John Palmer Leeper, the McNay’s first director, once said, “Whoever directs an art museum has to be fundamentally interested in art and nothing else.” While no one would deny Leeper’s interest in preserving, collecting, and sharing art, his life history demonstrates that he was a man of many talents, whose unwavering devotion for more than 37 years made the McNay one of the most well-respected art museums in his home state of Texas.
Born in 1921, Leeper grew up in Sweetwater, where his father worked in the hardware business. In college, he studied journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and dreamed of becoming an editor. After graduation, he became a cryptographer and sent coded transport messages for the Army during World War II. While stationed in New Hampshire, he read a copy of Art Through the Ages and his life was forever changed.
After the war, he went to study art history at Harvard where he met Blanche Magurn, a curator in Oriental Art at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. The couple married in 1948, and in 1950 Leeper became the director of the Pasadena Museum of Art in California. Three years later, in 1953, the Board of Trustees, whom Marion McNay had appointed in her will, asked John to become the first director of the McNay.
When the Leepers arrived, the museum was still Mrs. McNay’s house (See From Mansion to Museum: The metamorphosis of Mrs. McNay’s home), and the couple, along with their newborn daughter Maryanne, lived upstairs in what is now the Oppenheimer Galleries.
“The water would be turned off at unexpected times, and we’d have to go over to Amy Freeman Lee’s to cook the formula for Maryanne or down to the Texaco station for the bathroom,” Leeper recalled in a 1980 interview.
In just a year, Leeper masterfully created a fully functioning museum: overseeing building renovations, planning a three-year exhibition schedule, and cataloguing the entire collection. Leeper’s controversial choice for the inaugural show was “Paintings and Drawings by Pablo Picasso.” It was during the McCarthy era and Leeper recalled that “they were burning books in Texas and modern art was highly suspect.” His decision to challenge the status quo would set a precedent for the art community in San Antonio.
“Don’t forget, Pablo Picasso was not so much an artist as he was a ‘dirty Red.’” remembered Robert L.B. Tobin, a major supporter of the McNay and friend of Leeper’s. “And here he was hanging all over the walls of the McNay. Spectacular.”
Over the course of the next 37 years, the Leepers would continue to be pioneers in the world of art. The museum grew from 7,000 square feet to more than 70,000, with seven additions be added to the original structure of Mrs. McNay’s home. The collection also grew from 700 to 2,500 works of art. Blanche, who adopted the role of librarian, started the docent program and expanded the library resources from 100 volumes to more than 23,000 books.
“She also had an extremely active social role,” John said of Blanche. “The world of a museum director’s family has to be social. Blanche and I could set a table in the dark.” Early visitor guides also indicate that tea was served daily at 4 pm, highlighting that the museum was not only an institution for enjoying art, but also a place to socialize in San Antonio.
In 1991, John Leeper stepped down from his role as director, becoming director emeritus and resigning himself to creating a detailed account of the museum’s history using the many annual reports he helped author. The Leepers remained in their home on the museum grounds and oversaw the building of Leeper Auditorium, a 275-seat facility for lectures, concerts and important events that is still very much in use today.
Upon his retirement Leeper was asked how he wanted to be remembered.
“Theres a wonderful comment made by Sir Christopher Wren after he rebuilt London after the great fire,” Leeper recounted. “Someone asked him, ‘Where is your monument going to be?’ And he replied very sensibly, ‘Look around you.’”
Leeper passed away in 1996, preceded in death by his beloved wife, and was memorialized in Impressions with the words of Robert L.B. Tobin:
“John Leeper (a.k.a. ‘Lord Sport,’ ‘Palmer’ ‘J.P.L.’) was a gentleman of keen intellect and inquiring mind whose greatest joys were his family, his friends and his museum … So, our debt to John is great: a great friendship, of encouragement … John the visionary, John the comrade, the acute observer. There will never be anyone like him.”