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Jeff Harrison, Chrysler Museum Chief Curator, Retires After a Distinguished 33-Year Career

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A scene from Jeff Harrison's farewell lecture in June, 2015. The slide shows Walter Chrysler, Jr., with priceless masterpieces (including a Gauguin) stacked in storage and awaiting a museum home. Click image to enlarge.

As Jeff Harrison, our chief curator, was preparing to retire after 33 years here, we heard this from his friend, and Museum Trustee, Tom Stokes: "If you are within 50 feet of Jeff, you will definitely learn something."

Harrison's distinguished career was recently featured in The Virginian-Pilot, and his list of achievements is too long to do justice here. To summarize briefly, he's influenced the tastes of an entire generation of local art collectors, and his influence on the Museum's collection is second only to Walter Chrysler, Jr.

In fact, he got his start here by trying to make sense of Chrysler's sprawling, semi-documented collection. A Hampton native with a Ph.D. from UVa, the European art scholar spent years researching artworks compiled by a man The New York Times once described as the most underrated American art collector of his time.

After Chrysler's death in 1988, Harrison and other stewards of our collection started filling gaps in some areas and strategically strengthening others. The Mowbray Arch Society was founded in 1991 to help finance acquisitions, which leads us to a tradition around here, the annual Art Purchase Dinner.

It's been described as gladiatorial combat for curators, as items are picked from the various curatorial specialties, and then put up for a vote by Society members. Harrison will retire as the all-time champion in this arena for two reasons. First, he made excellent choices. Second, the scholar is also a witty and engaging speaker who could pitch his nominated works with aplomb.

For a detailed look at his immense contributions, see this special tribute published in our quarterly magazine. Here we close with Stokes, who said Harrison "put the amazing treasure donated by Mr. Chrysler on the map" and then added to that treasure thanks to a perceptual gift. Harrison, Stokes said, could spot the difference between the good and the best.

On his last day, June 30, he sent one final email to the Chrysler staff:

"I've had the unique opportunity to offer festive good-byes to many folks over the past few weeks—trustees, donors, the public—but this good-bye is the hardest. ... I’ve been asked over and over what I plan to do after I retire, and I've responded with generic answers—travel, read, exercise, blah, blah, whatever. But I’m pretty sure that the first thing I’m going to do is miss you all.

"With my respect, gratitude, and every good wish, Jeff."