Clifford Ackley 1959

Lawrence Medal ’11, bachelor of arts ’59

UO classes, mentor put grad on track to international art career

Clifford Ackley has been a curator for more than 40 years at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), a career that has him keeping company with prominent artists and patrons as he continues to build one of the world’s great collections of art on paper.

Ackley oversees some 200,000 prints, drawings, watercolors, illustrated books, and posters ranging from the mid-15th century to the present. His official job titles at MFA are Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Curator of Prints and Drawings and Chair, Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

A 1959 UO art history graduate, Ackley was awarded the 2011 Ellis F. Lawrence Medal for distinguished alumni in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts. Previous winners include film director James Ivory (Merchant Ivory Productions), Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield (Air Jordan), and Getty Trust director James Cuno.

Initially hired at the MFA to work with Old Master prints and drawings – he had spent two years studying 17th century Dutch printmaking in Amsterdam and London – Ackley also brought an interest in modern and contemporary works and photography.

Clifford Ackley
Above: Cliff Ackley, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a Tillamook High School graduate of the Class of 1955, views work at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Cartland.

“When I first came here, I spent a lot of time plowing thru the collection,” Ackley says.
“The museum went to sleep about 1910 so they missed the Modern era. They shunned Cubism and Expressionism and so on until much later, so there are some yawning gaps. It’s a serious gap in museum collections in general but our department has tried to bridge that gap by collecting works on paper by these artists.”

Ackley credits his time at the University of Oregon for showing him more than black-and-white answers to complex artistic inquiries and assumptions. For a kid from Tillamook – a rural dairy-farming town on the North Oregon Coast – the university in 1955 opened up a big new world with offerings ranging from foreign art films to professors whose philosophies sent him down sometimes conflicting trajectories. “This was my first inkling that different art requires different approaches,” he says, explaining an early academic epiphany that has informed his work ever since.

His eclectic interests have helped him develop a wide range of exhibitions over the years. His favorite show gathered works across the museum’s collection from 4000 BC to the 1950s. Called “Drawing: A Broader Definition,” the 2007-8 exhibit’s intent was to “share the sheer pleasure of looking and comparing how different artists in different times and places have inventively rendered the same subjects. It began with my curiosity about how a brush drawing by Goya would look next to a brush drawing by Hokusai.”

But the work he’s most proud of in his forty-some years at MFA goes back to his research on Dutch masters. That enabled him to put together, in 1980-81, the ambitious exhibition and catalogue Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt, still the only comprehensive study of Dutch printmaking from the late 16th century to 1700.

“I was able to do this exhibition because I’d spent two whole years looking at Dutch prints,” Ackley notes. The catalogue was awarded the College Art Associations’ Alfred Barr Award for outstanding museum exhibition catalogues.

Ackley’s other notable achievements include Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher, a blockbuster exhibition and catalogue in 2003; Rhythms of Modern Life, a catalogue and exhibit on early 20th century British modernist prints; and a series of contemporary print exhibitions.

All told, the MFA’s collection of European and American works ¬numbers some 200,000 objects ranging from the mid-15th century to the present. Alluding to the impossibility of viewing it all, Ackley says, “I never will have seen everything even when I leave in a few years, but I’ve seen most of the highlights more than once.”

Early on at MFA, Ackley turned his attention to the museum’s photography collection, which was founded in 1924 with a gift of twenty-seven photographs from Alfred Stieglitz but then essentially forgotten. No other photography acquisitions were made until 1967, when Ackley was hired. From 1967 to 2000 he served as unofficial photography curator, laying the groundwork for the collection. As a result of this activity, in the 1970s “Photography” was added to the department’s name.

“I’m particularly proud of having surprised the museum by bringing in an interest in modern art and photography,” he says. “I (added to the photography collection) initially timidly but with support, and over the years laid the groundwork for today’s collection.”

As he suggested additions to the collection and “didn’t get any dramatic resistance” to his ideas, his confidence grew. “When I came to the collection, they were collecting a lot of School of Paris contemporary but were pretty unaware of what was going on in America, so I made a change in that regard and started to collect contemporary American works – such as Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns – as well as European works.”

