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Boston’s newest museum directors excited, expecting challenges

Six new  art museum directors stand for a group portrait. From left: Wyona Lynch-McWhite, executive director of the Fruitlands Museum; Paul Ha, director of MIT's List Visual Arts Center; Christopher Bedford, the director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University; John Smith, director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art; Jonathan Fairbanks, director of the Fuller Craft Museum; and Matthias Waschek, director of the Worcester Art Museum.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Six new art museum directors stand for a group portrait. From left: Wyona Lynch-McWhite, executive director of the Fruitlands Museum; Paul Ha, director of MIT's List Visual Arts Center; Christopher Bedford, the director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University; John Smith, director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art; Jonathan Fairbanks, director of the Fuller Craft Museum; and Matthias Waschek, director of the Worcester Art Museum.

The last year has brought in a new wave of directors at several Boston-area museums. We talked to six of them about their challenges, surprises, and more.

RISD Museum Director John W. Smith.

RISD Museum Director John W. Smith.

JOHN W. SMITH, 53,

Museum of Art, Rhode Island School
of Design
, Providence

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Q. What is the biggest challenge you face?

A. To increase our audience. There are still tremendous numbers of people in this region who either aren’t aware of the museum or for various sets of reasons haven’t visited us.

Q. Biggest surprise so far?

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A. Being connected to a great school of art and design gives us permission to do things a little bit differently. Just last year, a faculty member decided she wanted to have her students in the galleries copying works. That allows people from the outside to see what making a painting looks like and smells like.

Q. Is there one thing you wish people could see at your institution?

A. I have my own few favorite things, but we have these four Copley portraits that are sort of a little hidden in our Pendleton House. And they’re showstoppers.

Q. What’s your favorite museum in the Boston area?

A. I have a real fondness for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I love the fact that there’s something that is so specific and special and sort of jewel-like about that museum.

Q. Why be a director? Isn’t being a curator less stressful?

A. I don’t know that my curators would agree. For me, I love being a director here simply because it gives me an opportunity to look at the entire enterprise in a way.

Q.. Should museums be free to the public?

A. If we could do that, that would be great. It’s something that the staff and I talk about frequently, about how we can continue to expand our free time. I certainly understand the debate.

Q. What advantage do you have by being at a smaller institution? What disadvantage?

A. Sometimes our infrastructure can’t always support our ambitions. Our space means that we can show less than 10 percent of our collection at any given time. One of the advantages is that it allows us to be a little more nimble.

Chris Bedford recently accepted a position as the new director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

Andrew Spear for The Boston Globe

Chris Bedford recently accepted a position as the new director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

CHRIS BEDFORD, 35

Rose Art Museum, Brandeis

University, Waltham

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face?

A. One very interesting, compelling opportunity for us at the moment is a healthy untapped acquisitions fund. There was a period of time when obviously the museum was director-less. Those holding down the fort very generously and very sensitively decided to reserve the funds for the incoming director.

Q. Biggest surprise so far?

A. I’ve been surprised by the depth of the collection. You’re looking at about 7,500 objects of real quality. I wasn’t aware of the depth of prewar material in the collection.

Q. Is there one thing you wish people could see at your institution?

A. There’s a terrific early David Smith that I don’t think has been on view in a long time, and I’d like to find an excuse to show that gem very soon. I believe David Smith is the most significant American sculptor of the 20th-century period.

Q. What’s your favorite museum in the Boston area, other than your own?

A. I love Harvard’s collection, and I’m really keen to see it reopen in its glory. As I was researching exhibitions from afar in the seat as the chief curator at Wexner Center for the Arts, often I’d find myself looking at the Harvard collection and being aware that collection isn’t on view.

Q. Why be a director? Isn’t being a curator less stressful?

A. You’re looking at an institution from 35,000 feet rather than at the ground level.

Q. Should museums be free to the public?

A. I think every institution faces its own very specific set of economic challenges. My sense is for an institution like the Rose, [if we charged,] we’d drive away people we’d prefer to see at the museum for a gain that would mean very little.

Q. What advantage do you have by being at a smaller institution? What disadvantage?

A. If you assemble a team correctly, you can actually get more done than a much bigger battleship institution. It takes a level of commitment that maybe borders on masochism, but when it’s the right team, that masochism can actually be enjoyable. Disadvantage? There are certain bigger projects that are much more difficult to realize when you have a limited staff.

MIT List Visual Arts Center new director Paul Ha.

MIT List Visual Arts Center new director Paul Ha.

PAUL HA, 49

List Visual Arts Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face?

A. The List in a way is better known in New York and at Basel Miami than it is on campus. Sometimes when I’m getting a sandwich on campus, I will lean over to a student and say, “Do you know what the List is” and they say, ‘No.’ I want to get the message out better.

Q. Biggest surprise so far?

A. How much growth there’s been in contemporary art in Boston. As soon as I landed, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened this beautiful space; the MFA opened its brand new space and, of course, the ICA.

Q. Is there one thing you wish people could see at your institution?

A. I would say the show-off piece for MIT is our public art collection. It’s all over campus. But it’s an open campus, so anybody just walking around, they can experience it.

Q. What’s your favorite museum in the Boston area, other than your own?

A. I would like to draw a Venn diagram because I think all of us do different things but cross over very little.

Q. Why be a director? Isn’t being a curator less stressful?

A. If you asked a curator that question, they probably wouldn’t agree with you. You just bring different skill sets. The curators are the connoisseurs, the experts, and the directors are the boosters and fans of the curators.

Q. Should museums be free to the public?

A. In an ideal world, cultural institutions should be free. Symphonies should be free. Theater should be free. But then the public, which desires those things, they have to figure out how they can fund the exhibitions and fund the concerts and fund the performances.

