When Hipólito Rafael Chacón was in high school, he and his friends would take the train from their home in Hammond, Indiana, for a quick trip across the state line. It would drop them right at the Art Institute of Chicago, where they could see the museum's world-class collection.
The city is where Chacón earned his graduate degree in art history and then his doctorate, both at the University of Chicago.
That love for art and the stories behind it — why artists do what they do and why it matters — then brought him to the University of Montana, where he's been a faculty member since 1994.
Chacón was named director of the university's Montana Museum of Art & Culture in late November, where he's assumed responsibility for the 124-year-old institution's collection of more than 11,000 pieces of art and cultural artifacts and its two exhibition galleries.
Chacón said he wants the museum to be a classroom, a laboratory, a space to see art and spark conversations.
The longtime professor of art history and criticism couldn't help but write a mission statement that put it in a larger perspective:
"The American museum has evolved from a venue for scientific inquiry in the Enlightenment, to a philanthropic project, a repository of cultural treasures and a country club for a privileged few at the end of the 19th century. By the turn of the last century, it morphed into a popular tourist destination, cafe and gift shop included. Today, the best museum is more classroom and laboratory. In other words, it has come full circle to a place of reflection, inquiry and experiment.
"The MMAC could be all of the above, but it is important that it embody the latter, that it become a place where people can engage both singular objects and compelling ideas."
In less philosophical terms, and while it's still early to discuss plans in detail, Chacón wants the MMAC to continue spotlighting its collection while showing new and bold work by artists; collaborate with other museums and arts groups; incorporate students into the museum through classes, tours and research, and continue the search for a dedicated building.
Kevin Bell, the director of the School of Art, said one of Chacón's strengths is his "ability to communicate an enthusiasm and love of art and a deeper understanding of that to the wider community."
Chacón was born in Cuba, "which is a very visual culture and having that as a backdrop, so to speak, did have something to say about my development."
His family was "on the wrong side of the Cuban Revolution," he said. In 1970, when he was 7 years old, his parents moved to Detroit, and then Hammond. They were the last of the extended clan to leave the country. His father, now retired, was a steelworker, and his mother mostly cared for the family.
He had a "typical American childhood," with the occasional visit to a museum or historical society on a family trip, but art didn't play an out-sized role in his youth.
By the time he was a teenager, he and friends were traveling to the city to immerse themselves in art. For his undergraduate degree, he studied at Wabash College as a fledgling artist interested in painting and drawing.
Between his junior and senior years, he interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
That time is "what really sold me on the museum as a forum to learn and to explore and to play," he said.
In graduate school, he weighed a choice between museums or academia. He chose the latter, and was hired at UM not long after graduating with his Ph.D.
He's taught courses on Western art, from introductory classes through the Renaissance and the 20th Century. He's taught African, Egyptian and Spanish art, and ties between Western and non-Western art over the past 500 years. He also teaches criticism and "hybrid" courses, on the intersection of art and war or "Art and Insanity."
His interest in architecture culminated in a book, "The Original Man: The Life and Work of Montana Architect A.J. Gibson," whose buildings include UM's Main Hall and the Missoula County Courthouse.
He signed on to create an exhibition on Gibson with the MMAC and Brandon Reintjes, who was curator until 2015.
It was one of many instances where Chacón worked with MMAC, whether co-curating, giving lectures, or writing or editing catalog essays.
"He's extremely charismatic and welcoming and friendly, and I think that he brings his audiences in, and that was part of the reason we turned to him so often," said Reintjes, who's now the senior curator at the Missoula Art Museum.
Chacón makes art history, which has the potential to be a dry topic, engaging.
"People are so worried about covering the facts that they forget that there's storytelling, amazing details, and a little bit of drama often wrapped up in it. He had a way of bringing that to the forefront and really allowing people to connect to those subjects," he said.
Chacón also served on the museum's collections committee, which decides which works to accept into the vault.
"His insights into particular objects were all invaluable in helping us make final determinations about whether a piece was or wasn't suitable for the permanent collection," Reintjes said.
That background puts him in a good position as he moves into the new job.
"It's incumbent upon directors to know the collection intimately, because it's so strongly tied to the identity of the institution," Reintjes said.
Chacón was named director in November after UM decided not to renew the contract of Barbara Koostra, who served in the post for 14 years. As part of the ongoing restructuring at UM, the museum's administration was moved from the provost's office to the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Chacón said he will continue teaching a class in the School of Art. The school will collaborate more with the museum moving ahead to "take advantage of that relationship and build curricular ties." Students majoring in art could give tours of the galleries for composition classes. Art history students could work with the collection on research projects and mock exhibitions. A museum studies course, with eventually a certificate, is another potential development.
Bell said from the School of Art's perspective, having "such a tight alliance with a really important collection and important museum is really exciting for us. I think it's going to draw students here."
The question of a new building is inevitable, because the museum doesn't have one. Its masterworks, including pieces by European masters (Rembrandt, Chagall, Picasso), Americans (Edward Ruscha, Rudy Autio), are housed in storage on campus,. The MMAC exhibits its work in two galleries in the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Building.
Chacón is inheriting the long-running push for a dedicated building. He has yet to speak with President Seth Bodnar's administration about the issue and couldn't discuss it except in broad terms.
"It's time that this collection move out of a basement storage facility, and that Montanans and the world have greater access to it," he said. The MMAC can "only do so much" with its galleries and needs a permanent exhibition space, he said.
He sees advantages and disadvantages on the debate over whether a potential museum should be on campus or downtown.
"I'd like to make a decision soon, and that will direct our fundraising efforts and put our energies in that direction," he said.
The museum is currently showing pieces from the collection of copper king William Clark. In the spring, an exhibition will explore the narrative and technically dazzling painting of Stephanie Frostad. In the fall, the galleries will feature Montana painters of the modernist movement, Jack Franjevic and Clyde Apsevig.
He wants the museum to be more "nimble." He and curator Jeremy Canwell just lined up a summer exhibition of photographs by Matt Hamon. The UM professor has been on sabbatical in Iceland, and shooting pictures that touch on the increasing human presence in the tourist haven's landscapes. Hamon has been winning international awards, and Chacón, somewhat facetiously, said he didn't want to "wait 30 years" to see the work shown in Missoula.
"When you have world-class artists in your community, you have to make an effort to reach out so the community knows why they're significant, why they're important to have here. And that's just one example of these artists," he said.
In 2020, coinciding with his 70th birthday, the MMAC is planning a major exhibition of the work of Monte Dolack, perhaps the most famous living Montana artist. Because so much of the artist's work, whether personal pieces or for posters, has had environmental leanings, Chacón is working with other institutions around Missoula and Montana on tie-in shows relating to the landscape.
In general, Chacón wants to strengthen ties to other art institutions, such as the Missoula Art Museum and the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
"I think by being so open and friendly, people want to collaborate with him," Reintjes said. "He's got a great working relationship across campus and he's got a really great working relationship with other collecting institutions."
The Montana art community is "small on one hand, but it's also a major economic and cultural force in the state," Bell said, which in his view means art entities should join forces.
Reintjes concurred, adding the institutions have distinct missions with some overlap.
"Communication among those entities is essential so you can offer the most dynamic programming as well as not overtax your audience. When you're thinking about how to move ahead with these major initiatives, coordinating dates and times and themes and subjects and exhibitions makes everybody look much stronger," he said.
Regardless of where a show is presented, Chacón views curation and communication as key.
"The important thing is to be able to talk intelligently about why artists do what they do, or why they've done that historically — and if you're able to make an argument, a defense if you will, of that art, then I think people will come and will be intrigued and interested," he said.