Renaissance Man

David Franklin, the Cleveland Museum of Art's new director, is a Renaissance scholar who's lived in Venice and Florence, written two books and organized successful, groundbreaking exhibitions. Now the multitalented art historian takes on the job of waking

David Franklin has a muse. 

It isn't a singing goddess, an unattainable woman or a statue in marble. It's an entire city. Venice: Queen of the Adriatic, The Floating City, 117 tiny islands strung together to create a European masterpiece. The home to Giovanni Bellini and his Renaissance painter brothers has captivated the new director of the Cleveland Museum of Art ever since a college summer studying abroad in 1981.
"You walk into this paradise, this enchanted world, where even the door frames are works of art, the steps are works of art," he recalls. The wash of culture, architecture, music, food, art and scenery has so overlaid his memory that he can't name a favorite museum or sculpture from his two months there, no single moment of inspiration: "The atmosphere of the city itself, the water, the way light plays, your whole experience: You're walking in a work of art."

Before that summer, Franklin had considered studying business, joining his father's food-preservatives company. Instead, the 20-year-old Franklin lost himself in the labyrinth of twisting streets, dined at humble cafes, visited churches filled with marble and priceless artifacts, slept in a stark pensione with marble floors and metal beds, and listened to the voices and the sound of gondolas landing outside his window.

He was transformed, inspired by a sense that his whole life could be beautiful, could be devoted to more aesthetic pursuits.

"I don't think a day passes when I don't think about that experience in Venice," he says now. "I try to recreate that experience every day."

So Franklin has brought his muse with him to Cleveland, where it's his job to awaken the museum after its half-finished, $350 million expansion; raise $130 million to finish the project; fill the two new wings still under construction with art; animate the giant glass atrium now rising behind the neo-classical 1916 building; and schedule ambitious new special exhibits for 2013, when the expansion is finished, and beyond.

Yes, that's a lot to ask of a Renaissance scholar and author. But the 49-year-old former punk rocker and youth hockey player has done it before: In his last job, at the National Gallery of Canada, he created groundbreaking exhibits about 16th-century art in Florence and Rome, borrowing masterworks from Italian museums, including the Vatican.

His ambition and talents range far beyond one country or style or era. Franklin wants to bring a new, theatrical excitement to the 94-year-old museum: more contemporary art, dramatic interplays between painting and sculpture, more masterpieces.

With a sophisticated, wintry voice, Franklin seems the opposite of aggressive. But his soft-spoken side belies a quiet competitiveness.

"I always thought of myself as a big-game hunter," Franklin says. "I still hold the record for the most expensive painting ever acquired in a Canadian museum as well as the most expensive drawing ever acquired. That's a bit crass, but I'm proud of that."

His ambition is a good match for this moment in the museum's history. For years, the museum has "focused on this amazing quest, the building campaign," Franklin says. "It's almost like they need someone to open their eyes again to the world. We've done this, and now what are we going to do with it?

"I'm the lucky one who gets to try to bring it alive."

ON COLD MONDAY nights in Ottawa, Franklin donned a black jersey and stalked the ice at a community rink. On a recreational hockey team full of middle-aged men, the gentle art historian was a right-winger — and a real menace. "I want to score goals," he says. "I've learned to be competitive in a way that I wasn't when I was a kid."

Like nearly all Canadian boys in the '70s, Franklin learned to skate and shoot a puck, but he didn't enjoy the game much. "I didn't like to be hit," he recalls. So he became a goalie. Lingering at the end of the ice, guarding the goal, suited his personality: "A bit retiring, a bit shy," he says. Finally, at 14, his father let him quit, realizing he wasn't cut out for the brutal survival contest of teen hockey in Toronto.

Back then, the only hint of the studious Franklin's future came when he found himself captivated by a book his father bought him about the art of Renaissance master Pierro della Francesca. Life in Mississauga, the Toronto suburb where he grew up, rarely exposed him to art or history. "It was a very cookie-cutter community," he says. "Even we realized it was a fairly antiseptic kind of existence."

