Bruce Haselton Evans, who served as the director of the Dayton Art Institute from 1974 to 1991, died Tuesday, May 14, in Brevard, N.C., at the age of 72.
Evans, who began his Dayton career as a curator at the museum in 1965, is credited with a last-minute rescue of the Ponderosa Collection of Contemporary Art when it was about to be sold at auction in New York in 1987.
“We’ve seen too many assets being removed from Dayton by corporate takeovers,” Evans was quoted as saying at the time. “We couldn’t let this one go.”
Linda Lombard, chairman of the Dayton Art Institute board, worked with Evans at the museum for seven years and said he had extensive knowledge about art in general and the museum collection in particular.
“This was a time when we received a number of very important gifts of art, including significant additions to the Asian collection through Mrs. Virginia Kettering, and a wonderful American collection from the Haswells,” she said, adding that securing the Ponderosa Collection for the DAI was a great accomplishment.
The collection of 300 works — paintings, sculpture, prints and photographs — had been assembled over the course of 15 years by the Ponderosa Company, a locally owned chain of steak restaurants that had been the target of a hostile take-over. The acquisition, worked out with surprising speed, represented the largest purchase ever made by the museum.
When Evans announced the purchase, he also announced a fund drive to support it. The Art of Our Time campaign was a rapid success.
“With the help of (Cincinnati art dealer) Carl Solway and some board members, the money was raised to keep it here,” Lombard explained. “While we had a contemporary collection, it was quite limited and the infusion of the Ponderosa pieces was the impetus to build the collection.”
Born in Rome, N.Y., Evans graduated from Choate, Amherst College and received an M.A. in art history from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. After leaving Dayton in 1991, he moved to Charlotte, N.C., to serve as director of the Mint Museum of Art. He was president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, the organization that represents the larger art museums in North America.
Evans retired in 2001 and became a “snowbird,” spending winters in Sarasota, Fla., and summers in the mountains of North Carolina. In Sarasota, he was a board member of the Longboat Key Arts Center and an advisory board member of the Ringling College of Art and Design.
Pam Houk, who served as director of the Experiencenter at the Dayton Art Institute from 1976-1999 and is now on the museum board, said she owed her museum career to Evans, calling him a terrific boss who supported education.
“After visiting several exhibitions I had organized at the former Living Arts Center in 1975, he invited me to start a participatory gallery (the Experiencenter) at the Dayton Art Institute,” Houk explained. “He was always supportive of the John Dewey approach to experiential learning that was the basic philosophy behind the Experiencenter, and encouraged using a broad range of exhibit themes — from those related to collections and special exhibitions to more cutting edge ideas focusing on contemporary art and new approaches to visual education.”
Eileen Carr, arts series manager of the University of Dayton, moved to town in the early 1980s and worked with three permanent and two interim directors over the years.
“Bruce Evans exemplified the last of what might be called the ‘old guard,’ someone who saw art museums as community trusts for great treasures and original scholarship,” Carr said. “Despite the pipe-smoking academic appearance he cultivated, Bruce had a great sense of fun, and a personal warmth and enthusiasm that made him a pleasure to work for.”
Gail and Richard Levin, formerly of Dayton, now live in Sarasota and have been close friends of the Evans family “from the time Bruce and his wife Margo set foot on Dayton soil.”
Gail Levin said Evans introduced them to the world of computers, regaled them with the country music he would play on one of his many guitars “and showed us and the community that the Dayton Art Institute was not just a place on the hill for a few, but rather for the whole community.”
Evans is survived by his wife and by two sons and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at St. Boniface Episcopal Church in Sarasota in the fall.