Remembering Dr. Evan H. Turner

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A group of four people looking at t-shirts on a table outdoors


Evan Hopkins Turner, 1927-2020

The Ackland notes with sadness the recent passing of Evan H. Turner, one of the most distinguished art museum leaders of the late 20th century, who led the Ackland as its second director for five decisive years. Turner arrived at the Ackland in 1978, after fourteen years as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1983, he went on to lead the Cleveland Museum of Art for a further decade.

In Chapel Hill, Turner devoted considerable energy to professionalizing the Ackland, whose name evolved under his leadership from The William Hayes Ackland Memorial Art Center to the Ackland Art Museum. He undertook a full inventory of the collection, instituted a proper policy of retaining, gathering, and organizing key information on every work in the collection, and initiated expert marketing and promotional activities. In what was surely a first for the Ackland, he even produced colorful t-shirts emblazoned with the Ackland name and an illustration of a recent acquisition of contemporary art (see photo). He also oversaw the planning for the renovation of the Ackland building that was to become possible after the Art Department would move to its own facility, the adjacent Hanes Building. This transformation, finally realized after his departure, doubled the available space for the Museum.

Turner’s most significant legacy is perhaps his emphasis on a focused and ambitious acquisitions program which for the first time fulfilled the Ackland’s latent potential as a “global museum” open to the best art from a wide variety of cultures and periods. He began to purchase significant Asian art, beginning in 1980 with the acquisition of two Chinese paintings of the Ming dynasty (80.54.1 and 80.55.1). On these he solicited even then the advice of the legendary connoisseur Sherman Lee, before the latter retired to Chapel Hill a few years later, becoming the Ackland’s de facto curator for Asian art and, with Turner, the person most responsible for raising the quality and range of the museum’s Asian collection.

Turner also developed major collecting areas in photographs and in the folk art of North Carolina. Convinced that the availability of masterpieces of early European art was steadily diminishing, with prices therefore rising, he prudently saw these new collecting areas as relatively inexpensive opportunities to add works of great quality. His attention to the permanent collection is reflected also in his work on publishing the 1983 Handbook to the collection, for which he contributed an extensive and well-researched essay on the history of the museum and its collections.

Carol Gillham, a longtime Ackland staff member in a variety of curatorial and administrative roles, remembers the Turner years as an exciting and rewarding time. “He brought new strength and confidence to the Ackland during his five-year tenure.”

Katharine Reid, who was hired by Turner as a curator in 1979 and, after subsequent leadership positions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Cleveland Museum of Art, is now a member of the Ackland’s National Advisory Board, remembers him as “a generous mentor, who had a wide and creative vision that built upon the Ackland’s strengths. While focused on the talents of his staff and faculty, he was ever conscious of the community. He was a seasoned museum man with roots in academe and a great love for what could be realized if everyone pulled together.”

In his final annual report to the provost, Turner paid a warm tribute to the institution for which he had done so much: “At Chapel Hill, thanks to the support of the University and the financial security in the area of acquisitions assured by Mr. Ackland’s trust, I had as perfect a job as existed in the American museum world. Also, while the staff of the Museum is a small one in terms of its responsibilities, it has seemed to me without equal in the country for its effectiveness and its liveliness, its harmony, and its niceness.” Katie Ziglar, the Ackland’s seventh and current director commented that “we can return this generous compliment to a man who set such standards of ambition and accomplishment for our beloved Ackland, standards to which we remain committed now and in the future.”

Image credits:

Evan H. Turner (at left) with (left to right), Innis Shoemaker (assistant director), Gayle Warwick (PR manager) and Katharine Keefe (now Reid, curator). 1980-81, at sales stand for Ackland t-shirts featuring Anthony Caro’s Writing Piece: Among, 1979, welded painted and rusted steel, 12 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 7 in. (31.8 x 57.2 x 17.8 cm), Ackland Fund, 80.6.1. Photo: Ackland Archives