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He focuses on photography past and future

The most popular camera in history is likely within a few feet of this newspaper. It is in a purse or a pocket, set to play a classical tune or a clip from a pop song, unless it is switched to vibrate.

Anthony Bannon sees big things in the cell phone. The director of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film surveys the history of photography and recognizes that the handheld digital device has revolutionized how people can take and share pictures.

Paying attention to the future of photography has been a priority for Bannon, as has the preservation of its past. The museum maintains an archive of 4.5 million objects related to film and photography and has been a leader in establishing practices for the conservation of film.

"Films and photographs are vehicles that will take us to any destination which we choose to travel, and the Eastman House has been really good about saying this is the aesthetic value of this film or photograph," says Bannon, 66. "It has been lent to us to interpret and offer an audience an opportunity to take a ride toward understanding films and photographs, and we have to take advantage of that."

Even as a global leader in film preservation and interpretation, the George Eastman House also serves several local functions. It maintains 10 acres of gardens, which it runs as a collection, and a national historic building. The museum preserves the personal and professional history of Eastman himself, housing 100,000 objects related to his life. It also employs a staff of 107 full- and part-time employees.

Bannon’s mission at George Eastman House has been finding ways to grow. During his tenure the museum has started film preservation and interpretation programs at two colleges, organized numerous exhibits to tour worldwide and used the Internet to showcase the museum’s vast collection.

Community place
To measure the museum’s value to the community, Bannon reaches back to an event that occurred before he joined the organization. In the 1980s the collection had grown to such a level that trustees were considering whether to turn it over to the Smithsonian Institution.

Trustees voted to approve sending the collection there and began negotiating with the Smithsonian, but the community refused to see it leave Rochester. Eastman Kodak Co. raised money, bolstered by fundraising efforts in the community, to construct a building for the archives. It cost close to $20 million.

"This community made a decision, said in a strong voice, ‘No. We are going to raise the money,’" Bannon says. "Even though I was in Buffalo, I looked at this community with a sense of awe."

The museum today has what Bannon believes is the largest privately run film and photograph collection, the only larger ones being operated by state universities or museums. He sees this as a sign that Rochester has accepted the challenge to lead globally in the archiving of films and photographs.

With the region’s commitment firm behind the George Eastman House, Bannon has sought opportunities to expand the museum’s reach throughout the world. When he started, perhaps two exhibits toured each year; now there are close to 20.

Many exhibits are suggested by the museum’s partners. A museum in Vancouver approached the Eastman House about a collection of photos from the 1950s and ’60s, wanting to create an exhibit out of them. Bannon and the museum obliged.

The Eastman House has relationships with the International Center of Photography and Paul Strand Archive in New York City and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. It receives requests from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to help preserve national photograph collections, which it recently did for South Korea.

The museum has started two graduate schools in film and photography, one at Ryerson University in Toronto and the other at the University of Rochester. It also has a relationship with Rochester Institute of Technology in photo preservation in which the museum served resident fellows and researchers with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Bannon says the organization is on the brink of a new relationship with UR to work vigorously on research, academic courses and public service.

"We have been good at higher education in the past, but we need to get better at it," Bannon says. "Those three programs will be measures of the future."

As the museum expands, Bannon has looked for ways to increase the museum’s revenue. The board of trustees is close to a 50-50 mix of local members and those from major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Bannon says he needs to find new support, nationally and locally, to sustain the expansion of activities for preserving and interpreting the collection.

The museum already has an unusual initiative to raise earned income. Thanks to a grant from the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency, it hired two staff members whose sole purpose is to pursue new entrepreneurial activities. The staff has helped form relationships with publishers and has sold reproductions.

These streams of earned revenue will be increasingly important, Bannon says. He is working with trustees to devise a business plan involving more earned income, from sales of event tickets and revenue of the cafe and the book and gift shop.

"We rely on the continued generosity of those who believe in our mission both here and around the world, but we want to take  very seriously our responsibility to generate earned income," Bannon says.

The diversity of income has been key during the recession. The museum’s income has traditionally been an equal split of earned income, contributions and draws from its endowment, says Pamela Reed Sanchez, the museum’s director of development. In 2008, total revenue was close to $9 million, down from more than $10 million the previous year.

Bannon’s creativity has helped sustain the museum through the past year, when its draw from the endowment shrank, she says. The most recent figures available indicate that from 2007 to 2008, the museum endowment used for operations fell to $24 million from $30 million.

Bannon has reached out to fundraisersand has helped organize an auction in 2010 through Sotheby’s to help deal with the shortfall. None of the items up for auction come from the museum’s collection; all were donated by collectors or photographers at the request of the Eastman House.

"Tony is not content with the status quo," Reed Sanchez says. "He is always looking for innovation, willing to explore new ideas and take some risks for the good of the Eastman House."

Thomas Merton, one of Bannon’s favorite poets, is known for a style called anti-poetry, which purposely breaks all rules. Bannon also enjoys reading letters Merton exchanged with friend and poet Robert Lax in which the two purposely made communication almost impossible, referring to people with pseudonyms and ignoring conventions of correspondence.

Art, Bannon says, should constantly challenge.

"I like that challenge," he says. "I like it as practice, as a way of being in the world, a way of orienting myself. I like being in situations where I don’t know, where I don’t have all the answers."

The Brighton resident’s interests have always been eclectic. He collects vinyl records, searching Salvation Army shelves for rare finds not to turn a profit but for the love of discovery. Sometimes he is able to buy a rare recording of works by a 20th-century composer, and other times he ends up with a disc he says is more useful as a Frisbee.