But once Franklin got home from Venice, even as he spent the last weeks of summer driving a forklift at his dad's business, he knew he'd find his future in the art of the past. Back at Queen's University in Ontario, he switched his major to art history.

Entranced by Caravaggio, the Italian painter who specialized in intimate, realistic religious paintings, he delved into Baroque and Renaissance art. His mind was so set on the Europe of 400 and 500 years ago, he avoided taking a class on 20th-century artists until he had to for his major.

He got back to Europe right after college, enrolling in grad school at London's prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art. In British museums, he got to hold drawings by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci in his hands. Out in London nightclubs, he studied other masters: his musical heroes, post-punk and electronic pop acts such as Peter Gabriel, Shriekback and The Jazz Butcher.

The Courtauld Institute pushed its students to get out of London and study art in museums across Europe. "[I was] pretty much expected to live in Florence," says Franklin, who'd settled on the Italian Renaissance as a specialty.

Drawn to outsiders in art as well as music, he chose painter Rosso Fiorentino as the subject of his Ph.D. thesis. Rosso, or the Red Florentine, was known for his crimson hair, fiery personality, menagerie of exotic pets (including a monkey), rock-star-like death (a rumored suicide) and expressive, provocative paintings. Franklin spent a year in Florence, leafing through 460-year-old papers, hunting for references to Rosso.

"It was a charmed life," he says. "You get up, you have two breakfasts, you go and look at a church, look at an amazing object that inspires you. Then you go to the archive, you spend two or three hours reading documents." Then he'd have a great lunch, take a nap, visit the churches and archives again, drink red wine with dinner and relax with fellow students from Germany, the Netherlands, England, the United States.

"I followed Rosso; I basically lived his life almost in real time," he says The painter, after alienating too many patrons, had left Florence for Tuscany and Umbria, living in tiny villages long enough to paint one painting. Franklin lived in each place Rosso had, sifting archives for traces of his visit, learning Italian day by day, eating every night at restaurants where hosts would re-cork his personal wine bottle with a napkin.

Franklin's quest became a book: a Rosso biography published by Yale University Press. It also led him to his wife. Doctorate in hand, he'd become a research fellow at the University of Oxford. Invited to give a lecture on Rosso in one of those Italian villages, he needed help translating it. An Italian professor referred him to Antonia Reiner, a young student from Rome. She translated his lecture by mail from Paris. They finally met one day in Oxford's art history department so he could give her a check.

"She was very beautiful, very stunning," he remembers. "She has a wonderful accent, a very satiny voice." They met again when she organized a lecture on Michelangelo. Soon, the Italian-art scholar was reintroducing the language student from Italy to her own country's art history.

They also hit concert clubs together. She was in an ambient band called G.O.L.; he knew piano and had played bass and sung Clash and Sex Pistols songs in college bands. "She was Goth; I was a punk," he says. "In some ways, we're both very brooding. That probably attracted us as well."

"He's a striking man in more ways than one," Reiner says. "He exudes a certain self-possession that I found very appealing, very attractive."

Franklin spent seven years as an Oxford fellow. He wrote a second book, about painting in Renaissance Florence, and filled file cabinets with research. "I gathered so much material; I still haven't finished publishing it. That's going to take me a lifetime."

In 1998, a job opened up back home. The National Gallery of Canada needed a prints and drawings curator, a good fit with his Renaissance expertise. He knew he'd miss Oxford, but he and Antonia had married and had a son. He didn't want to become an academic. He wanted a more intimate relationship with art. So he, Antonia and their son, Thomas, headed to Ottawa, and his career in museums began.

"THIS MUSEUM HAS a real personality," says Franklin as he walks into the marble lobby of the Cleveland Museum of Art's Greek-inspired 1916 building. It's early October, his second week on the job. Behind him, light shines through the front doors. Before him, a low rumble of voices and footsteps wells up from two staircases.

