Retiring Dennos Museum director wanted it all

Jun 20, 2019

Ever since it opened in 1991, the Dennos Museum Center has had one executive director: Eugene Jenneman. After all these years, he's retiring at the end of June. Jenneman’s path to become an art connoisseur took a different route than most would expect.

“I was a farm kid in Wisconsin," he says. "My whole life experience was as far as you could drive on a Sunday afternoon after you milked the cows and went to church, and come back to milk the cows in the evening.” 

Jenneman studied astronomy, physics and chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. He eventually wanted to run a planetarium. After graduating, he interviewed at an art, science and history museum in Alpena that had one. Jenneman got the job and at the same time, found himself in the art world.

Then, during the summer of his first year in Alpena, he took a backpacking trip through Europe. Jenneman says he encountered art museums in a way that he had never experienced before.

Gene Jenneman looks through the glass of an exhibit in the Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

“When I came back to Alpena, I looked around in the galleries and I said, ‘This is got to be different. This is not what we should really be doing,'" he recalls. "Even though it wasn’t my job, I decided to go to Detroit and find some art.” 

Jenneman got to know the commercial art galleries in the Detroit area and talked them into letting him borrow works from their inventory rooms. Then the museum in Alpena began letting him do exhibitions.

Eventually, on a bit of a whim, he decided to apply for a new position at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. They were looking to create what would become the Dennos Museum Center. Jenneman didn’t think he had much of a chance for the job. He had a background in science, but they were looking for somebody with a Masters degree in art history.

“Well, guess what?" he says. "I was invited to interview for the first round and was invited back and was hired, and had the greatest opportunity of my life come to me.”

Once he had the job, Jennemn says he didn’t want the Dennos to just recycle art already in the community. Instead, he wanted to showcase works that people weren’t used to seeing, even if they didn’t like it.

“It’s perfectly okay for you not to like this," he says. "It’s not okay for you not to look.”  

Jenneman says when people are open to just looking, the more they end up liking. That’s what happened to him. 

“My whole life experience in the arts is about looking and broadening my experience and my appreciation and understanding," he explains. "That has not come through an academic approach.”

Curiosity is what drives Jenneman. He calls it “fishing.” He’ll go to Detroit, New York, maybe Beijing and walk through different galleries looking for artists who are doing something different that catches his eye.

“If I can do it, anybody can do it,” he says.

Gene Jenneman will maintain a vigorous travel schedule once he retires at the end of the month. He says he plans to "live in a jet" as much as possible.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

One of Jenneman’s favorite memories as director of the Dennos came in 1996. The Detroit Institute of Art asked him if he wanted to borrow a couple pieces from their contemporary gallery.

“And I said, ‘No, I want it all,’” he recalls.

Jenneman had to raise $60,000 in four months to make it happen. But he did it, the modern collection was brought to the Dennos in 1997.

“It would have been easy to say, ‘Sure, we’ll take a few pieces,’" he says. "But it’s a little more gutsy to say, ‘No, I want it all,’ and that’s how I tried to approach things.”

That’s the exact approach Eugene Jenneman is taking on the next chapter of his life: retirement. He’s still planning to be a part of the Traverse City community but he wants to “live in a jet” as much as possible. Right now he’s got plans to visit Greece, Vietnam, India and Egypt.