Kreeger Museum’s Founding Director Looks Back

Judy A. Greenberg, the founding director of the Kreeger Museum, gives off some contrarian as well as complementary vibes. She’s an obvious and accessible enthusiast when it comes to talking about what amounts to a kind of life’s work: heading up one of Washington’s truly unique museums.

She also has plenty of grace and humor, keen intelligence and a way with words, as she showed at Georgetown Media Group’s most recent Cultural Leadership Breakfast, held this morning, April 6, at the George Town Club.

Greenberg announced what was already a known fact. After 23 years since taking on the job of directing (and creating) a museum on the site of the Philip Johnson-designed mansion owned by David and Carmen Kreeger at 2401 Foxhall Road, she will retire June 1. Helen Chason, the current head of public relations and membership, will take over as director.

Back in the 1980s, as a member of the Cultural Arts Commission for the City of Rockville, Greenberg founded a regional art center in Montgomery County: Rockville Arts Place, now known as VisArts.

“I had never really run a museum before, so I didn’t entirely know what to expect when I was asked to do this,” she said, referring to the Kreeger post. So I drove up to this building that the architect Philip Johnson had designed. I stopped and I looked and I thought. I saw the house, and I thought, ‘Holy s—! It’s a gorgeous work of art!’ It was beautiful, in and of itself, as a setting, as a home and as home for this remarkable collection.”

That collection remains the core of the museum, the reason why people go still. But it’s the place as a living construction — family, art, music, nature, sculpture and land — that attracted her much as anything else.

“They had tours — you know, 15 people at a time — coming through,” Greenberg said. “But to me, it was kind of a secret. This is a city of museums, there’s quite a bit of art and art institutions, but to me, this is not a vanity museum. The Kreegers were players, and this is a major art collection, art in a natural environment.

“I asked when they wanted to open as a museum, and it was something like six months and I said sure. But there was nothing in place, and I said we can do that, but the labels hadn’t even gone up. So we had to train docents and do everything you have to do to create a museum, while at the same time recognizing the special quality of the place.

“I wanted it to be a living museum, where children came to paint for classes, where music would be played in the evening, where there would be art, and artists on the loose, talking about art, and doing it and demonstrating.”

One of the things that happens at the Kreeger is that even though the collection impresses and enchants, even though you are in a place where your phone just doesn’t dare to go off, you tend after a while to wonder and wander (respectfully, mind you). A desire starts that you want to go in all directions.

Just how impressive is the collection? “I think it’s one of the best in the world as far as private collections go,” she said. “And the Kreeger — there’s no place like it anywhere in the city, and that’s saying a lot. I know, it’s a little out of the way, sure.”

Greenberg’s energy and taste informs the museum. She loves the Color School, the one group of artists for which Washington is noted (think Sam Gilliam, for starters, or Gene Davis). In 2007, she spearheaded “ColorField.remix,” a citywide celebration of the Color School artists and their works that took place in more than 30 venues.

Another program Greenberg initiated, called “Conversations,” is geared to older people who are afflicted with memory problems. She also cited the Kreeger’s programs for schoolchildren, describing one that combines African art, mask-making and drumming.

She talked with great enthusiasm about the current exhibition, “Re-Vision: Looking anew at the art of Philip Johnson and the design of the Kreeger Museum,” which runs through July 29, in a year which also marks the 50th anniversary of the building.

“We asked artists and photographers to come in, and in effect reimagine the building, focus on different aspects, create new visions and objects, inspired by Johnson.” The artists are Cynthia Connolly, Frank Hallam Day, Avi Gupta, Max Hirschfeld, Franz Jantzen and Colin Winterbottom.

When you go to the Kreeger, you don’t know where to go — to the sculpture garden with its works integrating into a vision beyond them, in the hallway or to the collection. You go here and there and then somewhere you’re engulfed: A dreamy Bonnard, a color drenched Boudin, Cézanne, the sharp edges of Braque, one of Chagall’s dreams, the mirth of Dubuffet, a couple of Gilliams, a couple of Van Goghs, a wild splash of Kandinsky, a serene stream of Monets and a passel of Picassos.

All at once, it makes you too dizzy to dance.

You get the spur behind it all. As David Kreeger said: “I never bought art as an investment. I bought it for love and I was lucky. Art that embodies the creative spirit of men transcends the value of money.”

Greenberg says she intends to focus on the workings of the sculpture garden — “No office, no meetings, just the garden.”

If you go through the Kreeger, you’ll notice she’s done a pretty good job of tending its garden, this always flowering garden of art, all of it.


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