successful, he might make it the hottest month of the year.

"I remember forcing my parents to subscribe to the Time-Life Great Artists series--Giotto, Michelangelo, Titian. My interest in visual arts was intuitive. Maybe it's genetic. Maybe it's that I'm Italian. I don't know."

enlarge this imageClick image to enlarge…

Kevin Salatino, Kevin Salatino, Kevin Salatino, Kevin Salatino, Kevin Salatino and Jose Ribas '76,