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The Profile: The Power of the Art

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Photograph by Tom Nutter
 

On an October day in 2004, Leslie Greene Bowman, a former middle-class kid from Ohio whose parents had once gone to a country auction and brought her home a hundred-dollar horse, walked into the world-famous Sotheby’s Auction House with a million-dollar mission: outwit and outbid the rest of the decorative arts world and come home to Delaware’s Winterthur museum with a mahogany masterpiece, an 18th-century tall clock (what most Americans call a grandfather clock) attributed to Peter Stretch, a legendary English clockmaker who was working in Philadelphia in the 1730s.

Bowman had been the director and CEO of Winterthur since 1999, and she’d spent those five years working to raise the museum’s profile as the mecca of Americana. That autumn day, fortified with a six-figure acquisition fund that had taken years to raise and permission to finance a little more if necessary, Bowman and members of the Winterthur board cloistered themselves in a Sotheby’s skybox, a private bidding suite just above the auction floor, determined to do in this century what the museum’s founder, Henry Francis du Pont, had done so meticulously in the last: decorate a country estate with the most beautiful objects ever made in the United States.

“Leslie was cool and calm,” recalls Bruce Perkins, chairman of Winterthur’s Board of Trustees. “I, meanwhile, was bouncing off my seat. The Stretch clock is the rarest of the rarest. Winterthur had never bought anything of that magnitude, and we were afraid that if other people found out we were bidding, they might realize how valuable the clock was and push the price up.”

Bowman had a phone glued to her ear. Each time the auctioneer rattled off a figure, she’d quietly speak one word to her bidding agent on the floor. $800,000? “Yes.” $900,000? “Yes.” One million dollars for the Stretch clock? “Yes.”

Bowman was not feeling as collected as she sounded. “I remember realizing at a certain point that there was only one other party bidding against us, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, stop it, whoever you are,'” she recalls. “Winterthur had bid on important objects before, but had not succeeded. I felt it might not be the most positive thing for the institution if we were once again the bridesmaid at the altar.”

As the bidding ticked on, the increments began to change, mercifully, from $100,000 jumps to $10,000, but Bowman knew there was little left in her war chest. By the time the clock reached a record price, $1.5 million, the skybox felt tight, airless, combustible.

Bowman’s last yes was followed by silence on the floor.

“When they knocked the gavel down after our bid and said, ‘Sold,’ everybody in our skybox started cheering and jumping up and down wildly,” she says. “We were so loud, they could hear it on the floor. People thought it was the seller cheering because of the record price, but [the auctioneer] told the crowd, ‘If you haven’t already figured it out, the clock was just sold to Winterthur.'”

Bowman now calls the Stretch clock “the most important acquisition we’ve made since H.F.’s death.” Indeed, that buy, which the museum just recently paid off, was a sign to the art world that Winterthur is more than a gilded memorial to one wealthy man’s passions. It is an evolving institution with a leader who intends to lure scholars and tour-busers alike. “Our job in the Winterthur leadership is to make sure that all areas of excellence are nurtured,” says Bowman. “But any of us who love the arts want to make them believable, relevant and accessible.”

On one recent weekday afternoon, the shuttle bus that runs visitors from the Winterthur estate’s pastoral parking area to its mansion-turned-galleries was filled with senior ladies from a New Jersey church group champing to “do the tureens.” (In recent years, Winterthur acquired a collection of historic and highly breakable-looking soup tureens from the Campbell Soup company.) When the bus pulled up to the gallery entrance, however, the ladies encountered a welcome desk attendant handing them small, white rectangular gizmos. “Most of them, it’s their first time ever touching an iPod,” says Diana Swartz, a Winterthur guest services employee. “They go home and tell their kids they know what’s cool.”

Bowman is hoping those kids are listening. Attracting the under-50 set is essential for any non-profit museum’s long-term health, so Bowman is strategically developing programs, events, popular exhibits and technology-conscious lures like the iPod audio tours to catch a fraction of the younger demographic’s attention.

Since taking her post seven years ago, Bowman has overseen the development of a children’s garden, a fanciful corner of forest where kids can leap-frog over steaming mushrooms and leave letters in a fairy’s mailbox; recruited celebrity tour guides like Leigh and Leslie Keno, the towheaded twins who’ve, remarkably, achieved sex symbol status among fans of “Antiques Roadshow”; and instituted a series of highly-marketable exhibitions.

Last fall, Winterthur drew crowds with a display of hit movie costumes called “Fashion in Film.” Visitors could iPod-tour their way past Meryl Streep’s wedding suit from “Out of Africa,” Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella gown in “Ever After,” and enough velvet, chiffon, lace, brocade, and organza to outfit every sighing heroine and conflicted gentleman Merchant Ivory ever got on a moor. During the past two years 159,000 people have made their way along Route 52 to the Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, a Bowman-inspired name that is meant to reflect the institution’s 1,000-acre grounds and galleries. Bowman is hoping her 2007 exhibition lineup (quilts in the spring and a show about pets in the fall) will pump that visitor number dramatically.

Bowman identifies with these guests, remembering her own first visit to Winterthur, nearly 30 years ago. She was an undergrad at the time, studying art and history at Miami University of Ohio, where she’d seen a posting on the bulletin board outside her advisor’s office describing the University of Delaware’s decorative arts graduate program at Winterthur. Interested, she quizzed her professors about it, but no one knew much.

