John Lunsford In Memoriam 1933 - 2019

John Crawford Lunsford - Eulogy Dallas Morning News July 23, 2019

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John Crawford Lunsford died on June 30, 2019 surrounded by close friends reading poetry and declaring their love for him. John Lunsford was born on April 15, 1933 in Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff, Texas. His father Robert Lunsford was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News and his mother Susan Eleanor Fullilove Lunsford was a ceramist, homemaker, and DMN credit union employee. From childhood through his twenties, John took classes from prominent local artists, Otis Dozier among them, at The Museum School of Art. He graduated from Sunset High School in 1950, then earned his AB in English literature from Harvard College in 1954, graduating cum laude. While at Harvard, John studied 13th and 14th century Italian art and took awriting seminar with John Updike. After serving in the US Army from 1955 to 1957, John returned to Dallas.

In 1958, his childhood friend Jerry Bywaters, then director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, offered John the position of Associate Curator of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Before attending graduate school, Lunsford served as curator and catalog author for a major international exhibition, The Arts of Man (1962); just ayear later, he curated and wrote the catalog for Indian Arts of the Americas (1963). In 1968, John’s close friend Margaret McDermott prompted The Shakespeare Club of Dallas to provide him with a scholarship to earn a master’s degree in Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. Finishing his coursework in one year, he returned to Dallas and, while working full time at the museum, wrote his master’s thesis on a sculptural group at the complex of Ankor Thom in Cambodia. Between 1958 and his retirement in 1986 from the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art), Lunsford rose to the rank of Senior Curator and once served as interim director. He was instrumental in building the DMFA collections of African and Pre-Columbian art, enhancing the American Indian collection, and founding the collection of Oceanic art. These objects were his passion.

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John’s profound insights into their beauty, iconography, and cultural significance were communicated in his lyrical prose and finely tuned lectures. Overlapping in part with his DMA (DMFA) career, Lunsford taught non-western art history and connoisseurship at SMU for thirty-three years. He was a gifted teacher, always with an entourage of devoted students.

From 1996 to 2001, John was director of the Meadows Museum at SMU, when the new building opened, and later worked for Heritage Auction House researching objects and writing catalog entries.

Noteworthy as these achievements may be, John’s most remarkable qualities were personal, staggering in range, and presented on numerous levels simultaneously.

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John was a Renaissance child and a Renaissance man. From childhood he studied butterflies and birds, drew them, memorized their Latin names and identifying features, learned their habits, prowled the woods in search of them. As a child he read seriously, began collecting books, listened to opera, drew with precision and delicacy, and developed lasting friendships. All of these passions he maintained throughout his life.

He loved travel and wasted no time in it, walking miles and standing hours from dawn to dusk so as not to miss asight, asite, or a work of art. He led tours all over the world for patrons of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Meadows Museum, and for private groups.

He was a serious birder who kept a life list and birded on Victor Emanuel Nature Tours and with friends. He traveled with Elder Hostel, National Geographic, and other educational organizations.

John and his mother drove a VW Beetle all over Mexico in the 1960’s, and he returned to that country he loved countless times to explore Chalcatzingo, Palenque, Teotihuacán, Mitla and Monte Albán, Yaxchilan, Uxmal, Cacaxtla, Chichen Itza, El Tajín, countless other ancient sites, and breathtaking Colonial cities. He traveled in Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, China, Japan, Turkey, India, Bali, Myanmar, New Guinea, and all over Europe. John was fearless, and for most of his life he could walk anyone into the ground. John read everything, making notes in the margins of books, drawing on copies of poems, and remembering with great clarity passages he read decades before. He was an avid photographer with a library of his own 35mm slides, printed photographs, and digital flash drives.

John Lunsford was a collector at heart: a collector of friends he loved fiercely; a collector of interesting names, genealogies, and human pedigrees; a collector of musical recordings, antique tea cozies, folk art, tribal objects of mystericeramics and textiles, ous power, ceramics and textiles, books and books and more books.

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John Lunsford was a connoisseur at heart. He practiced what he preached in his connoisseurship classes so that he might discern quality in opera singers, literature, visual art, flotsam and jetsam, the human form, and patterns of stars in the night sky. His passion for opera led him to spend many seasons at the Dallas Opera and countless summers at the Santa Fe Opera with his close friend Sally Estes. John Lunsford was a note taker, a bird list maker, a map drawer, and agift giver. He gave and gave and gave to his friends in a seriously considered and subtle way, for the gifts were often immaterial and presented in lesson form.

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John Lunsford had a wicked sense of humor and loved to sing peculiar songs and ditties, especially on the occasions of birthdays. He was a champion mask- and costumemaker, taking the prize at more than one of Anne Bromberg’s infamous costume parties. John Lunsford was the consummate gentleman who loved decorum as well as the wild and exotic, the essential, the poetic and the fierce.