"When you're in the Louvre, and you see acre after acre of art, it's impressive," he says. "But in another way, it's not conducive to reflection. You're constantly on the move. Cleveland, by being relatively small, makes for a very intense experience of all aspects of the history of art."

Thanks to generations of loyal philanthropists and directors with sophisticated tastes, Cleveland's museum owns works as impressive as those in world capitals. "It is a collection of masterpieces," Franklin says. Yet it also feels intimate. Anyone can walk in without paying admission. For a non-government museum, that's very unusual.

"Museums now, all they talk about are diversity, reaching out to younger audiences, outreach," Franklin says. "But it's hypocritical, then, when you charge 20 bucks to get in. In Cleveland, we have the rare possibility to test some of those ideas, to try to be more diverse, to try to draw attention of young people."

As if on cue, the happy sound of skittering feet and bubbling voices boils over as Franklin steps into the European art gallery that was once the Garden Court, a high-ceilinged room with heroic figures almost bursting out of Baroque paintings and four palatial columns. A bunch of Shaker Middle School students run up the stairs, a bustle of fall coats and backpacks. Seven more students stand atop a balcony and look down on the room.

"Hey!" says one kid, looking way up and seeing someone he knows.

"Shh!" says a kid on the balcony, but it's no use. The kids below, intent on joining their classmates upstairs, run through the gallery, past a 400-year-old bronze of Mercury, who's looking up and running the other way.

Franklin calmly walks to the right, out of their path, toward a painting flecked with gold, Andrea del Sarto's The Sacrifice of Isaac. In the Biblical scene, Abraham, tested by God, holds his knife in the air, ready to kill his son, but an angel calls out to him to stay his hand. Isaac, naked and bound, gazes at the viewer, haunted beyond fear. Abraham turns, his face full of anguish and hope, to the winged cherub at his shoulder.

A golden light plays across Isaac's chest and Abraham's sleeves. They're the finished parts of the unfinished painting, Franklin says. He points out the underdrawing, visible in the angel's body and an unpainted donkey in the background. It's a great painting for educating kids on how artists work — and a captivating piece of art. "If you wanted to have one Andrea del Sarto, this could be it," he says.

Franklin knows the painting well. He borrowed it in 2005 for an exhibition he curated in Ottawa. "I was amazed we were able to get that loan." But it wasn't just luck. Franklin had a strategy. He knew Sarto had painted more than one version of The Sacrifice of Isaac, so he decided to reunite two of them and display them side by side for the first time since the 16th century.

"If I go to Cleveland and say, 'Lend me your Sarto,' they'll quite rightly say, 'Go away,' " he explains. "But if you say, 'Oh, by the way, I've got the version of your painting from Madrid coming to my show. Now would you like to lend your painting?' That's a winning argument."

FRANKLIN'S 2005 exhibition in Ottawa, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and the Renaissance in Florence, established him as a star curator in the art world. The National Gallery of Canada organized its 125th anniversary fundraising ball around it, and that night, Franklin took Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and his wife, Sheila Cowan, on a personal tour of the show.

The Renaissance exhibit was proof of Franklin's growing talents. He'd drawn on his research in Florence and his connections with curators there to create an ambitious exhibit that appealed to regular art lovers and scholars alike. The show was filled with works loaned from major European museums, from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to the Vatican collection.

It not only included the Sartos from Cleveland and Madrid, but also Franklin's biggest purchase in Ottawa, the $4.2 million Virgin and Child with an Angel by Italian master Francesco Salviati.

Michelangelo and da Vinci drew the crowds, but Franklin's show also proved his provocative art-history thesis, demonstrating how the two masters were outsiders in their day by showing works of now-forgotten Florentine artists who were more
popular then.