His taste in books also tends toward the adventurous. An avid collector, Bannon seeks out topics far outside his interests and knowledge. Although he never served in the armed forces, he recently found a handbook for soldiers and sailors from World War II that teaches what to expect and how to survive in the service.

"I enjoy the arts because if the arts are working at the height of their ability, they present us with a thoroughly unique experience," Bannon says. "If the arts knock us off our feet, if they take us to a place we’ve never been before, they truly are working, and I enjoy that sense of discovery and the interpretive challenge. Why bother moving through the paces of one’s life if not always with an eye for discovery?"

Bannon has always been drawn to art. He left graduate school at Syracuse University to teach at a Catholic boys’ school in Lackawanna, where in addition to teaching English, biology, chemistry and health he spent much time writing. While teaching he applied to Columbia University for graduate studies in journalism, but he gave up the idea when the Buffalo News offered him a job as an apprentice art critic.

Even as a journalist, Bannon could not stay away from participating in art. While he was a general assignment reporter, Bannon’s editors gave him considerable leeway in his artistic endeavors.

He made movies, including segments for "Hockey Night in Canada" on the Buffalo Sabres’ Rene Robert and Rick Martin, along with some "pretentious art films."

"The newspaper encouraged me to show those around, and I did," Bannon says. "It was an interesting way to approach the world, to practice what you preach, and I thought it was totally appropriate (as a newspaper critic) to the times, because my writing didn’t presume to be objective.

"The review is not objective at all. It should be fair, it should be thoughtful, but it might better serve the reader through analysis and interpretation than through evaluation."

The newspaper subsequently lent Bannon to organize art exhibitions, including one at the George Eastman House. Through his work he became friendly with Bruce Johnstone, president of SUNY College at Buffalo, who eventually asked Bannon if he wanted to move into the arts full-time as director of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo.

The challenge of making the transition from observer and sometimes participant to influential player in the art world was to remember that he did not have all the answers, Bannon says.

"The learning experience was to come to understand that every day was a new challenge and that I would meet it successfully if I kept a beginner’s mind," he says. "It’s only with that mind that you’re looking at what the moment is uniquely giving you. If you think you understand it before you get there, that’s usually a road to disappointment."

While he was working at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Bannon says, the George Eastman House was always a fascination. He did occasional exhibits there and had a general sense of Rochester as a community, an exciting place he had written about.

When the director position opened up, he was nominated by a few people and jumped at the opportunity, even if it was unplanned.

"Like the best things in my life, it happened," Bannon says.

Future of Eastman House
Bannon’s mind always has been open to new ways of broadening the influence of the Eastman House.

In his early days as director, trustees were reluctant to embrace the Internet as a means of displaying the museum’s collection. The organization had a Web site, but it had been created by a class at RIT and registered as a domain of the university. Still, Bannon was persistent in exploring how far the medium could spread the work.

"He and I have an expression-no trustee left behind," says Susan Robfogel, chairwoman of the board of trustees. "We are bringing the board into the world of understanding what museums will be in the 21st century, that they are much more than bricks and mortar. It’s the Internet now, the cyber world, and he’s brought us there."

The Eastman House’s use of the Web has been a success, and its site gets more traffic than any other art or leisure organization in Upstate New York except the Buffalo Bills. Its podcasts were named the best in the nation by the American Association of Museums.

With millions of images in its collection, the Eastman House must continue to make it easier for people to access the art and history in it, Bannon says. A few hundred thousand images have been scanned and made available online, and the museum is collecting information to create a wiki-style online encyclopedia of art.

"If you are interested in when Ansel Adams used a particular kind of paper, we’d be able to find that kind of information," Bannon says. "If you had a question if Edward Weston signed his pictures in the lower left or lower right, it will answer those questions. It’s just starting up, but it has a huge amount of government support."

As he looks to increase access to the museum’s art, Bannon also looks for ways to expand the collection itself. The museum is working on some "huge, huge acquisitions" and recently obtained works from an exhibit curated by photographer Edward Steichen, he says. Steichen’s book based on the exhibit, "Family of Man," comprised more than 500 photos from 273 photographers and was a critical success when released in the 1950s.

Bannon recalls a person who approached him early in his tenure at the Eastman House and said the museum had the distinction of making photographs boring. The challenge has been, and will continue to be, making films and photographs relevant and showing how they affect people’s lives, Bannon says. The Eastman House has done exhibits on social and political issues, from land use to genocide in Darfur to homicides in Rochester.

The Eastman House will continue to be a community place, even if that community happens to be the world, Bannon says.

"Museums had been places that were vaults for cultural heritage and would sit maybe a little apart from their communities, saying, ‘Well, when you’re ready to use us you’ll come to us,’" he says. "Now I feel it’s necessary to engage our communities both here and around the world, to ask those communities how we can better serve.

"Museums need to sit at the table of the body politic, whether it’s local or national, whether the community is a community of scholars or people who are interested in films and photographs as entertainment. These are equally the people we want to serve, and we need to set out to do it."

Anthony Bannon
Position: Director, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film
Age: 66
Education: B.S., biology, St. Bonaventure University, 1964; M.A., English with concentration in criticism and film, SUNY Buffalo, 1976; Ph.D., English, SUNY Buffalo, 1994.
Family: Wife Elizabeth Steward; sons Nick, Brendan, Tad and Peter
Residence: Brighton
Activities: Collecting books and records
Quote: "If the arts knock us off our feet, if they take us to a place we’ve never been before, they truly are working, and I enjoy that sense of discovery and the interpretive challenge. Why bother moving through the paces of one’s life if not always with an eye for discovery?"

12/11/09 (c) 2009 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.


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