Q. What advantage do you have by being at a smaller institution? What disadvantage?

A. One of the great things about working at a large institution is all of the mind power. But at the same time, one of the benefits of working at a small institution is the quickness. Right now we’re adding a new position, which is campus and community outreach coordinator. I was able to create that without any committees or getting approval from the board. We saw a need and we just acted on it.

Jonathan Fairbanks is the new director of the Fuller Craft Museum.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Jonathan Fairbanks is the new director of the Fuller Craft Museum.

JONATHAN FAIRBANKS, 79

Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face?

A. That’s always a matter of outreach and friends. All museums lose members or sponsors who, for one reason or another, don’t come and participate anymore.

Q. Biggest surprise so far?

A. The resourcefulness of the staff. They’re just a blessing to work with. They know what needs to be done, they know how to do it, and they do it.

Q. Is there one thing you wish people could see at your institution?

A. A cabinet that we bought at auction. It’s dynamite. Everybody loves it, and it’s right up front when you come in the door. It’s worth a trip to Brockton just to see that one piece.

Q. What’s your favorite museum in the Boston area, other than your own?

A. You mean, other than the MFA? That is my own, too. [Fairbanks formerly served as an MFA curator.] I have several. It’s hard to avoid the MFA.

Q. Why be a director? Isn’t being a curator less stressful?

A. Yes and no. Most people think a curator’s job is to sit there and contemplate an object. But he has deadlines to meet, loan forms to get out, writing to do. Why be a director? A director’s job, as I see it, is to mainly clear the way so staff can effectively perform their tasks. If you don’t do that, you’re not a good director.

Q. Should museums be free to the public?

A. We can’t afford that. But if a philanthropic organization said look, if you put our name on your entrance, would you open for free? I would be very inclined to do that.

Q. What advantage do you have by being at a smaller institution? What disadvantage?

A. Advantage is the intimacy of the experience. Big museums have to be pretty severe about the measures of security, so everything is under glass. The disadvantage is visibility, gaining reviews and adequate public notice. You don’t have the clout here that you have in the big, urban museums.

Matthias Waschek.

Matthias Waschek.

MATTHIAS WASCHEK, 51

Worcester Art Museum, Worcester

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face?

A. We are an encyclopedic museum. We are covering all the centuries and all the cultures. How do you find a narrative that is interesting enough for people to come to us and see us a serious alternative to bigger museums with deeper collections like the MFA, which is just an hour from here?

Q. Biggest surprise so far?

A. The first work that this museum acquired is going to be in the galleries soon, but at this point it’s in my office. It is a bronze portrait of Jean-Léon Gérôme by French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. It’s of similar quality of early Rodins.

Q. Is there one thing you wish people could see at your institution?

A. My absolute favorite in this museum is Paul Gauguin’s “The Brooding Woman.” It’s our Mona Lisa.

Q. What’s your favorite museum in the Boston area?

A. I love the MFA. It’s a phenomenal collection, but it’s also an incredible way of reaching out to its constituencies. And they are not afraid of raising questions that others do not want to touch. To what point is a Harley Davidson art? Which is a phenomenal question to ask.

Q. Why be a director? Isn’t being a curator less stressful?

A. I think, although I was curator once, I always looked to have a broader impact than just looking at a collection. I would like to have an impact that goes beyond the scholarly world.

Q. Should museums be free to the public?

A. You can only ask this from context to context. A museum that gets public money is free. The MFA doesn’t get a dime. Nor do we, of public money. So you have to look at where is the best way of getting income.

Q. What advantage do you have by being at a smaller institution? What disadvantage?

A. Given the compactness of our collections, we can allow people to connect dots in a way they wouldn’t in a big museum. The disadvantage is that when you ask for art loans, you are not as important a player. You can only ask for important loans if you are able to give people, down the road, important loans.

Wyona Lynch-McWhite, executive director of Fruitlands Museum.

Mike Ritter

Wyona Lynch-McWhite, executive director of Fruitlands Museum.

WYONA LYNCH-McWHITE, 41

Fruitlands Museum, Harvard

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face?

A. Making sure that people in the Boston area know about the museum. It’s a real hidden gem. We’ve been trying to form some partnerships with Boys and Girls Clubs so young audiences can come out and experience both the museum and the nature.

Q. Biggest surprise so far?

A. For me, just the richness of the collections. It just reminds me of how much more work I have to do to share them. if you like landscapes, knowing we have over 100 Hudson River landscapes is a surprise.

Q. Is there one thing you wish people could see at your institution?

A. If I had to pick one, I would want to make sure they saw the Alcott farmhouse. When you go down there and the space comes alive as you go into the rooms and think about the Alcott family, I think it makes a great connection.

Q. What’s your favorite museum in the Boston area, other than your own?

A. It’s not really fair to pick favorites. If you put that in the paper, no one’s going to invite me to lunch again. But the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. I’ve been so impressed in what they’ve been doing to expand the role of sculpture.

Q. Why be a director? Isn’t being a curator less stressful?

A. Being a director gives you a unique opportunity to shape, not just the present but hopefully the future of an institution. And if you love an institution as I do, you’re obsessed with the details, whether parking or how exhibitions turn out.

Q. Should museums be free to the public?

A. If you can’t afford to be free all the time, having certain times you can be free is important.

Q. What advantage do you have by being at a smaller institution? What disadvantage?

A. If we decide to make a change, we can do it much quicker. If we have visitors going through the museum making comments and we want to change our labels, we’re small enough that in one week’s time we could take all our labels down and adjust them. The disadvantage is you have limited resources. We never have enough staff to cover the things we dream up.

Interviews have been condensed and edited. Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com
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