He was all of those. John Lunsford had a big life and he made life big for the rest of us.

John Lunsford is survived by his cousin Susan Kennedy in New Mexico, his godson Steve Watkins and his wife Michelle, and by adiverse network of adoring friends from all periods of his life. Among these are Gavin Newman, Mary Cook, Rossi Walter Sr., Philip Henderson, Melissa Berry, Suzanne O’Brien and Maisie O’- Brien, Robert Armstrong, John Buxton, Steve Farr, Kathi Chandler, John Coates, Diana Clark, Anna McFarland, David Carapetyan, Michael Grauer, Brandt and Amy Heitzman, Jess Galloway and Kathy Windrow, Susie Moody, Sally Estes, Richard and Teel Sale, Tom Sale, Russell Sublett, David Searcy, Paula Selzer and Vera Guillen, Cheryl and Kevin Vogel, Edleeca Thompson, Roslyn Walker, and so many others John would want to recognize.

Named or unnamed, you are all remembered and thanked for your friendship to John. In lieu of flowers, please consider contributions in John’s honor to the National Audubon Society and to Friends of the South Dallas Cultural Center.

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John Lunsford: Mentor, Advisor, Friend

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John Lunsford’s passing marks not just the loss for many individuals of a beloved colleague and former professor but also the loss of a living link to an earlier era.  As pre-Columbian curator at the Dallas Museum of Art for thirty years, director of the Meadows Museum, and professor of art history at SMU, John was indispensable in the cultural history of Dallas over the past sixty years.  Always self-effacing, he skillfully passed on this vast reservoir of knowledge and experience to those of us fortunate enough to have known him.  For example, John proved to be an invaluable resource for me and the other staff members of Jerry Bywaters Special Collections, Ellen Buie Niewyk and Emily George Grubbs.  Mr. Bywaters had been instrumental in launching the careers of John, Ellen and me.  But John had a slight head start, having been hired as an assistant curator at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the DMA) in the 1950s when Jerry Bywaters was its director.  Having worked with him for so many years, John definitely had helpful thoughts about organizing the collection, a collection development policy and, of course, exhibitions; his ideas proved to be especially valuable after Mr. Bywaters’ death in 1989.

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The consummate professional, John was an outstanding role model in many ways.  For example, he was a gentleman who maintained high standards but personified the adage of disagreeing without being disagreeable.  Conversations with John (often over lunch at Cisco Grill) were wide ranging and sometimes had surprises for me, Ellen, and Emily.  For example, we learned that John’s many ties to SMU began even before his birth, when future SMU president Umphrey Lee, an ordained Methodist minister, performed the wedding ceremony of John’s parents.  In relating this and other tales of his family, it became clear that John was very proud—but not prideful–about his deep Texas roots. We greatly enjoyed and learned from his reminiscences of growing up in Oak Cliff, his globetrotting stories (including his bird watching exploits), and his thirty years at the DMA.  On more than one occasion, he and I discussed our shared affinity for the writings of C.S. Lewis, specifically Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.

It is well-nigh impossible for me to put into words the many ways that I and countless other individuals benefitted from knowing John Lunsford.  Perhaps the most fitting tribute to him came in 1995, when the Dallas Visual Arts Center named him as the recipient of its “Legend” award.  That was perfect for John, since he personified that word in every way.

Sam Ratcliffe, former Director, Bywaters Special Collections
Image: courtesy of Meadows Museum

 

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Appreciating John Lunsford, key in spurring Dallas Museum of Art's global reach

Written by: Rick Brettell, Special Contributor

The Dallas Museum of Art is inconceivable without the contributions of its curator of almost 30 years, John Lunsford, who died earlier this week at 86. Its first exhibition of real consequence, for which he wrote the catalog, is proof of this.

On Oct. 6, 1962, in time for the State Fair of Texas, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts opened its most ambitious exhibition to date. "The Arts of Man"  took up the museum's entire building in Fair Park, with more than 500 works in every medium from throughout human history.

The lenders included 40 museums across the country, 15 art dealers and 28 private collectors, including luminaries such as John Hay Whitney and two of the Rockefeller brothers. This vast and expensive endeavor was paid for by 123 Dallas donors -- individual and corporate.

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Art collector, patron and museum trustee Margaret McDermott with two pieces featured in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts' "The Arts of Man" exhibition in 1962.

(Doris Jacoby/The Dallas Morning News)

The miracle of this exhibition is that it was created by a museum staff of 13, with three men as principals, in less than a year. It is safe to say that this feat could not be repeated today.

Lunsford had worked for the DMFA for fewer than five years, beginning in 1958, when he was given curatorial responsibility for this sweeping endeavor, and was only 29 years old when it opened. He went on to work for the museum until retiring in 1986.  (The museum had formally changed its name to the simpler Dallas Museum of Art in 1984.)

