The Mentor

Tucson's art community remembers Robert Quinn, 1920-2003.

A year ago, Peter Briggs, chief curator at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, got a call from Robert M. Quinn, UA professor of art emeritus.

"He invited me over and said, 'Take what you want'" for the museum, Briggs recalled last week. At Quinn's house, Briggs found a varied collection, with everything from early 20th-century etchings, to works by a German minimalist artist, to hundreds of pots by Quinn's late wife, Jacqueline. Most striking, though, were the walls crowded with works by big-name Tucson painters.

"He had all these paintings that artists had given him," Briggs said. "He donated about 15 things--a Nancy Tokar Miller painting, a Bruce McGrew painting. I took a nice Doug Denniston painting."

The gregarious Quinn, known as a great raconteur, taught--or taught with--whole generations of Tucson artists, many of whom became his friends. A resident of Tucson for 60 years, professor of art history for 40 years, Quinn also had a hand in shaping both the UAMA and the Tucson Museum of Art.

"There are very few artists in this town whose lives he did not touch," said close friend and former student Owen Williams, an artist known for his trompe l'oeil painted constructions. "He was always willing to help artists."

Quinn died Oct. 26, two days shy of his 83rd birthday. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, at the Center for Creative Photography auditorium, followed by a reception at the UAMA. Briggs noted that Quinn gave his final art lecture just two years ago at the museum.

"We had the 50th anniversary of the Kress Collection, and he gave the keynote address. That was his last public talk."

Quinn had been hale and hearty since retiring from the UA in 1985, said Beth Woodin, another friend, former student and one-time colleague. Until earlier this year he was a regular at art openings, where he loved working the crowds.

"He was a sweetheart," Briggs said. "He always had a good joke. People gathered around him."

Quinn could be irascible.

"I used to greet him as 'Bad Bob,' and he would acknowledge me as 'Malignant Mike,'" said Mike Dominguez, co-owner of Davis-Dominguez.

Despite a permanent stoop to his back, he still routinely took "grueling hikes" in the mountains, Woodin said.

"He couldn't stand up straight, but he'd go charging up Mount Lemmon and Mount Wrightson." But he was badly injured in a car accident on St. Patrick's Day, and he had been in failing health since.

Quinn, an expert in European art, was born in Chicago in 1920. He began his art studies at Yale, but he was stricken by an illness at college that left his spine permanently deformed. He found Tucson's desert climate more congenial to the arthritis that followed the injury, and he transferred to the UA. After graduating in 1945, he was hired to teach studio art at first, but eventually, he specialized in art history. He picked up a doctorate in art history at Johns Hopkins in 1957, writing his dissertation on Albrecht Dürer, but he returned to Tucson to teach.

"He was the whole art history department," remembered Maurice Grossman, who arrived in 1955 to teach "everything 3-D" at the small art department, then housed in the old library (now the Arizona State Museum). Not only was Quinn the first professor of art history at the UA; at one time, he was the only professor with his particular doctoral pedigree in the young state of Arizona.

Quinn organized both the bachelor's and master's programs in art history at the UA, and he also developed the art department's Slide Library collection, now know as the Visual Resources Center. In 1975, he helped Woodin, then a graduate student, get hired as slide librarian. "He got me my first job," she said. He also regularly taught in the Guadalajara summer program, usually accompanied by his wife and his daughter, Georgianna.

A legendary taskmaster, Quinn was intolerant of tardy students and famed for locking the classroom door at the precise moment the class was to begin. Hapless locked-out students would listen through the keyhole. Woodin said she likely was the only student ever let out the door before the appointed time.

"My sister and I had run to class, and it was hot," she remembered. "She started to hyperventilate. I said, 'Professor, please may we leave? My sister is ill.'" Quinn opened the door without a word and let them go.

Quinn was instrumental in getting the University of Arizona Museum of Art underway.

"From the early stages, he was involved in the acquisition of the Kress Collection, which is the reason the museum exists," Briggs said.

The UAMA's Kress Collection consists of some 67 pieces of early European art, the most significant being the "Retablo de Ciudad Rodrigo," a suite of 26 paintings recounting the life of Christ. Painted in the late 15th century by Fernando Gallego, the works once graced a church in Spain. The New York Kresses were wealthy retailers whose money came from a chain of stores that were the K-Marts or Wal-Marts of their day, Briggs said.

One of the Kress brothers married a UA grad and had a vacation home in Tucson, and the Kresses offered the UA a piece of their vast collection if the university would build it a suitable home. (The Kresses divided their collection and donated portions of it to numerous institutions around country, with much of it housed at the National Gallery in Washington.) Along with the UA art department head, Anders "Pete" Anderson, Quinn took on the job of evaluating the work.

"Bob went through the collection; he corresponded (with the Kresses)," Briggs said. "He put forth a curatorial effort."

With the promise of a new building from the Legislature, in 1951, the Kresses gave the UA the works, which are still some of the university's most important art holdings. The new museum opened in 1957, Briggs said.

In the same years, Quinn was active in the Tucson Art Center, which would eventually evolve into the Tucson Museum of Art.

"The whole art department was very much involved in the Art Center," Grossman said. Operated by the nonprofit Tucson Fine Arts Association, the Center was housed in a mansion at 325 W. Franklin St.

"The UA owned it, and sold it to us," Grossman remembered. "We all painted the walls. The whole department was very much involved. We all sat on committees. Bob was very much part of the whole process. He sat on boards and so on. When we got the new building (the current TMA), he sat on committees there, too." According to Woodin, Quinn served as the first TMA board president.

Fluent in multiple languages and a frequent traveler to Europe and Mexico, Quinn was a prodigious writer as well. His 1960 scholarly monograph on the "Retablo" was just one of many catalog essays he wrote for exhibitions at the UAMA and TMA. His most recent, published just two years ago, was for the Bruce McGrew retrospective at the UAMA; the piece was an interview Quinn had conducted some years earlier with McGrew, who died in 1999. Quinn also contributed to assorted scholarly journals and art magazines; he was the art writer at the Tucson Citizen during the 1970s; and he authored six scripts for art documentaries.

In his old age, Quinn suffered the deaths of both his wife and his only child; both women succumbed to breast cancer. Woodin said he had recently found comfort in the Tucson Quaker meeting.

Still, "he was full of good humor," Woodin said. "He was a wonderful character."