2015-01-22 / Around Town

Redwood Nabs a ‘Rock Star’

By Pat Blakeley


Benedict Leca recently took the helm at the Redwood Library and looks to increase the scholarly reputation and profile of the institution. The 18thcentury scholar and art expert brings a wealth of international experience in innovative presentation of historic works. (Photo by Pat Blakeley) Benedict Leca recently took the helm at the Redwood Library and looks to increase the scholarly reputation and profile of the institution. The 18thcentury scholar and art expert brings a wealth of international experience in innovative presentation of historic works. (Photo by Pat Blakeley) You might think that an art historian internationally recognized as a curator, lecturer, author and editor, with credentials from the National Gallery of Art, Harvard and Brown, would be a little dry. You’d best think again. Renaissance man Benedict Leca, the new executive director at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum, is anything but, and he is imbued with ideas to increase the visibility of the Redwood that just may make 50 Bellevue Avenue a “must see” stop for residents and visitors alike.

Born in Casablanca and raised in France and Texas, the multilingual Leca loves art, literature, history and learning – and sharing them with a wide audience. He also boasts a C.V. that would make most scholars do a double take. “I am curious,” he admits, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Most recently the Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Ontario, he previously served as Curator of European Painting, Sculpture and Drawing at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Gifted at presenting art in new ways and with an ability to get private collectors to lend their works, Leca masterminded several impressive exhibits at the Cincinnati Museum. The Cincinnati Enquirer dubbed him the “rock star curator” when his new exhibits on Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Monet spiked attendance and his ideas revived interest in the museum.

His departure from Cincinnati for the less well known Art Gallery of Hamilton sparked a furor in the city’s art community that caught national attention. He became known as “the $2 Million Man” when one Cincinnati benefactor pledged that amount to permanently endow a chair if they could get him to stay; protesters quietly demonstrated against his departure in the midst of the Monet exhibit. Although humbled by the support, Leca did move on, but was held in such high regard by the board that he was able to borrow two of their prize pieces for one of his next projects.

Working collaboratively has been a trademark of Leca’s career. While at the Hamilton, he curated the groundbreaking show "The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne," offering a rare glimpse of masterpieces from an international roster of public and private collections. The exhibit opened last summer to rave reviews at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and is currently at the Hamilton.

The “rock star” downplays his impressive credentials. “I got nine Fs and was on academic probation as an undergrad,” he reveals, and it wasn’t until he found his passion for art that his trajectory soared. He earned a Master of Arts degree at the University of Texas and Ph.D. from Brown University, both in Art History.

Although his jump from curator to executive director is atypical, he points out that as director of curatorial affairs he was responsible for overseeing multiple departments, strategic planning, developing policy, and broadening opportunities for public service and visitation.

Unassuming, quiet, and more inclined to talk about culture than himself, Leca lights up when talking about the Redwood. “I am an 18thcentury guy,” he says, referring to his extensive study of the period. He came to the library 20 years ago to see the historic collection, reflecting print culture and the Republic of Letters, and is more than delighted to be back. “It is a thrill to walk in a place with an unbroken link to 18th-century culture.”

Leca had been in Ontario since 2012. His wife, Leora Maltz-Leca, teaches contemporary art at Rhode Island School of Design. With twoand a-half-year-old twins, her commute to RISD was getting unbearable. When the Redwood position opened it seemed too good to pass up and a perfect fit, he says. “I love to educate. I love to unpack things with a trained eye for the lay viewer.”

Leca’s job is to heighten the scholarly reputation and profile of the library. To that end, one of his first priorities is getting the Redwood accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. “The library is not a museum in the traditional sense, but it is a cultural center, historic site, and intellectual repository,” he notes, and adds that the athenaeum model offers the freedom to broaden any subject or artifact.

“When I saw the Van Allen Gallery, I thought, ‘Bingo, small exhibits with high caliber pieces.’” The space works to his strengths, and he believes you get as much, if not more, from a smaller exhibit than a blockbuster. “It’s not about quantity; it’s quality, idea and presentation. I am looking to do small substantive exhibits that shape an argument.”

As a scholar and lecturer, Leca regularly presents at symposia and universities internationally. When can we expect him to step to the podium in Newport? “I’ve got a few ready to go,” he laughs, hinting that he may be in Redwood’s spring lecture lineup. Now we are curious.

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