"David did what he's good at as an art historian," says his friend Steven Gritt, chief of the National Gallery's restoration and conservation laboratory. "He'll take a chunk of human history everybody knows something about, [and] show you things you haven't noticed before, in part by showing you people you may not have heard of before."

Franklin also proved he could raise money. He helped convince donors to take part in the fundraiser, which attracted $2 million, half from the federal government, half from private sources.

"He's someone who philanthropists actually enjoy because of his reputation and personality," says Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada. "They want to make sure they're talking to the kind of people who are going to make a difference for the community and the institution. David's that kind of person. He really commands respect."

Fundraising will be a huge part of Franklin's new job. He'll lead the campaign to raise $130 million more to finish the museum's expansion by 2013. Some museums hire directors who specialize in donor relations, not scholarship. So Franklin was challenged with a pointed question in one of his interviews for the job: A member of the search committee asked him if he, a curator, could raise funds.

"I said, 'How could anyone else but a curator do it?' " People donate money or art because they trust a museum staff's knowledge and expertise, he argues.

Franklin says his father taught him a business etiquette that translates well to meeting wealthy donors: Be direct, not fawning. Show them what you know. "People who are successful are usually successful because they're very absorbent of knowledge," he says. "If you provide them with that knowledge, they're all ears."

That's also true of collectors, he says. "If you love your Monet, you don't just want to put it on a wall in some museum. You want to feel that it's being understood, it's being respected, it's being displayed in the best possible way, that it has a worthy home."

Franklin helped convince Montreal philanthropist Marjorie Bronfman to donate her family's Claude Monet painting, a dramatic rendering of two rock formations on the Normandy coast, to the National Gallery. His role was "drinking cups of tea," he says — but his former boss makes it clear Franklin's being too modest.

"He really gets the message across that people should leave their art treasures to the public," Mayer says. "It's a spectacular Monet that we would never be able to afford. That was really David who befriended Mrs. Bronfman, and visited her, and made the point over many years."

By 2008, Franklin felt ready to move up. He'd been chief curator and a deputy director at the National Gallery for seven years. He was talking to prestigious international museums about senior positions. He'd also been invited to interview for the National Gallery's directorship because then-director Pierre Théberge was nearing the end of his contract.

Then, very suddenly, Franklin came close to losing his job and his reputation. An employee he'd laid off demanded copies of e-mails that mentioned her. Franklin was accused of deleting some of them. He said he deleted his e-mails regularly and had done nothing wrong, but Théberge placed him on involuntary leave.

Franklin sued to keep his job. In an affidavit that he thought would be sealed, but which a newspaper sued to obtain, Franklin claimed Théberge had an ulterior motive: He wanted to hold onto the director's job and eliminate Franklin as a possible successor. Franklin said Théberge suffered from Parkinson's disease and had turned vindictive and cruel, plotting to push several curators off the museum staff.

The dispute became big news in the Canadian press. Franklin was reinstated after a court settlement. An investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing. Théberge retired on schedule. Mayer, who replaced him as director, turns nervous when talking about the feud. "I think the whole thing was a misunderstanding," he says. "He did deserve to get his job back."

The feud left Franklin distraught. "I have been unable to sleep properly," he said in the affidavit. "When I look in the mirror, I do not recognize myself." But at work, colleagues say, he kept his cool and produced the successful exhibition From Raphael to Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome on schedule.

"I think I learned that I had more resiliency than I imagined," Franklin says. "It was the first time in my life I ever faced serious adversity."

Karen Colby-Stothart, chief of exhibitions management at the National Gallery, says she came out of that period with a new level of regard for Franklin. "He kept the eye on the ball, on his work," she says. "The fact he's going to Cleveland is testimony to that, the fact that he just kept working."

FRANKLIN'S CALMING, steadying presence arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Art just in time. The museum's gone through a lot of turnover at the top lately. Franklin's predecessor, Timothy Rub, left for the Philadelphia Museum of Art after only three years. An interim director, Deborah Gribbon, ran the place for a year.

