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January 13, 2008

A Museum's Painful Attitude Adjustment

John Stoehr

There are lessons here.

I used to joke with a friend who wrote about religion that she dealt with crazy people. She saw it differently. As an arts journalist dealing with artists and their temperamental ways, I was the one dealing with the crazies. She had it lucky.

There's some truth to it. Artists are indeed passionate about what they do and they are protective, too, knowing how fragile art can be in post-industrial America. Even institutions built as monuments to art and cultural heritage face uncertain futures especially when the time comes to change policies, attitudes, missions.

As the arts reporter for the Savannah Morning News, I had occasion to witness an institution's change of attitude, a process that was somewhat painful for those involved. The Telfair Museum of Art, the cousin of the Gibbes Museum here in Charleston, embarked on a search for a new director around the same time that it had to acknowledge that it was responsible for its own public image.

See, the Telfair was seen by many to be a bastion of whiteness, the preserve of Savannah's upper crust, a gentleman's club for for gentlemanly blue bloods.

Not that surprising. Ask any institutional leader if they have a public image problem and he or she will say, yes, who doesn't? That's the nature of being involved in these large, complicated, nonprofit entities. It's a messy business.

Ask the same people who's responsible for that image and they'll say we are. It's the institution's job to do two things: 1) make programs, events, etc. available to the public, to serve the public and 2) make it crystal clear that these programs, events, etc. are available by way of aggressive efforts at education and outreach.

More and more, you see art museums devoting more resources to education and outreach. They have to. Much of their funding comes from public coffers. To justify the use of that money, they have to not only open the doors, but send out invitations.

The Telfair didn't understand this, at least its former director, Diane Lesko, evidently didn't. She was adamant in denying the Telfair had a public image problem, especially among Savannah's majority (nearly 60 percent) black population. In an Oct. 7, 2006, op-ed piece, she said "it appears there are those who perceive us to be less than inclusive. Since perception is often confused with reality, I believe it is critical for the Telfair to set the record straight."

Not the kind of language you'd expect from a top administrator. But then again, Lesko wasn't known for her tact, much less her political savvy. After the Telfair opened a new $25 million facility, a spectacular facility designed by starchitect Moshe Safdie, she was pushed out of her job, according to sources close to the Telfair's board of directors. I was told more than once in private that she took too much credit in interviews with me for getting the new center built.

Even so, the Telfair's board faced a bigger problem -- how to pay for the new center. It was going to cost $2 million in fund-raising from the ground up every fiscal year "just to survive," I was told. That meant getting as many people through the doors as possible and that meant becoming as open and transparent and accessible as possible. With Lesko being the face of the museum, the face that denied its image of exclusivity and elitism, it was time for her to go. So she did.

I wrote the following piece during the board's search for a new director. I was not a popular person after it went to press (incidentally, this kind of story is why some thought I was "universally despised," and so on). Even so, I still feel it had a positive impact on the museum and its search for a new director.

Steven High, who was selected this time last year, told me straight away in our first interview that it was his and his museum's job to address the image problem, a statement illustrating a huge change in attitude and policy at one of the South's oldest museums.

TELFAIR MUSEUM OF ART AIMS TO CHANGE ITS IMAGE
Stung by charges of elitism, it is undertaking programs that reach out to the community as a whole

Late last year, Mayor Otis Johnson and Savannah City Council did something that sent shock waves through the Telfair Museum of Art.

They decided against underwriting two of the museum's community outreach programs, "Four Free Weeks" and "Family Sundays."

Aldermen questioned whether the programs were a good use of taxpayer dollars. It was unclear to them if the programs were effective in reaching disadvantaged African-Americans, especially adolescents.

More than $61,000 was tabled pending further review.

The move signaled a vexing issue for the 120-year-old museum: how to combat a public image as an elitist institution - exclusive, high-brow, inaccessible, anti-democratic.

It's an issue that plagues art museums across the country, said Barbara Archer, a former curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Museums that do not acknowledge the problem and move to overcome a troubled public image can expect to continue alienating those who perceive them as elitist, she said.

"There are a handful of people who support museums in a serious way," Archer said. "If they don't fix the problem, then all those wonderful exhibits will never be enjoyed by most people."

The Telfair's problematic public image may come in part from its history.

Mary Telfair, who bequeathed the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences to establish a monument to Western art and culture, came from a powerful, privileged Southern family whose holdings made them one of the largest slave owners in Georgia.

