As of this July, the San Antonio Museum of Art will have a new director. Katherine Luber, a fifth-generation Texan, will take the helm as Marion Oettinger, director of the museum for the last six years, steps down to devote his full-time attention to overseeing the museum’s Latin American art collection. Perhaps we are influenced by memories of “The Missing Peace,” the show about the Dalai Lama currently on view at the museum, but the transition at SAMA’s peaceable kingdom seems to us to be more like that of a king retiring to a monastery than the sudden departures that have become the art-world standard in this era of pink slips.
During his tenure Oettinger sought out and obtained funding for a full-time contemporary art curator. Now all three of his fellow curators, who he also hired, have endowed positions. During that time the museum added 9,000 square feet in the new Asian Art Wing, and the collections of the 30-year-old museum were reorganized. We were aware that Oettinger, who has a doctorate in anthropology and extensive field experience in Latin America, was eager to get back to research full time and concentrate on his next project. In a phone conversation this Monday he told the Current some of the details.
“One of the plans that I have is to convert the third floor of the Latin American building to a center for the research of Latin America. There we could have our library, and secure but open storage for most things. Carrels would be available as small offices for invited people to come in and spend some time with our collections. … Right now everything passes through my eyes, which I don’t think are bad eyes, but they are the only eyes. So it’s always nice to get scholars to come in and look at material afresh. … It’s a long discussion about truth, and I always say we don’t really deal with truth, at least I don’t: I deal in perspective. But if you get a lot of learned perspectives together, you can probably get pretty close to a truth.”
While Oettinger embeds himself among his beloved Latin American art, Luber will take on his old duties as director. She was a Fulbright scholar, and was raised in Houston. Luber, who received her master’s degree at the University of Texas and her doctorate at Bryn Mawr, joined the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a John G. Johnson Curator in 1993. The Johnson Collection houses one of the largest gatherings of old master paintings in the world. Proficient in both the business world and academia, she holds an MBA from Johns Hopkins University, and in 2005 she founded The Seasoned Palate, Inc., a spice company with products in over 300 retailers nationwide.
Luber’s specialty is painting of the Northern European Renaissance, on which she has focused in exhibitions and scholarly writing. Her book, Albrecht Dürer and the Venetian Renaissance, chronicling the German artist who was active at the cusp of the 16th century, was published by Cambridge Press in 2005. Luber told the Current about one of her triumphs in Philadelphia, in which she was able to trace the early movement of a pair of paintings by Van Eyck depicting the stigmatization of St. Francis displayed as part of the exhibit called Recognizing Van Eyck. “We learned that the Philadelphia St. Francis had traveled with merchants from the Netherlands all the way to the Holy Land and back. We know when people saw it, like the painter Giovanni Bellini in Venice, and when it was in Florence. It was used as a traveling devotional object — an amazing object to look at very closely.”
Luber’s selection continues SAMA’s tradition of choosing curators for museum leadership, a trend not followed by all museum boards, many of which prefer their institutions to be led by executives from other sectors. Her aspirations for the museum are not only to stay the course, but accelerate.
“I was delighted to learn that there is meditation in the galleries, and yoga on the grounds,” she said. “But I would like to see there be more times for more programming, so that people can fit it into their busy schedule. I think it is going to be a hotbed for learning. …. It is an incredibly well-run institution. I just hope that I am the added ingredient that brings them to a new level. A little bit of alchemy.”