John Buchanan, Controversial Museum Director, Has Died


John Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, died on Dec. 30, 2011, after a battle with cancer. He was 58.

Buchanan became head of the FAMSF, which comprises the Legion of Honor and the de Young museums, in 2006. Previously he was executive director of the Portland Art Museum in Oregon (1994–2005) and director of Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis (1986-94).

A Tennessee native, he was both credited and maligned for mounting such audience-building exhibitions as “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” (2010) and “Yves St. Laurent” (2009). During his tenure, attendance increased significantly and membership grew by 70 percent. But critics lamented the lack of curatorial initiatives and the outsourcing of exhibitions.

Buchanan’s populist programming also resulted in critically well-received shows, such as “Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris,” (2011), and “Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna,” which remains on view through Feb. 12.

In Portland, he was praised for transforming the small regional museum into an important cultural destination. With his wife, Lucy, who served as development director, he grew the endowment from $8.5 to $47 million and oversaw several expansion projects, even though they left the museum with a $15-million debt. He also made important acquisitions, including the Clement Greenberg Collection.