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Benton Museum director prepares for opening day

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

In an alternate universe, Victoria Sancho Lobis would be celebrating right about now.

In January she was named director of Pomona College’s new Benton Museum, with the understanding that the $44 million facility would open in the fall.

“The project that I finished right before starting this position was an exhibition and publication of the same name at the Art Institute of Chicago, ‘Rubens, Rembrandt, and Drawing in the Golden Age,’” Ms. Lobis said. “It closed on January 5, 2020, and I started this job on January 6. So there’s a fluidity there, a kind of poetry to that.”

But that sonnet took on a tragic tone when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the United States in March. Now nine months later, the Benton’s opening plans are on hold, as nearly all non-essential businesses in California, including museums, have been ordered closed to inside patrons.

Still, Ms. Lobis and her staff have clearly used the downtime to its fullest potential. The museum’s first exhibits are being mounted, and its new website— https://www.pomona.edu/museum—went live last week.

When the doors finally open at the gleaming, state-of-the-art 33,331-square-foot facility, she will be managing a full-time staff of about a dozen and a budget of approximately $2 million.

It will be the 44-year-old’s first museum directorship.

Though her route to Claremont traveled through Europe and some of the East Coast’s most prestigious universities, it began in Kansas City, Missouri, where she was raised.

“I don’t have authentic Midwestern roots, however,” she said.

Her mother was from Costa Rica and came to the United States at 21 to study at the University of Kansas, where she met Ms. Lobis’ father, who is from New York. His parents came to the US from Puerto Rico.

“So I’m 100 percent Hispanic, or people say Latin or Latina,” she said. “My parents met in the Midwest by accident. I grew up speaking Spanish and English and then went on to learn some other languages for my research purposes.”

Along with English and Spanish, Ms. Lobis is fluent in Dutch and French, and reads German and Italian as well.

She graduated from Yale in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in art history. In 2002 she earned a master’s in art history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she was her class’s Clark Fellow, a commencement prize for achieving the highest cumulative grade point average. From Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archaeology she earned a Master of Philosophy in 2004 and a PhD in 2010.

Her previous museum experience was largely at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she worked for six years in a number of different roles, always within the department of prints and drawings.  Her tenure there as its interim chair of the department of prints and drawings prompted her to seriously consider pursuing a museum directorship.

“I really enjoyed doing that,” Ms. Lobis said. “In some ways it’s quite comparable in scale to this position. At that time the Art Institute was comprised of about 20 individuals, the paper conservation team as well as a number of curators and administrators. And in addition to that we also had volunteers and interns. So the department was pretty comparable to the budget here at the Benton.”

She also had internships/fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In 2009 she started as the curator of the print collection and fine arts galleries at the University of San Diego, a job she says, “was formative in terms of curatorial experience within a higher educational context.” She was the first person in that position.

“I guess you could say I like starting things,” Ms. Lobis said.

While in Chicago she completed the Center for Curatorial Leadership’s training program for art museum curators, where prospective directors learn skills “to be better equipped to serve in these positions of administrative leadership,” she said. Ms. Lobis has held teaching positions and been a lecturer at New York University, the University of Chicago, Columbia, Williams, the University of San Diego and Claremont McKenna College. She is a member of the Pomona College faculty and was conferred as an associate professor of art history in March. She’ll begin to offer courses in the next academic year. 

She’s authored scholarly articles and had her research cited in a wide variety of publications, journals and books, has created and contributed to catalogs for various universities and museums, and has received nearly a dozen fellowships, grants and awards, including an American Friends of the Mauritshuis Fellowship in 2008. 

The north Claremont resident is married, with an eight-year-old daughter in second grade at Condit Elementary School.

“We live within walking distance [of Condit],” Ms. Lobis said. “In the good old days I was walking our daughter to school in the morning, which I loved to do.”

Like most parents, caregivers and students, distance learning has had its up and downs for her family.

“It’s not preferred, but I think our second grade teacher [Karen Kellner] is doing everything she can to really impart a meaningful education and stay engaged with the students,” she said. “She also happens to be neighbor, which is charming. So we walk around our neighborhood and have celebrity sightings of our second grade teacher, which is fun.

“But like myself, our daughter is very people oriented person, so we’re both really hungry to be back with all our friends and in her case, schoolmates and teachers. So we are looking forward to that very eagerly.”

Though she’s lived all over the world, Ms. Lobis has quite literally warmed to Southern California.

“I love California,” she said. “I love that I can speak Spanish every day. I love the weather, except this past August and September was a bit hard to take. I love the food. I love the cultural diversity. I love how significant a role the arts play in the Southern California region.”

Another uniquely Southern California feature is the relative young age of its arts institutions, especially when contrasted with Europe’s centuries old museums and public squares. The freshness of the Benton combined with Claremont’s rich—though still relatively youthful—artistic pedigree offer up limitless possibilities for its founding director.

“One of the things I loved when I was participating in the search process for this position was there was a real emphasis on a willingness to experiment with things, take risks and try things out and be willing to course correct, to try programs or initiatives on an exploratory basis and decide if you want to keep doing that or do it a little differently,” Ms. Lobis said.

“I think that’s one of the things that is so exciting about what we have to offer at the Benton. In part because of our affiliation with Pomona College, we have a chance to kind of reimagine the art museum as a creative laboratory, to work with our academic community to try things out, and to make that process transparent to a broader audience and invite everyone to participate in our thinking, and also of course in the final product.”

The Benton’s timetable for opening is of course up in the air. Ms. Lobis said this week she will be following the guidance of Los Angeles County and will coordinate opening plans with the policies of Pomona College.

When the highly anticipated museum finally opens it will be the largest, most state-of-the-art, and yes, by far the most expensive facility of its kind in the city. It’s no secret academia and the community at large have in some instances been wary bedfellows at times in recent years. The Benton could help make some headway in shoring up that disconnect, and Ms. Lobis’ ability to engage both camps could be, well, academic to achieving this end.

“I’m really proud that we don’t charge admission,” she said. “I’m delighted this was designed with a campus facing entrance as well as a community facing entrance. I think there is a lot that we can explore in terms of how the work of a college art museum can be oriented to enrich the academic program, but also to really enrich the lives of our community members.”

To explore the Benton’s new website, go to https://www.pomona.edu/museum.

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