Jason Busch, the impeccably dressed deputy director of the St. Louis Art Museum, can sometimes be found wandering through the expansive galleries, spending five or 10 minutes at a time in front of a single painting. He’s been here for a year and a half now, and his position entails making decisions about exhibits, collections, public programs, and educational outreach. But sometimes, he can steal away a few moments just for himself to look at the art. “It’s hard to stay away from the paintings by George Caleb Bingham,” says Busch. Bingham’s paintings, one of the museum’s most celebrated collections, depict life along the Mississippi River in the 19th century. “They take me back to that time … I love the juxtapositions he creates–the rough-and-tumble men of the Mississippi River against the background views.” The men wear puffy white shirts as they paddle along the sunlit river in wooden boats, just passing through.
Before coming to the St. Louis Art Museum, Busch served as the associate curator at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, and then moved on to take a position as the chief curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where he stayed for seven years. “I moved from Hartford to Minneapolis, then Minneapolis to Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh to St. Louis. Every time you move, you learn more about yourself. You also grow a little bit older. Things change–you learn what you would do differently,” he says.
Getting to the St. Louis Art Museum wasn’t easy, and it was a difficult decision for Busch at the time. He first met the current museum director, Brent Benjamin, in December of 2011, when Busch was asked to come lecture at the museum about a recent show he had curated. They met afterwards and talked, and about a month later, Benjamin asked if Busch would be interested in being deputy director of the museum, the position he holds now. “I thought long and hard,” he says. “Brent greatly impressed me. I’ve learned a lot from directors who have become mentors to me over the years.” At the time, Busch had to say no. “I did it for personal reasons,” he says, looking at the framed photograph he keeps of himself and his husband on a bookshelf next to his desk. “It was hard.”
They’ve been together for 14 years, and just married in New York City last January. They met through the Minnesota Aids Project, which Busch joined to become more involved in the gay community after moving to Minneapolis. “All of my 30’s were with him,” he says. “He’s my best friend, and my soulmate.” Their anniversary is January 4th–they wanted it to be around the holidays, so they’d be sure they could spend it together. His husband still lives in New York City, where he works as an actuary at a large global firm. Initially, the plan was for Busch to join him. “The idea was always that I would stay in Pittsburgh until I could find my way to him,” says Busch. “I was still on that path when Brent knocked, originally. I thought, ‘This is hard.’ The St. Louis Art Museum is one of America’s greatest encyclopedic art museums. I’ve known that since I was a kid.”
In 2013, two years later, Benjamin still hadn’t found the right deputy director. Around the same time, Busch visited the St. Louis Art Museum again as part of a residency program. “[Benjamin] had been pursuing individuals, but for a whole host of reasons things hadn’t worked out. And you sort of think, ‘God–was this meant to be?’” he says. His husband was on a business trip in London at the time, and Busch broached the topic with him again. He ended up accepting the position, and has been here for a year and a half. His husband lives in a condo they share in Harlem, where Busch keeps an assortment of things so he doesn’t have to carry his belongings back and forth between St. Louis and New York.
Busch came to St. Louis for the first time in 1996 with a few buddies from college–one had grown up in Chesterfield, and they came home with him to visit. While his friends went to the Zoo, Busch visited the St. Louis Art Museum to see the George Caleb Bingham paintings. He still remembers walking in and turning to the left, where he saw one of Bingham’s most famous pieces, Raftsmen Playing Cards. “Just to show a picture of it–here,” he says, pulling out a large copy of his own book, his name on the cover, called “Currents of Change: Art and Life Along the Mississippi River.” “Sorry, it’s a little bit dog-eared,” he says.
Busch was first exposed to the arts when he was a kid, growing up in Cleveland. “My mother read an ad in “The Cleveland Plain Dealer” about art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art–she was trying to find something for me to do. I guess–this is hard for me to believe–but when I was a kid, it was hard to keep me occupied.” She signed him up for drawing classes. “What I realized is that I am not very good at drawing,” he says. “But my eye was starting to develop even then in terms of an interest towards what I was seeing.” It would pay off later as he began to rise in the ranks of prestigious curatorial positions.
His mother would also take him to flea markets and antique shows, though if you ask him, he’ll say she dragged him. But the influence is clear on his later work, which is steeped in not only 18th and 19th century arts, but objects–artifacts with deep ties to American culture, and the people who lived it. “Something stuck from that experience,” he says. Scholarship and academia took him far beyond the bowels of campus libraries and permanent museum collections; his 18th century research included dressing up as a butler from 1770 and giving tours of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a living museum that permanently recreates the 18th century. “I realized a number of things about myself: I wanted to work in museums and exhibitions, and I had a great appreciation for those on the front lines giving tours. But that was probably not my calling,” he says. “Everything I’ve done has helped narrow my interests.”
There is no typical day for the deputy director of the St. Louis Art Museum: Busch wakes up around 7 and runs on the treadmill, where he’ll sometimes see a neighbor’s bulldog watching him. “My husband and I will have two dogs someday. Probably well into the future,” he says.
He then begins reading a variety of articles from news websites on his iPad, and the emails begin–sometimes he’s catching up, sometimes he hopes hope to get ahead of schedule. He’ll then drive into work from his loft apartment on Washington Avenue, overseeing just under 100 employees and 10 supervisors, and managing the inner workings of one of St. Louis’ most prized institutions.
The rest of the day will be meetings, catching up with museum benefactors and colleagues, and looking at art. “Those kinds of meetings continue into the evening as well–I try to be a patron of our sister institutions,” he says, such as the Contemporary Art Museum and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. “The personal and the professional are somewhat blurry. Being here on my own for most of the time, I have the advantage that I can continue to do what some might consider work into the weekends and evenings. For me, it’s a lot of fun,” he says. One day, he and his husband will live in the same city. “We’re both very career-driven. That keeps us moving. The time that we spend together is precious, both here and in New York. He very much supported my decision in coming here.”
At some point in the day, he’ll probably take a moment to see the Bingham paintings again, taking in the work of Missouri’s self-taught native son and his homages to the people living along the Mississippi River: their lazy days paddling in the current, wearing floppy hats, shoes off, coasting along the darkly colored river in the Midwestern sun. Busch sees a similar ambition in the city today. “The pride I see now–it reminds me so much of living in Minneapolis. It’s so comforting,” he says. “I feel connected with the city … it has continued to surprise me.”
For more information about Jason Busch and the St. Louis Art Museum, visit www.slam.org