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Cut & Paste: St. Louis Art Museum’s Outgoing Director Reflects On 21 Years In Charge

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Bill Greenblatt
Construction of the East Building was a highlight of Brent R. Benjamin's tenure at the head of St. Louis Art Museum.

Brent Benjamin had never set foot in St. Louis when he showed up on a snowy day in 1999 to interview for a job running its namesake art museum.

He got the job and made his impact over more than two decades at the helm of St. Louis Art Museum. He led a $160 million capital campaign, at the time the largest ever for a St. Louis arts organization, to fund construction of the museum’sEast Building and creation of an endowment to pay for future upkeep. Notable exhibitions during his tenure include “Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard” in 2001 and “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost World” in 2018.

Benjamin announced in September that he plans to retire next summer. In January, the organization will begin its search for his successor in earnest.

Brent R. Benjamin will step away after being at the helm of St. Louis Art Museum since 1999.
St. Louis Art Museum
Brent R. Benjamin will step away after being at the helm of St. Louis Art Museum since 1999.

He is also president of the American Association of Museum Directors, and from that seat maintains a deep understanding of the relationships among different institutions and the state of the field today. Benjamin said the tax funds the St. Louis Art Museum receives as a part of the Zoo Museum District largely insulate it from the budgetary mayhem created by pandemic-related closures earlier in the year. But the ongoing struggles of other museums could affect simple things like the ability to borrow artwork for new exhibitions.

“I am very worried about what the exhibition dynamic looks like, in particular,” he said, “because these organizations are not going to have the capacity to operate as they have.”

In this episode of Cut & Paste, Benjamin reflects on his time at St. Louis Art Museum and looks to the future. He also reveals some of the behind-the-scenes challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic — including the nerve-wracking ordeal of sending a painting by Monet halfway around the world with no one to keep an eye on it.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.