Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, is less than a three-hour drive from New York City. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are even closer. Griswold grew up in the little borough of less than 8,000 just across the Susquehanna River from state capital Harrisburg.
His parents, Robert and Laura, took advantage of their proximity to the nation’s cultural meccas by regularly venturing on road trips to each city for museum visits.
Fascinated by the mystery and beauty of the Egyptian pharaoh’s golden mask and sarcophagus, Griswold fondly recalls touring the Tutankhamun exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in the nation’s capital. The intrigue of the ancient relics from another part of the world sparked his imagination.
At Trinity College in Connecticut, Griswold took art history, French and English literature even though he planned on attending law school. Being a lawyer seemed to be a more logical path, but all of those family trips to museums had his heart stuck on art. He graduated from Trinity with a bachelor’s degree in art history.
“Art and museums have always been a part of my life,” Griswold says. “I just fell in love with it.”
In graduate school at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, he studied Italian Renaissance drawings — sketches that often come before masterpieces — because he loved the intimacy of the medium. “Many of the most exciting drawings are the ones where you can see the artist correcting his mistakes, reimagining a composition or a figure,” he says.
He felt close to the mind and hand of the artist’s creative process.
“He’s deeply passionate,” says Christopher Malstead, Griswold’s partner of 25 years. “Works of art and museums have both intellectual and emotional resonance, and he’s captivated by both of those.”
Griswold was drawn to Florentine artist Piero Di Cosimo’s originality and eccentricity. In 1988, he completed his doctoral dissertation on the artist’s collected drawings, which are few, and soon got his first museum job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as assistant curator of drawings. It was a nice break from the intense doctoral research on a single artist.
“I absolutely loved it,” Griswold says. “Becoming a curator was like coming up for air. Suddenly, I could be a generalist again.”
When he joined the Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue in 1995, he headed the drawings department, which had a vast collection of Old Master drawings, including five by Michelangelo. “The Morgan is a wonderful place with extraordinary depth in works on paper,” Griswold says.
The former library and office of financier Pierpont Morgan and his son, J.P., also holds special personal value for Griswold: It’s where he met Malstead at an exhibition of drawings by Flemish Baroque artist Anthony van Dyck on Valentine’s Day in 1991.
But by the late 1990s, Griswold started repainting the lines of his career.
He fell hard for Chinese art on a trip to the country. He identified with the gestural similarities between European drawings and Chinese paintings and particularly enjoyed the country’s ceramics.
“The objects are really beautiful,” Griswold says. “And the religious concepts that undergird so much artistic production in Asia is really fascinating.”
He also wanted a closer hand in influencing an institution’s
“There are so many different ways to think about works of art in museums,” says Malstead, who took art history at Columbia University. “He’s deeply proficient at communicating that range of meaning and importance.”
Griswold inched closer to his goal in 2001 when he became associate director for collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the sprawling, palatial institution set in the hills of northwest Los Angeles. “That was my introduction to leadership,” he says.
He worked with the Getty’s six curatorial departments and closely with Peggy Fogelman, who was the assistant director for education and interpretation. The two bonded over East Coast ties and the horrors of LA traffic. They collaborated on community projects such as an interactive space for families and expanding the role of education at the Getty.
“He came from a curatorial background,” says Fogelman, who took over as director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Garden Museum earlier this year. “But he had a deep and sincere interest and enthusiasm for how museums interface with their public.”
When he became interim director of the Getty in 2004, rumors swirled that he could be a candidate for the permanent directorship there. But Griswold dreamed of leading a bigger museum with stronger civic ties.
While one of the most visited museums in the United States, the Getty’s influence on the city’s cultural landscape is overshadowed by the much larger Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“That was a fantastic leadership experience,” Griswold says. “But, I wasn’t at all sure that LA was the right place for me.”
In early 2005, the Minneapolis Institute of Art began a five-month search for a new director after Evan Mauer, who led the
institute for 16 years, retired for health reasons. It was the big, cultural anchor Griswold wanted. The museum had a wealth of Old Master paintings and Chinese art, and a major expansion near completion.
When he became director in October 2005, Griswold worked to complete the expansion and oversaw the installation of more than 30 galleries. It seemed like a perfect frame for Griswold’s career aspirations — and for a short time, it was.
“I loved it,” he says. But then, in 2007, the Morgan called looking for a new director.
“I had this romantic notion that New York was where I belonged and that the Morgan was where I belonged,” Griswold says.
Leading the Morgan felt like destiny. He even told Rosenbaum in a May 2007 interview that the Morgan “is my retirement job.”
All of that changed when the Cleveland Museum of Art search committee called in 2014 to gauge his interest in becoming the director.
