Richard Siebe Davis (1917-1985)
A native of Ashland, Kentucky, Richard Siebe Davis graduated from Harvard University with a degree in fine arts in 1939, and remained at Harvard for a year of graduate school. In 1941 he became curator at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan, where he worked to catalogue the museum’s collection. He later became the first director of Cranbrook’s museum and library, a position which he held until leaving for military service.
Davis put his promising career in art on hold in 1941 to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserves. He began his military service as a diplomatic courier for the U.S. Department of State. In 1944 he was sent to the Pacific. Upon being transferred to Japan in January 1946, Davis joined a small team of specialist officers who reported to Monuments Man Lt. Cdr. George Stout in Tokyo. Their primary mission included documenting damage caused by military operations, securing sites to prevent further damage, and laying the groundwork for the return of looted and hidden works of art. Davis, whose responsibilities covered collections, museums, and ancient temples, catalogued pre-war holdings of Japanese art, and identified and catalogued works that the Japanese had looted from occupied countries. He conducted field inspections of collections and monuments in cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. In Tokyo, he inspected the buildings comprising the Imperial Palace. While the palace itself was destroyed by fire in May 1945, Davis was able to recover the undamaged Imperial archives and music collections. He remained in Japan until May 1946, when he returned to the United States for discharge from active duty.
Upon his return to the United States, Davis became curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In 1956 he was promoted to Director of the Institute, and remained in that position until 1959. During his tenure in Minneapolis, Davis organized exhibits and acquired key works of art for the museum’s collection that attracted both new audiences and wealthy collectors of modern art. After leaving Minneapolis, he worked as an art consultant living primarily in London and New York. He also lectured on art as a visiting expert to the United States Information Agency, and in 1959 served as the United States Commissioner of the fifth Bienal in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Throughout his career, Davis was an avid collector of art. His collection was particularly strong in twentieth-century prints, drawings, and sculpture, but also included pre-Columbian works, in addition to Greek and Etruscan bronzes. Richard Davis continued his work as an art consultant until his death in 1985.*
* The Foundation wishes to express thanks to Kathleen Kenyon for her contribution to this biographical profile.
Photo courtesy of the Davis Family (private collection).