Though he grew up in a rural community, Ackley has adjusted well to a life that includes traveling the globe to view and discuss art with prominent artists and patrons. “I was very nervous about working in a museum because of the political and social aspects,” he says, “but over the years, by working with people who really like works of art, I found I can be a fund raiser. So I brought in not only works of art but money to buy works of art.” One of his “fondest acquisitions” is a 1946 work by Matisse, “Reclining Nude,” a charcoal drawing by an artist known most for his use of color.

Other aspects of the job came a bit easier. Growing up in Tillamook, he remembers a strong focus on sports talk, something he thought he’d left behind when he graduated. “Then I came to Boston and all the contemporary arts people wanted to talk about the Celtics all the time.”

Ackley has also been influential in cultivating, educating and guiding the next generation of Fulbright scholars and art historians. For example, to further expand appreciation of what the MFA offers, he helped design the museum’s Morse Study Room, where one of his “greatest pleasures” is to see art school classes responding to selections from the collection.

Graduate student Kate Caldwell Harper studied Dutch art history under Ackley at MFA and followed in his footsteps on a Fulbright to Amsterdam and England in 2008.

“Working at the MFA for Cliff Ackley (was) unbelievable,” said the graduate of Louisville Collegiate School. “I can’t overstate how important he has been in influencing my interests and approach.”

As a student himself, Ackley’s academic adventures included a Fulbright scholarship, extended stays in Europe and a graduate degree from Harvard. At UO, his first destination after high school, his intention was “to become an artist or designer,” a career idea he liked even more after sharing his aspirations with his conservative grandfather in Tillamook. “He warned me that ‘Artists’ lives were pretty raw ¬– they live together and they’re not married!’ and I thought it sounded pretty exciting,” Ackley says.

At UO he discovered a different sort of excitement: the field of art history, the perfect melding of his myriad intellectual pursuits. “It combined many of my other interests – literature, history and mythology –with my primary interest in art.” He was ready for the synthesis, having “decided that my relationship to art-making was too dilettantish.”

UO is also where he met an influential advisor and art history professor, the eminent architectural historian Marion Dean Ross, who encouraged Ackley to pursue graduate work at Harvard. “I didn’t realize then that this was destiny,” he says. “When I was hired by the Museum of Fine Arts in 1966 they only thought of calling one place (to find applicants): Harvard.”

At Harvard, he became interested in the history of printmaking, a fascination that had begun at UO when he took a studio course in lithography. “The class was supervised by a graduate student who was absorbed in making a labor intensive 24-color lithograph of a stuffed duck,” he recalls. “We did everything – ground the stone, drew on it, etched it, and printed it. I loved the whole thing and produced several black-and-white lithographs that I was convinced were terrific. Consequently, I was persuaded that printmaking was a great and expressive medium. Today, my lithos either look like WPA works from the ’30s or the purest expression of ’50s period.”

Ackley’s renown has been documented in interviews by newspapers such as the The Boston Globe and The New York Times. In a 2004 interview with The New York Times, Ackley said he’d like to write a memoir about growing up in Tillamook County. Asked about this project in 2011, he said it’s still on his to-do list.

“Like a lot of Americans, I have an interest in family history. My mother, the oldest child in the family, ended up marrying the Swedish farmhand next door, which wasn’t entirely popular but it was because I was coming along. After a second marriage by my father that failed I was taken back by my maternal grandparents and adopted and raised by them – so I’m my own uncle. It’s all these complications that make Americans dwell on our histories because many of us had unusual childhoods.”

Ackley had shown his artistic bent early on, as a “bad boy” drawing at school on surfaces that also weren’t entirely popular. His grandparents, however, encouraged him by “installing a blackboard in the living room so I could draw while we listened to Jack Benny.”

His college experiences took place in a similarly simpler era. “I got a job working as a hasher in one of the sorority houses” at UO, he recalls. A hasher, he explains, was a waiter (originally in a “hash house”). The sorority girls “were disgusted because the guys in the kitchen weren’t fraternity boys, and in fact we had one renegade who had left a fraternity,” he says with mock horror. Ackley was one of three hashers elected to the prestigious academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa, no small potatoes for a waiter.

Meantime, appreciation for Ackley has extended into the era of Web 2.0, with a recent Facebook post by Boston artist Ann Marie Scott that simply stated “BTW that was a GREAT article about the magnificent Cliff Ackley in Art New England! Cliff…you rock!”