OTTY Honoree 2020 Colin Bailey: Making the Morgan Shine Brighter

The director of a unique Manhattan institution strives to give visitors a memorable experience

02 Mar 2020 | 05:16

To Colin Bailey, running the Morgan Library & Museum was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So even though he had only been the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for two years, he jumped at the chance to take the position at the Morgan when it opened up.

“It was early to think about leaving San Francisco, but having opportunity to come and work here was really something that wouldn’t come again,” said Bailey, who became the Morgan’s director in 2015.

The Morgan, which began as wealthy financier Pierpont Morgan’s private collection, attracted Bailey because of what it had to offer, both and art museum and a research library.

“I'd known it as this wonderful library and repository of rare materials. It has such fantastic collections in all of the areas that have departments,” said Bailey. “For a museum of this scale, it's like nothing else in the country.”

Art history was not initially a part of Bailey’s academic pursuits. If it had been up to his parents, Bailey would have been a lawyer, and his brother a doctor.

“That didn’t happen,” Bailey said with a laugh.

Instead, Bailey, who grew up in North London, attended Oxford University where he studied history. Art history wasn’t an interest just yet. In graduate school, he began to gravitate toward French 18th century art, and got turned onto art history as a discipline. He further pursued that interest in a PhD program in Paris.

“I lived in Paris for four years, which really consolidated my love of that period, of that language, of that country,” he said.

During his doctoral work, Bailey met many American students and realized they had much more experience working in museums. His studies so far had not yet given him an obvious path to that kind of work, and his American friends persuaded him to apply to an internship in the states.

He took part in a yearlong fellowship at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and there he found inspiration.

“I realized that I'd found the type of work that was exciting to me,” said Bailey.

He finished his doctoral work in Paris and began gaining experience in renowned museums, working his way up from curator, to chief curator to deputy director. In 2000, Bailey joined the staff at the Frick Collection, which was a dream role for him.

“It’s one of the joys of New York. In a way I thought that was heaven,” said Bailey. “I thought I would never leave.”

But after 12 years at the Frick, Bailey wondered what it would be like to lead an institution, and he enrolled at the Center for Curatorial Leadership, where he learned some of the skills he’d need to run the Morgan.

Since coming on as director, Bailey said he has tried to encourage curators to conceptualize exhibits and think about borrowing from other institutions a little bit more ambitiously. He’s also made it a priority to produce good catalogs and books with their programs as often as possible.

“I would like to think that slightly more attention is now being paid to the exhibitions,” said Bailey.

Looking ahead, Bailey is very excited for the completion of the McKim building restoration and outdoor garden. Next year, there will be an exhibition called “This Bookman’s Paradise,” that will showcase the making of the building and how Morgan and his architect created the actual brick and mortar.

He hopes what he’s changed and altered has really started to stick with museumgoers.

“When we say the Morgan Library, I would like everyone to think immediately of Tolkien or the Gutenberg Bible, or coming in for a concert in the piano auditorium,” said Bailey. “I'd like there to be something resonating immediately that attaches to what we do here.”

“When we say the Morgan Library, I would like everyone to think immediately of Tolkien or the Gutenberg Bible, or coming in for a concert in the piano auditorium..."