Panczenko nearly doubled the museum’s collection, to more than 21,000 works.
Russell Panczenko, the longtime director of the Chazen Museum of Art, says he wants to “wallow in indolence” after he retires on June 30 after 33 years of service at UW-Madison.
“But that’s not quite true,” adds Panczenko, laughing. “I’ve always been a pretty avid photographer.”
Panczenko was born in Germany and grew up in Connecticut. He received his doctorate, specializing in 15th-century Italian painting, from the University of Florence in 1979.
After serving as assistant director at the Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, he was hired in 1984 to lead what was then the UW’s Elvehjem Museum of Art. During his tenure as director, the facility’s collection grew from some 12,000 works to 21,000.
“I was an art historian originally, so dealing with contemporary art added another dimension,” Panczenko recalls.
In 2011, the museum was renamed to honor the lead donors of a $43 million expansion, Jerome and Simona Chazen. The 86,000-square-foot addition doubled gallery space and provided state-of-the-art storage, study rooms, a new lobby, and an auditorium that’s become a favorite of UW Cinematheque audiences.
He credits his success in expanding the museum and its offerings to his ability to build long-term relationships with donors and collectors. “When you’re a collector, that collection becomes in a sense part of who you are. It’s one way that you engage,” he says. And donors want to know their money is well spent. “They’re very concerned with what happens to it,” says Panczenko. “‘Will it be beneficial? Can I somehow be assured that it’s part of my legacy for future generations?’”
Oddly enough, given his long tenure, Panczenko says being a museum director wasn’t his ambition: “Where I was really fortunate, and one of the reasons I stayed so long, is I was not only director but chief curator. I love the arts. I love dealing with artists.”
A search is underway for a successor, and Panczenko is helping conduct the search. But he thinks the new director should have the freedom to realize his or her own vision. “I don’t believe that I or any other expert should be breathing down a new person’s neck,” he says.
Panczenko took a similar approach when encouraging student ambassadors to develop their own passions when sharing the facility with the public. At a meeting, someone suggested the students guide patrons to the museum’s 10 “must-see” objects.
“And I said, ‘No, you’re missing the point,’” says Panczenko. “There are not 10 must-see items. Find what’s interesting to you, and when you give tours, whatever it was that clicked in your mind, share that.”
The incident illustrates Panczenko’s larger aesthetic philosophy. He’d like to see people enjoy visual art the same way they enjoy music at a concert.
“You’re not going because you’re trying to learn music history or music theory,” he says. “You can, and it may enrich you, but you go in and you listen and you think your own thoughts. It inspires all kinds of thoughts and emotions in your mind.”