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Two years in, Benton director continues to be surprised

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

The story of Pomona College’s wonderful new Benton Museum of Art continues to unfold, both in its adventurous exhibits, and in ways its stewards hadn’t anticipated.

“We love the building. I think there are a number of elements that have kind of surprised us,” said Benton Director Victoria Sancho Lobis. “I don’t think we all realized what a sense of the well-being the architecture imparts.

“So it’s just a pleasure and honestly uplifting to come in and work in such a light-filled space and feel that it’s real easy to get access to our visitors, whether they’re our third grade classes that have started coming back in, college classes, or just general audience visitors. We’re really happy here, and I think still realizing the full potential of the building, to be honest.”

Sancho Lobis was named director of Pomona College’s $44 million Benton Museum in January 2020. It opened to the public May 19, 2021. Since then, some of its maiden exhibits have come down, replaced by new shows, with more on the way.

Along those lines, “Each Day Begins with the Sun Rising: Four Artists from Hiroshima,” is currently on view through June 25.

“That’s a fantastic exhibition where people can see contemporary art from Japan that was developed in close partnership with Pomona College and with our partners across campus,” Sancho Lobis said.

Known and Understood: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” is also on view through June 25. The exhibit “includes work that spans multiple cultures, materials, techniques, and time periods to explore what we know and how we come to know,” according to a Benton press release. “Artists include Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Sister Mary Corita, Michel Curry, Merion Estes, Genevieve Gaignard, Jack Goldstein, Wenceslaus Hollar, Silver Horn, Tom Knechtel, Constance Mallinson, Patrick Nagatani, Grayson Perry, Kiki Smith, Fred Tomaselli, and more.”

The museum’s staff is currently installing “Parisian Ecologies: The City Transformed in 19th-Century Prints and Drawings,” which will be on view from March 24 to June 15. It focuses on the transformation of mid-19th century Paris from, “a choked medieval city to the Paris we know today, with its grand boulevards, imposing apartment blocks, leafy parks, and far-flung suburbs,” according to the release. “Paralleling today’s debates about land use, gentrification, disease control, and environmental sustainability, Parisian Ecologies offers a history lesson as well as a demonstration of the wide array of printmaking techniques employed by the artists in their chronicles of the modern city.”

Support, from both academia and the public has been good, Sancho Lobis said. But that’s not to say the 33,331 square-foot facility can’t handle more.

In an effort to raise its profile both locally and regionally, the Benton created a new position of manager of visitor services to help strengthen community awareness of what the museum has to offer. Nilo Naraghi began in that role in mid-February. Sancho Lobis hopes Naraghi will, among other things, help bring more community in through the Benton’s doors.

“We’ve been delighted to see people coming in,” Sancho Lobis said. “I think we would love for people to feel really aware and confident to know that they’re always welcome here, to know what we’re up to, to know that things are always changing, that there’s always something new to see.”

She said hours of operation and other visit experience elements are among those up for discussion as we enter what appears to be a more open phase of the pandemic.

“We’re excited to adjust how we operate to become an even more integral part of Claremont life and life in Southern California,” Sancho Lobis said.

Sancho Lobis said she hopes people will take advantage of the Benton’s lack of an admission fee and just “pop in.”

“We hope that people will just fit in a regular visit to the Benton as part of their weekly schedule.”

Glancing through the museum’s spring digest, it’s clear the Benton’s programming does not shy from geopolitical issues. That’s by design, Sancho Lobis said.

“We feel as our role as a museum that works closely with our academic partners is to be relevant to the concerns of the day, and certainly to open conversations that can be difficult, but can be made more comfortable through direct engagement with works of art,” the director said.

And though Sancho Lobis was hesitant to share details just yet, she said there will be news of some significant recent acquisitions and/or donations coming soon.

“We have had some amazing gifts, in some cases very significant gifts, to the collections,” she said. “But I think we will share some news on that in the context of future projects. So stay tuned.”

Two years in on her first museum directorship, Sancho Lobis, formerly of the Art Institute of Chicago, has acclimated well to Southern California, and to its newest major art museum.

“We have been delighted with the interest that people have expressed,” she said. “We do have a collection now of 17,000 objects and counting, and we think we’re a wonderful place for the care and interpretation of so many different kinds of works of art. We’re really honored to serve that role as well.”

For more information go to www.pomona.edu/benton. You can also email the museum at benton@pomona.edu, follow its socials, @bentonatpomona on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, or call (909) 621-8283.

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