Griswold had a past with the Cleveland Museum of Art.
When he first visited as a graduate student in the 1980s, he was mesmerized by Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew (which goes on view this month after two years of restoration) and admired the museum’s collection of Asian art.
It had been nearly a decade since he’d visited, and Griswold was overwhelmed by the expansion and atrium. He saw the atrium’s potential even then, despite its lack of art.
Cleveland had all the elements of a
“I found my dream job,” he says, glancing out at the atrium from the conference room above. “I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.”
In the Cleveland Museum of
Art’s West Wing, Griswold channels his inner Krishna.
He unbuttons his suit coat for a little flexibility and glances over his shoulder. He juts his left hip up and out, and raises his left hand to the sky — palm up and turned inward.
“The left hand is holding up Mount Govardhan to protect the cow herds from a rainstorm that was brought by Indra,” he says, reciting the story from memory while peeking back again to make sure the look is right.
Behind him against a reddish-brown wall in the Indian and Southeast Asian gallery stands Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan. The 8-foot-tall, roughly 1,400-year-old Cambodian sculpture has been at the museum since 1973. It’s part of a long list of Asian art acquired and restored during the tenure of former director Sherman Lee, who, like Griswold, was an Asian art enthusiast and curator at heart.
“This is a really good, thoughtful restoration,” Griswold says, motioning to the Krishna. “But we now know that in some subtle way, it’s not exactly right.”
For starters, the left hand, which holds up the mount, is missing. But it was recently acquired from the National Museum of Cambodia. Now, the left hand, which includes part of a backing plate, is on the other side of the museum in the conservation lab. That piece of sandstone sculpture will soon be joined with the rest of the Krishna.
But by piecing the sculpture together with 3-D printed replicas, conservators think there should be more torsion to the body. To make the left hand fit, the left hip should actually be pitched up higher.
The discovery of the subtle change wouldn’t be possible without the left hand, which the museum received as a result of Griswold’s efforts working with the Cambodian museum since he arrived.
Throughout the museum’s history, directors have left their marks. Frederic A. Whiting, the first director, had the task of assembling the initial 7,000-piece collection, much of which was textiles. He also saw to the completion of the $1.25 million Beaux Arts-style building and worked to make sure it served as a teaching institution by establishing a library and education department.
Starting in 1952 as a curator, Lee amassed an Asian art collection that includes works such as a bronze Standing Buddha from 591 and 22-foot-long hand scroll painting Portraits of Emperor Qianlong, the Empress, and Eleven Imperial Consorts from 1770s China. With the help of a $35 million bequest from Cleveland philanthropist Leonard C. Hanna Jr., which positioned the museum among the richest in the country, he acquired works such as Frederic Edwin Church’s famous Twilight in the Wilderness. Lee also spearheaded two major renovations, in 1958 and 1970, that added gallery space, the Ingalls Library and Museum Archive and Gartner Auditorium.
A generation later, Lee’s daughter Katharine Lee Reid, initiated the most recent expansion, including selecting Viñoly as the architect.
In less than two years, Griswold hasn’t been afraid to revise Viñoly’s vision. This month, a reimaging of the Japanese and Korean galleries debuts on the second floor of the most recent expansion.
“The expansion is great,” Griswold says. “It’s a pretty remarkable thing, but the Japanese and Korean galleries we felt could be made more coherent.”
An excess of natural light spilling into the North Wing galleries through a set of doors leading to the atrium caused the works to be washed out against the grayish walls. The galleries were also broken into three unconnected rooms, which resulted in an awkward flow of traffic and visitors skipping them altogether.
“We have a great collection of Japanese paintings,” Griswold says, “but we felt we couldn’t really show them as well as we’d liked.”
As part of the redesign, the doors to the atrium have been closed off, because the long second-floor hallway connecting the Asian, textiles, pre-Columbian and contemporary galleries is used more often. The Japanese and Korean galleries have been combined into one unified room with a new coat of purplish-brown paint to better highlight the paintings and bronze and giltwood sculptures.
But Griswold’s favorite part of the project reawakens an artistic flourish diminished by Viñoly’s expansion, which butts up against the 1970-built Marcel Breuer building that serves as the main entrance. To Griswold’s delight, Breuer’s colossal stone staircase next to Gallery One in the lobby now connects new and old. Previously there was no second-floor connection between the Viñoly and Breuer buildings. By punching a hole in the back wall of the Japanese and Korean galleries, the staircase provides a new avenue into the redesigned Viñoly galleries.
“It’s a really beautiful staircase,” Griswold says. “Now it will be one of the principal routes to the galleries. That wasn’t planned [by Viñoly], and so I’m really proud of that.”