It was unnerving because directors used to stay for decades: The museum had only three between 1916 and 1983.

Franklin's family is settling in: His sons, Thomas, 12, and Roman, 8, are enrolled in the Shaker Heights schools, and Antonia, now an accomplished fiber artist, is interested in exhibiting in local galleries.

To him, the new job is a director's dream: a rich collection, a dedicated board of trustees, a generous acquisitions budget, the potential to take the institution toward greater excellence. "I could see ending my career here, honestly," he says. He talks about leading the museum past two huge milestones, the end of its building campaign in 2013 and its 100th anniversary in 2016.

Breathing new life into the museum's special exhibitions is one of his biggest tasks. He and the board of trustees are concerned that the museum doesn't have enough ambitious shows in the works. One reason is that it doesn't have much space for special events these days, but new exhibit space will debut as part of the expansion. Although he won't have time to curate shows, Franklin wants to help the curators put together events with the integrity and the success of his Renaissance show.

"You're not looking at an exhibition of trophies, but you're looking at an exhibition that's changing or writing art history," he says. He wants to form "super-partnerships" with other museums. He thinks Cleveland has enough Spanish Baroque paintings that it could co-organize a show with the Prado in Madrid. He'd also like to host a show on the art of Amsterdam, "so you've got your Rembrandt in there, but you've also got artists never heard of that are absolutely spectacular and spellbinding."

Armed with a $13 million-a-year acquisitions budget — one of the five largest in the United States — Franklin wants to chase more big game and add to Cleveland's collection of masterpieces.

"Museums should buy as few works as possible and not try to accumulate stuff," he says. "We'll buy very little, but everything will be at the level of the greatest pieces in the collection."

That includes work by living artists. One of Franklin's tasks, he says, is to "overturn that perception that Cleveland's not interested in art of the present day." Contemporary art is a weak spot in the museum's collection, the product of previous directors' conservative tastes. But even with current artists, Franklin's not going on a buying spree. Rather than invest in a bunch of young artists, he wants to collect living artists' work just as they emerge as significant figures but before they command outrageous prices. "We'll collect contemporary art very selectively, contemporary art only that has a real power and majesty and quality."

It may not seem like a Renaissance scholar's strength, but Franklin says he developed contemporary-art-purchasing skills at the National Gallery of Canada, which added significant pieces to its contemporary collection while he was chief curator. Maman, one of Louise Bourgeois' massive bronze spider sculptures (which you may remember looming over PlayhouseSquare in 2002) now casts its eight-legged shadow on a plaza outside the museum and has become one of Canada's most photographed sculptures.

Buying sculpture is another part of his strategy. "One of the things I noticed right away was a relative lack of sculpture in Western art," he says as he steps into a huge gallery of 17th-century European paintings.

Three sculptures stand on pedestals, outnumbered by all the canvases and dwarfed by the towering dark blue walls. "The leap between sculpture and painting creates a very exciting relationship. You need to stimulate people when they come to a museum." Excitement — colors, contrasts between artworks — makes people want to learn. "You have to think of your room as a stage set."

That sense of drama will prove important in 2013, when the museum opens the final pieces in architect Rafael Viñoly's redesign: the huge glass atrium that will unite all four wings, including the future west and north wings, which will house the museum's world-renowned collection of Asian art. Then Franklin's leadership will face its greatest test, as art lovers worldwide will look to see whether the Cleveland museum's vision is as impressive as its newly rebuilt home.

"In '13, when all the galleries are open, that will be a time of great curiosity," he says. "We'll get visitors who'll come just to gawk at the architecture and be part of something that's new."

"Those are the years we're going to have people come here, and if we disappoint them, we're in real trouble for the future.

"Of course, we won't," he adds with a confident smile. "But what drew me to the job is that sense of the moment."
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