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Arts

St. Louis Art Museum Leader Brent Benjamin Will Retire Next Year

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

Longtime St. Louis Art Museum director Brent R. Benjamin, 61, announced Monday that he will step down next summer.

He took the helm at the Forest Park landmark in 1999.

“In the past 24 hours I’ve heard so many comments from so many people around the community, each one highlighting a different achievement of Brent Benjamin,” said Charles Lowenhaupt, president of the museum’s board of commissioners. “He has enough to give every member of the community something separate to point to.”

During his tenure Benjamin led a $160 million capital campaign, at the time the largest ever for a St. Louis arts organization. It paid for construction of a parking garage and the museum’s new East Building, which opened in 2013 and added more than 80,000 square feet of additional space. The museum paid off the remainder of its debt for that project in 2019, 21 years ahead of schedule.

Two exhibitions under Benjamin’s leadership rank among the institution’s best-attended shows: “Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard” in 2001 and “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost World” in 2018.

Key artwork acquisitions include Elizabeth Catlett’s sculpture “Seated Woman,” Horace Pippin’s painting “Sunday Morning Breakfast” and a collection of 81 works by African American artists given to the museum in 2017 by collectors Ronald and Monique Ollie.

“I want to express my gratitude,” Benjamin said in a statement, “to the St. Louis community for embracing me from the start; to our donors and members for continually stepping up to provide the support required to advance and sustain our museum as an enduring treasure; to our boards for providing a consistent strength of governance; and especially to our staff, who made possible all of our achievements over these past two decades.”

Museum leaders aim to have a new director in place when Benjamin departs.

The organization will begin a series of listening sessions with museum stakeholders, including patrons and local government officials, before formally posting the job opening later this year or in early 2021.

Museum director Brent Benjamin and Ronald Ollie, whose gift of 81 pieces by African American artists stands as a highlight of Benjamin's tenure.
File photo/Chad Davis
Museum director Brent Benjamin and Ronald Ollie, whose gift of 81 pieces by African American artists stands as a highlight of Benjamin's tenure.

Benjamin’s $590,000 base salary makes him the best-paid leader of a St. Louis cultural institution. Since 2015, his salary has been funded by a separate endowment seeded by Barbara and Andy Taylor’s $21 million gift.

SLAM is part of the city’s Zoo-Museum District and is funded in part by tax dollars. Its $33 million annual operating budget — following a midyear reduction of $4 million because of losses related to the coronavirus pandemic — places it among the region’s best-funded and highest-profile cultural institutions. Tax dollars provide $23.5 million of the museum’s budget this year.

The museum has about 250 employees, including part-time workers, and has not made any staff reductions during the pandemic.

Benjamin has also been a leader among museum professionals locally and nationally as president of the American Association of Art Museum Directors.

"I have leaned on him for collegial questions — I have asked him about everything, even HVAC systems — and he is extremely generous with his help and time,” said Lisa Melandri, executive director of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. “It is fun to have him as a colleague, and since he became head of the AAMD it is wonderful to have someone who is close to that part of national leadership. His generosity has been so important, and I am really appreciative.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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