Berkeley Art Museum Director Emeritus Dies

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James Elliott, director emeritus of the Berkeley Art Museum, has died of congestive heart failure. He was 76.

Elliott, who died Thursday, served the UC Berkeley campus as art director for the Berkeley Art Museum and what is now the Pacific Film Archive from 1976-88.

After graduating from Harvard University, Elliott spent a year in Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship. There, he wrote art critiques for the International Herald Tribune.

Elliott began his diverse management career as a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He also worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. before coming to UC Berkeley.

Well known for his innovative style as director of the art museum, Elliot often rejected conventional notions of art. He introduced art exhibitions called "Matrixes" that regularly showed contemporary artwork.

"Before, it was unusual to have contemporary art on an ongoing basis in museums," said Constance Lewallen, the senior curator at the Berkeley Art Museum. "They would show established historical artists. But he had the idea that a museum should be cutting-edge."

Elliott presided over the exhibitions of several important artists, including Richard Avedon, Juan Gris and Franz Marc.

"While he was at the museum, he added many works to the collection and vastly increased membership," Lewallen said. "And he had a knack for picking talented curators who went on to important positions elsewhere."

Elliott helped bring the Berkeley Art Museum into the spotlight of the art world and transformed it from a campus art museum to an internationally renowned showplace, said Nina Zurier, former art designer for the museum and a close friend of Elliott.

The Berkeley Art Museum was on the cover of the prestigious magazine "Art Form" twice while Elliott was at its helm.

Beyond his role as a curator, he also created his own silent short films of cocktail gatherings. He later went on to film "Lunch Movies" with famous artists including Andy Warhol and Donald Judd.

"He was very interested in artists," Zurier said. "He was more comfortable with artists and enjoyed their energy."

Zurier said Elliott was very intelligent, but also eccentric in many ways.

"Just think about the places he lived," she said. "He lived in a loft above a merry-go-round on the Santa Monica Pier."

Along with his films about cocktail parties, Elliott's own parties at his Santa Monica home were well-known lively social gatherings, Zurier said.

In the last years of his life, he took up Japanese floral arrangement. Zurier said Elliott felt he had learned a great deal from it.

"He found how to look at something for its basic essence and how to simplify it and refine it as a form of expression," she said. "He told me he was sorry that he hadn't had the opportunity to talk about it with more people."

A memorial will be held for Elliott on Oct 5. in Gallery A of the Berkeley Art Museum. Donations can be made to the James Elliott Purchase Fund.

Elliott is survived by a daughter, Arabel Elliott, a son, Jakob, two sisters and a grandson.


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