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Cleveland Museum of Art hires Seth Pevnick as ‘profoundly ethical’ curator of ancient Greek and Roman art

December 20, 2018

Cleveland Museum of Art hires Seth Pevnick as ‘profoundly ethical’ curator of ancient Greek and Roman art

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Museum of Art has signaled a new direction in its approach to the conflict-ridden field of collecting antiquities by hiring Seth Pevnick as its new curator in charge of ancient Greek and Roman art.

Pevnick, who will start work in Cleveland in March, is the chief curator, and curator of Greek and Roman Art, at the Tampa Museum of Art, where he has worked since 2009 and where he served in 2014-15 as acting director.

The Cleveland museum, which announced the appointment today, described Pevnick, 42, as a rising star from a new generation of curators and scholars who emphasize collaborating with Greece, Italy and other “source countries” instead of collecting ancient objects with unclear ownership histories that could land it in trouble.

Heather Lemonedes, the Cleveland museum’s chief curator, said the institution doesn’t want to see a repeat of its controversial 2012 purchase of an ancient Roman marble portrait head of Drusus Minor.

The museum returned the sculpture to Italy in 2017 after learning that it apparently had been stolen in 1944 from a provincial museum near Naples.

When the museum bought the work in good faith, it believed it had clear title, and that the work had been in an Algerian collection as far back as the late 19thcentury.

The ownership history, or provenance, was phony. The museum and Italian scholars soon became convinced that the work was excavated near Naples in 1925 or 1926 and was kept in a provincial museum until its apparent theft in 1944.

“We would do everything we can to prevent such a thing from happening again,” Lemonedes said of the Drusus, “and I think Seth is very much in line with that kind of preventative thinking.”

Claire Lyons, curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, recommended Pevnick for the Cleveland post because, she said, “he represents a generation that is looking at ancient art from a really multilateral point of view.”

He also worked with Lyons in 2008-09 as a curatorial assistant working on a collaborative exhibition with Italy. Lyons commended Pevnick on his rapid rise in Tampa.

“Most of us would spend 30 years to get to that level,” she said.

Lemonedes described Pevnick as a curatorial sleuth well versed in researching the provenance, or ownership history, of ancient artworks.

She also said the museum values his deep background in education and archaeology and his ability to forge partnerships with source countries.

Pevnick has a PhD. in archaeology from the University of California Los Angeles and a master’s degree in education from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Speaking by phone from Tampa on Tuesday, Pevnick said, “I’m delighted, I’m really honored that I was chosen.”

He said he was “a little bit sad to leave Tampa,” but, “really excited to move on to a bigger stage.”

Established in 1979, the Tampa museum is a smallish institution with 8,000 objects in its collection, and focuses on ancient classical and modern and contemporary art. The Cleveland Museum of Art has more than 45,000 objects covering 5,000 years of art history.

In recent decades, museum curators and archaeologists have drawn battle lines over whether museums should buy antiquities without being absolutely certain that they were excavated before 1970, the cutoff year in the UNESCO convention.

Archaeologists have said that buying works with problematic ownership histories simply encourages looting and trafficking and destroys vital archaeological information that provides context for the objects.

Lemonedes said the museum is still eager to buy antiquities, but “we will not be acquiring anything that doesn’t have solid provenance back to 1970 and that doesn’t satisfy all of our questions to a degree that offers great certainty regarding where an object has been.”

She also said that Pevnick embodies the museum’s desire to find “someone who would be profoundly ethical and well-versed in these issues and would share our aims in acquiring only objects that would be problem free.”

Pevnick said that curators and archaeologists “don’t have to be opposing camps. My generation of scholars and curators is willing to find areas of compromise and work together.”

Pevnick and Lemonedes both said they’d like to see the Cleveland museum organize a symposium on its ancient bronze Apollo, purchased in 2004 and attributed to the Greek master Praxiteles.

The work remains a topic of art world conversation because its provenance has never convinced some respected scholars, and because its attribution and interpretation by the Cleveland museum aren’t universally accepted.

“I hope we’ll be able to do a symposium,” Pevnick said. “That’s part of what a museum is all about - having intellectual discourse.”

The Apollo and the Drusus were both purchased on recommendations from Michael Bennett, the museum’s curator of ancient Greek and Roman art at the time.

He left the museum in 2017 after 20 years to become the curator of early Western art at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. The museum in St. Petersburg did not respond to a voicemail message left Wednesday seeking comment from Bennett.

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