Robert T. Buck Jr., the art historian and longtime museum professional known for his campaign to bring the Brooklyn Museum to the forefront of New York’s cultural scene, died of lung cancer on March 30, Sam Roberts of the New York Times reports. The celebrated arts administrator was seventy-nine years old.
Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on February 16, 1939, Buck attended Williams College, where he met his wife, Nicole Challamel, and earned a bachelor’s degree in French in 1961. He intended to pursue a career in banking and even enrolled in an executive training program at the Chemical Bank New York Trust, but in a sudden reversal that Buck would later attribute to Fred Licht’s course “The Development of Modern Art: From Goya to the Present,” which he took in college, he decided to study art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University instead.
Buck worked at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio and the Washington University Gallery of Art in Saint Louis before becoming assistant director at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1973. During his decade-long tenure at the institution, he organized major solo exhibitions of work by artists Sonia Delaunay, Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, and Fernand Léger, among others; strengthened the museum’s education programs; and oversaw the publication of the collection catalogue Albright-Knox Art Gallery: Painting and Sculpture from Antiquity to 1942 (1979).
Buck joined the Brooklyn Museum in 1983, a time when, according to Robert A. Levinson, a former chairman of the museum’s trustees, the institution was better known internationally than it was in New York. Buck set out to change that.
During his thirteen years at the helm of the museum, Buck oversaw a major renovation and expansion project that added 30,000 square feet of exhibition space, a new 460-seat auditorium, and 30,000 square feet of art storage to its Eastern Parkway building. He also kicked out its unaccredited art school, which relocated to the Pratt Institute.
While Buck successfully elevated the museum’s status in the eyes of New Yorkers, his last six years as the head of the museum were challenging due to the city’s decision to cut its annual funding by $2 million. He was forced to make budget reductions and, as a result, had to lay off more than fifty employees. At one point he complained about how fundraising seemed to eclipse his other duties. “Directors are like classy beggars with golden cups,” he said.
Despite the museum’s financial woes, Buck still managed to grow its endowment, which jumped from $12 million to $40 million; organize major exhibitions, including “The Machine Age in America: 1918–1941” and “Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982–1993,” a smaller version of which was staged at the 1993 Venice Biennale; and secure major acquisitions.