Her family owned more than 600 slaves. For many, that fact alone makes her gift not a legacy to creativity, community involvement and civic responsibility, but a memorial to cultural separatism, white power and black disenfranchisement.

Recent developments have served to compound the problem.

The opening of the $24.5 million Jepson Center for the Arts in March and news of an endowment now exceeding $23 million have perhaps deepened the image of the South's oldest art museum as the preserve of rich whites rather than poor and middle-class blacks.

RECOGNIZING THE PROBLEM
As the new president of the Telfair's board of trustees, John G. Kennedy III has said his goal is to boost membership to 5,000.

So far, membership, spurred by the Jepson's opening, has doubled since the beginning of the year to 3,600.But Kennedy, whose tenure began this spring with a search for a new executive director, is aiming higher.

He wants the Telfair to have the level of community ownership the public library system has. Tens of thousands of Chatham County residents have library cards, he said. With all the Telfair has to offer, including the new center for the arts, he sees no reason why it cannot successfully make the case that it exists to serve the community.

But to achieve this, he said, the Telfair's image problem must be addressed.

"We need to market the museum to be viewed as inclusive, not exclusive," Kennedy said. "The big push is to make the community aware of what we have to offer."

That the leadership of the Telfair acknowledges the need to do more to convince people, especially the African-American community, of its openness and egalitarianism signals a change in policy, one likely to impact the museum's search for a new director.

Diane Lesko announced in May she was resigning as executive director at the end of October. One of the "critical issues" the new director faces is the ability to "energetically engage in aggressive outreach" to city and county officials, schools, the Convention & Visitors Bureau and businesses and organizations around the city, according to a document compiled by the search committee called the "director's description."

Another key need, according to the document, is "the ability to energize a widely diverse community while building a positive image and lasting relationships with the TMA." Moreover, it's essential the new director be able to "work in politically sensitive situations."

"This institution reflects the values of our time," Kennedy said. "Just one look at the Jepson tells you it's open and welcoming."

FINDING SOLUTIONS
Part of the Telfair's awareness-raising campaign was convincing City Council of its merits.

The museum paid out of pocket for the first two Family Sundays (there are four annually). But by summertime, when the third Sunday was scheduled, museum officials feared having to cancel the program for the first time in more than 20 years. The Telfair doesn't make money during its free programs; in fact, it loses it, because tourists pay nothing as well.

Walter O. Evans, a member of the Telfair's board of trustees and one of the most prominent collectors of African-American art in the country, lobbied hard to convince City Council that the museum's prolific outreach programs and exhibits are indeed attracting diverse audiences.

City Manager Michael Brown corroborated the claim in a June report showing nearly 4,700 African-Americans - more than half of the total number of patrons - took part in "Four Free Weeks" in 2005. (3,438 were white; 252 were Asian or Hispanic.)

Without fanfare, City Council voted to reverse its earlier decision, restoring the money before a July 6 council session.

Harry DeLorme admits the Telfair is undergoing a transition of leadership as well as establishing a persona of egalitarianism.

But as the museum's curator of education for the past 18 years, he insists the transition has been happening for a long time.

The Telfair reached about 6,000 schoolchildren last year and expects to bring even more in to the Jepson Center's classes, workshops and seminars.

"We've always offered programs to provide greater access and opportunities for education," he said.

Still, some changes are a direct result of City Council's early skepticism.

In response to the city's desire to see more programming for adolescents, Telfair curators are creating a Teen Advisory Council to help design educational programming and exhibits intended to appeal to teenagers.

The museum is poised to launch a quarterly film series for children that DeLorme said he hopes will gain enough traction to be presented on a monthly basis.

It has also streamlined its 2007 proposals for city funding to be more collaborative with other city-sponsored events, such as the Savannah Asian Festival and the Black Heritage Festival.

One indirect solution to the image problem is the formation of the Friends of African-American Arts, an auxiliary board to the Telfair's board of trustees.

Chaired by Shonah Jefferson, a lawyer with Hunter Maclean, the group makes its official debut during the Oct. 11 opening of the Telfair's retrospective on the work of Sam Gilliam, one of the country's leading African-American artists.

"Our mission is to raise awareness of the importance of the Telfair to the African-American community and the importance of the African-American community to the Telfair," Jefferson said.

"Given that Savannah has a more than 50 percent black majority, it's important to know the Telfair is everyone's museum."

Savannah Morning News
September 4, 2006

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

Posted by John Stoehr at January 13, 2008 5:59 AM