The native of Houston was simply trying to be polite when she indicated she would discuss the opening.
But once she got here in the summer, she quickly realized she needed to pack up her career and her family and start the next phase of her life.
In January, she will assume the position vacated by Ghislain d’Humières, who served as director of the museum since 2007 and left earlier in 2013 to be the director and CEO at Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky.
Neff had been to Norman only one other time before that interview. And that visit had left an impression as well.
“I was giving a paper there, and it was my first visit to OU and Fred Jones,” she says. “I was impressed back then. I remembered being quite impressed by the museum and the energy and the leadership.”
Neff holds a B.A. in art history from Yale University, an M.A. in art history from Rice University and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.
She comes to Norman as a distinguished curator of American art and the art of the American West and as the founding Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
“The university is extremely fortunate that Emily Neff has agreed to become the new director,” OU President David L. Boren says. “Dr. Neff is one of the most highly regarded art historians in our country and was our first choice as a potential director for the museum.”
Neff’s career has grown at the MFA in Houston, where she has worked since 1997.
She boosted the gallery’s American art collection more than 30% and organized more than 20 exhibitions.
She takes over at Fred Jones at a pivotal time, as the museum is preparing for its 125th anniversary celebration in 2015.
She inherits stewardship of 16,000 pieces of art and a new Stuart Wing completed in 2011.
“I could tell it was a very collaborative environment,” Neff says. “It was very energetic, very creative. The emphasis the president places on the arts is obvious.”
The interview got Neff thinking about where she was headed next. She fostered her love for American art in Houston and became a renowned expert on the subject.
But she fell in love with the focus the subject held in Norman.
“It’s only recently I began to think I wanted to take on more responsibility,” she says. “I love bringing works of art into the collection and I love working with the trustees — many of whom are collectors. This just provided that perfect transition at a point in which I wasn’t really looking.”