“Still, the minute I read about the program, I knew I wanted to do it,” she says. “My mother, so supportive, took me on our very next vacation to go see Winterthur.”

Bowman, who’d been smitten with the art world ever since her parents took her on a six-week jaunt to Europe when she was 10 years old, was awed by the place, both the mansion itself and the 60,000 pieces of furniture, silver, crystal, ceramics and paintings inside. Her mother encouraged her to ask for a meeting with the director of Winterthur’s academic program. After landing the interview, Bowman was sold. Back at school, she realigned her major to concentrate on American art and history.

“I worried that you might have to come from an Ivy League university or have a collector family to get into the graduate program,” she says. “I thought, They’re probably not going to take me since I’m from Ohio, not New England, but I’ll try. I think at the time (the late 1970s), they’d just begun to want more of a cross-section of students from across the country. Somehow I got in, and it was very exciting for me to be in the land of the du Ponts. My attraction to affluent worlds has always been to the quality of the art objects, so to be surrounded by them was such a joy.”

Bowman spent her graduate years at Winterthur, having virtually unlimited access to the collection’s art objects. Though only in her early 20s, she learned to handle each item like a conservator, donning the proper gloves and, often with a team, carefully turning objects to study construction or oxidation. By the time she graduated, Bowman was sure she wanted a job that would keep her in close contact with fine art. With characteristic pluck, she applied, right out of school, landed a position as a curatorial assistant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She bid farewell to Winterthur’s period rooms, gardens and the academic staff who’d nurtured her early interest in the decorative art world, then caught a flight to California.

People who make a career in the art world will tell you that it can be as money-driven as investment banking, as entrenched as academia and as political as Capitol Hill. Though museum pros often get in for the love of beauty, they quickly get bounced out if they don’t develop market savvy, key relationships with donors and CEO-style management skills. At LACMA, Bowman learned about the pitches, the deals, the compromises, and the seemingly endless seasons of budgeting and paperwork that go into art acquisitions and exhibitions.

Though she was promoted again and again, Bowman stayed at LACMA for 17 years, thoroughly paying her professional dues. Her investment in the business side of the scene eventually led her back to her first love, though, and in her second decade at LACMA, she became both the head of the decorative arts department and a director of special exhibitions. She also bonded with some of the most influential people in the American art world, namely her boss, LACMA director Earl “Rusty” Powell, who in 1992 became the director of the National Gallery of Art.

“Leslie did a wonderful job as a curator at LACMA,” says Powell. “She’s this terrific salesperson. I still remember the presentations she’d make on exhibitions. The trick is to create a show that connects with a broad base with material that is still interesting to scholars, as well. She did that, especially with her American rococo show. That was about accessible material. People don’t necessarily live with baroque paintings, but they can have a dialogue with fashion, furniture and silver with the decorative arts.”

The American rococo show (art historian lingo for the colonial period that turned out pieces like claw-footed Chippendale chairs) paired Bowman with another heavy hitter, co-curator Morrison Heckscher, now director of the American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bowman and Heckscher co-authored “American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament,” the exhibition catalog, in 1992. The show also took Bowman to New York for the exhibition opening at the Met, a trip that would lead to an even more influential encounter.

“My mother came along to New York for the opening. We were there for a week, and one of those evenings, she said, ‘I’d love for you to come to dinner with one of my high school friends.'” Bowman ended up meeting the friend’s son, a man who mentioned that his brother, Dr. Cortland Neuhoff, lived in California, not far from Bowman.

“I ended up meeting a couple of his brothers first, actually. When they came out to visit in L.A., they introduced me to my future husband. He was a chiropractor in Santa Monica, and he’s always loved the arts, too. His grandfather collected 18th century period pieces.” Bowman and Neuhoff announced their engagement a short time later. “No one was more surprised than our mothers,” Bowman laughs. “I still say it was all because of the rococo show.”

After the many years of professional intensity, Bowman spent the ’90s focused on curating her personal life. Hooked on riding ever since her parents had bought Rusty, the $100 mare, she invested in her own horses and took time to train and compete in national equestrian events. In 2006 she and Neuhoff had a baby daughter they named Haley. The presence of that precious art object at home, as well as a growing weariness of commuter’s life in Los Angeles, led Bowman to consider more family friendly work opportunities. When a headhunter asked if she would consider directing a small museum in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Bowman and Neuhoff were ready to make the move.

Bowman had just settled into Wyoming’s National Museum of Wildlife Art when she got a more surprising recruitment call. Winterthur, her first stop in the art world, was looking for a new director.

“My first thought was, ‘I can’t apply for that job. I’ve only been here 18 months,'” she says, but many interviews and visits later, she was packing up her family and heading home to her alma mater. “She had more passion for Winterthur than anyone I’d ever met,” says Perkins, who chaired the search committee that offered Bowman the post. “She’s got the energy we need, too. I’ve been working with her for seven years, and I hope she’ll stay.”

With her family settled at Chandler Farm, an 1804 Federal-style home H.F. du Pont left to house Winterthur’s directors, her five horses boarding just up the road (Bowman rides every day, often with her daughter along), and her imagination wrapped around an ever-expanding set of plans for Winterthur’s growth, Bowman seems content with the full circle her career has made.

“I walk into the period rooms here and I feel this intense calm. Any stress I have melts away,” she says. “For those of us who are sensitive to design and color, it ups your happiness quotient and your peacefulness quotient. If I can help people get in touch with the power of the art to improve their lives, that’s a pretty wonderful thing.”

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