Lunsford then entered a career as an art adviser and professor at Southern Methodist University, culminating his distinguished post-career in education as director of the Meadows Museum of Art from 1996 until its new building opened in 2001, when he again retired at the age of 68.

A pivotal moment

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Few in Dallas today remember "The Arts of Man" exhibition, but it, more than any single event, altered forever the course of the museum, taking it from a regional museum to one with global ambitions and collections. In 1962, all of the art needed to give Dallasites a picture of the human past through art had to be borrowed. Not so today, largely as a result of its extraordinary scope and success in bringing so many people to support the efforts of a minuscule staff.

Today, we can scarcely imagine three young men -- the museum's painter director, Jerry Bywaters; its assistant director (also a painter) Barney Delabano, and its associate curator Lunsford -- making frequent trips to New York and then other cities by train, staying in one hotel room to save the museum money. (Lunsford, being the youngest, got the cot.)

Their art expeditions ranged throughout human history from the caves at Lascaux in France, which Delabano and Lunsford re-created in "The Arts of Man," to the latest abstract painting, and in the world from Japan all the way through Asia, Europe, Africa and Mexico to Peru.

None of these men had graduate training in art history; none of them had international experience. And, yet, their relative inexperience and their supreme taste for art allowed them to do something that is literally impossible today.

A curator's career path 

Lunsford was the curator, although he had taken only a handful of art history courses (in Italian 13th- and 14th-century art), and graduated in 1954 with a bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University, where he took a course with John Updike. He was a Dallas native, and his father, Robert Lunsford, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, died when his only child was 18.

Lunsford was a smart and curious scholarship student, far from the patricians who dominated his Harvard class. When he came home to Dallas to help his widowed mother, he was soon drafted into the Army and served for two years, before returning again to Dallas with no prospects for work and a burning interest in art.

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He took art classes at the school of the DMFA, thinking about becoming a painter, and was offered a job in 1958 together with Delabano to work with Bywaters. Today, it is difficult to imagine a group of men less prepared to mount an international exhibition, but in postwar Dallas, intelligence and ambition were more important than graduate degrees. By the time Lunsford was 28, he was handling Chinese scrolls, Maya stucco figures, Peruvian ceramics, French medieval manuscript pages, paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and El Greco, African masks and on and on.

What Lunsford lent to the group was not only a real gift as a writer (following both his father's footsteps and his work at Harvard), but an ability to convey in spoken words the power and character of incredibly diverse works of art. This gift was instantly clear in reading the modest catalog of "The Arts of Man," his very first publication, and seeing the news announcements of his numerous lectures to diverse Dallas audiences.

Gorgeous sentences and thoughtful summaries of thousands of years of culture through objects make his catalog still one of the most satisfying and readable texts about human art produced by the DMFA or the DMA. African, Oceanic, Pre-Colombian and American Indian art were known to him so well because he had read widely and handled so many thousands of works. Lunsford went on to write six more exhibition catalogs for the DMFA, each of which helped propel the Dallas Museum of Art to become the global museum it is today. 

The Shakespeare Club of Dallas, under the instigation of his longtime friend Margaret McDermott, sent him to Columbia University for a year with a leave of absence from the museum to work on a master's degree, which he completed in 1968. Yet, he was to be a teacher and communicator more than a scholar at a time when American museums were demanding increasingly that their curators be both. At his retirement in 1986, the DMA had a Ph.D. curator and a Ph.D. educator, and, like most American museums, has valued specialized education at the expense of connoisseurship and experience ever since.

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  • Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, in Fair Park, shown in 1940

A legacy to remember

So many of us in today's Dallas art world have forgotten the formative phase of our beloved museum, a phase of which Lunsford was the principal curatorial force. He was a skilled diplomat -- (the go-between at a time when the McDermotts and the DMFA's imperious director, Merrill Rueppel, were at odds) -- a brilliant intellectual, a wide-ranging thinker.

His museum colleague of many years, Anne Bromberg, calls Lunsford "the spirit of the DMFA" and remembered his wide-ranging knowledge in an age of specialization. Janet Kutner, a former art critic of The Dallas Morning News and a close friend, recalled Lunsford as "a man of all seasons in terms of his broad embrace, not just of visual arts but cultural pursuits of many persuasions. Most importantly he was a true gentleman, who treated young and old, erudite and fledgling seekers of knowledge with kindness and respect."

Dallas native Michael Thomas, the new director of the Edith O'Donnell Institute of Art History at University of Texas at Dallas, remembers Lunsford from the perspective of a student. "He had a great influence on me as a young graduate student ... He had an amazing eye and an encyclopedic mind. He will indeed be missed."

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

Rick Brettell is a contributing writer and the former art critic of The Dallas Morning News. He is the founding director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at the University of Texas at Dallas.