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WHEN JOHN R. (JACK) LANE received his M.B.A. in 1971, most graduates were taking jobs in banking and industry. Lane followed his passion into a less conventional field: the business of art. “One could have a management career in a lot of different arenas,” he said. “The reason I decided to do it in art museums is because what matters to me most in life is art. That’s the key to my sense of satisfaction.”

Nearly two decades and three museum directorships later, Lane has a long list of achievements. At the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, he revitalized the Carnegie International exhibit, an international survey of contemporary art. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he led the museum through the most dramatic period of growth in its 64-year history, completing a $95 million capital campaign, opening a new building, and expanding the permanent collection.

Now director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Lane is setting his strategy to transform the regionally known institution into a museum with international stature.

Lane’s successes are impressive, but even more significant is the fact that his work is still clearly thrilling to him after nearly twenty years in the business. Lane, who earned a doctorate in art history from Harvard after leaving Chicago, spoke animatedly about the “truly wonderful” acquisitions during his tenure in San Francisco: a suite of five large Sigmar Polke paintings; an Andy Warhol piece with the image of Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet; Matisse’s Woman with the Hat, a “very valuable, extremely famous” painting central to the early twentieth-century avant garde movement, Fauvism.

Lane spoke with equal passion on the privilege of working with Mario Botta, the Swiss architect behind the 235,000-square-foot modern masterpiece that has housed the San Francisco museum since 1995, and lavished praise on the “fantastic trustees and wonderful staff” that played an integral role in the $95 million capital campaign that financed the new building.

“One of the most satisfying things that a person can experience is being involved from the very beginning until the final realization of a wonderful project,” said Lane, 55. “I had the privilege of being there from the planning, to working with Mario Botta, to participating with the trustees on the capital campaign. I was able to work with my colleagues and staff on the development of an exhibitions program and the development of the collection.” And, he added with obvious satisfaction, “I saw a lot of people in San Francisco get enormously interested in art collecting personally.”

Art provides both personal and professional satisfaction for Lane, and the museum in San Francisco afforded him an unparalleled opportunity to make his mark on the museum scene. The San Francisco museum, which opened a few years after the Museum of Modern Art in New York was finished, began strong in the 1930s but faltered soon thereafter. “It was a new kind of institution then, devoted not just to the art of the time but to challenging modernist art. Some wonderful things happened there in the first decade or so, but then it didn’t develop as rapidly as might have been expected.”

By the time Lane arrived on the scene in 1987, Los Angeles had built a new museum of contemporary art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had added a large modern art building. “The pendulum had really swung to L.A. as the important West Coast city for contemporary art,” he said. It wasn’t difficult to argue that the San Francisco museum had to take drastic measures to catch up to–and surpass– other West Coast institutions.

“The trustees agreed with me that the museum would be destined for a life of mediocrity unless we did something fast,” Lane recalled. He laid out a plan that included planning and building a new home for the museum, providing a higher endowment, enhancing the exhibition and education programs, and adding to the museum’s collection. Under Lane’s directorship, the museum achieved all these goals.

At the beginning of 1999, Lane took on a new challenge: directing the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), a general interest museum founded shortly after the turn of the century. DMA “served its region well,” Lane said, but didn’t have much of a national profile until 1984, when a new building designed by Edward Larrabee Burnes was erected in a new arts district in downtown Dallas. “With the new building, the museum transformed itself from a regional institution to having a certain national profile, much the way that Dallas was changing from a regional city to a city with more scope,” he said. “I think my experiences in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, which to some degree might be regarded as institutional transformation projects, were appealing to the search committee of trustees here.”

While the museum has increased its visibility, it needs to refocus its priorities, Lane said. Shortly after DMA opened the building in 1984, a donor came forth and offered to finance an addition. While this was undeniably positive for the museum, it caused a shift in energy that Lane is striving to redirect. “When you’re in the situation of raising money for capital projects, and it extends over a decade or more, the focus of the institution inevitably becomes the building. I think now that it has been completed, the museum is ready to move forward, looking more at development of its collection and artistic programs,” he said.

His initial plans include enriching the permanent collection, organizing important changing exhibitions, and offering education and outreach programs. Long-term, he said, DMA must strengthen its financial foundations, acquiring a higher level of operating and art purchasing endowments that will “enable it to flourish for the next century.”

Lane is confident that he can realize these goals and said one secret of his success is to recognize the museum as a business and run it as such. “Having some kind of management skill–whether it’s intuitive or formalized–is very helpful. Museums have become large and complex organizations to manage, and it was very helpful for me to have had the organizational theory I learned at Chicago,” he said.

He cited marketing, finance, and strategic planning courses as critical to his business education, but Lane also made use of the school’s curricular flexibility in creative ways. In his two years at Chicago, he took a course on the art and politics of the avant garde taught by legendary art critic Harold Rosenberg, wrote a paper for Harry Davis on the marketing of high-end design items, and conducted research at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Although this provided an excellent foundation, Lane said business skill alone is not enough to successfully lead a cultural institution. “It’s my view that no arts organization really does its best unless the head is truly dedicated to and passionate about the art form it represents.” And that, perhaps, is the ultimate secret to his success. –M.M.B.
Renaissance Man: Jack Lane, ’71, combined his business skill and love of art in a career of museum management.

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