The first time Peter Timms saw the Fitchburg Art Museum, he was interviewing to become its director. That was 39 years ago. In a few weeks, Timms, 70, will step down from the top post, leaving behind a vastly different institution.
The galleries are full of art, including paintings by John Singer Sargent and Childe Hassam, antiquities on loan from Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts, and photographs by Charles Sheeler and Walker Evans. The museum’s budget has increased from $50,000 a year to $800,000. An expansion Timms oversaw increased the museum’s size from 10,000 square feet to 40,000. And in an era when museums have been feeling the crunch of a down economy, Timms has managed to avoid ending a single year with a deficit.
He’s also done this without feeling envious of the larger institutions less than an hour away in Boston.
“I’ve spent 40 years trying to make the best place we could here,” Timms said on a recent afternoon at the museum. “What I’ve done, what we have done, I don’t think could have been done in a shorter time.”
That quest to transform the museum is why Timms never left Fitchburg. His four decades make him the longest-serving museum director in New England history. Nationwide, only Ralph Dury, director of the Museum of Natural History & Science in Cincinnati from 1918-75, had a longer tenure, according to the American Alliance of Museums.
The Fitchburg Art Museum has its own rich history. It opened in 1927 after a gift from Eleanor Norcross, a Fitchburg native who spent most of her life in Paris working as an artist. Drawing on the support of a few families, the museum developed a small collection and held art classes. It became more of a community art center than a museum.
Timms aimed to change that.
On this afternoon, the director walked through the galleries to point out some of the most significant works in the collection. He also walked upstairs to show off pieces for an exhibit he’s curating (his last as director) that is meant to gather his favorite works. Those two groups do not necessarily overlap. Timms admits he’s no art scholar. He’s a Harvard-trained anthropologist who found himself drawn to museums after first thinking he would be a college professor. So he doesn’t ever slip into art speak or apologize for picking a work just because he likes it, even if it is not artistically significant.
And Timms’s favorite piece isn’t in a frame. It is the museum itself. He has overseen massive growth of the institution’s collection, programs, and physical space. The $2 million expansion, which took place between 1987 and 1989, quadrupled the square footage. In 1973, about 1,100 people visited the Fitchburg Art Museum. Today, 25,000 visitors a year walk through the galleries.
As the collection has grown, so has the museum’s endowment, from $200,000 to $17 million.
“After I’d been here, the [job] offers started coming in,” Timms said. “The first time, I really had to think long and hard. Basically, rather than uproot the family and have them follow daddy’s flag, we really thought, why not stay here and build this place so, at the end of the career, this is where you’ve moved to.”
In person, Timms is unassuming and soft-spoken. On this day, he wore worn jeans, a tucked-in button-down shirt, and a baseball cap. Don’t let the casual look fool you. During his tenure, Timms has been deadly serious when it comes to the museum. That’s meant maintaining and developing relationships with museums and cultural leaders at larger institutions so that he can draw upon the collective expertise. He’s also not afraid to admit what he doesn’t know.
That’s how he met Susannah Fabing, a former deputy director at the Harvard Art Museums. He first called her just after accepting the job in Fitchburg.
“He phoned and said, ‘I’m a graduate student in anthropology at Harvard and I just got a job to be director at an art museum and I don’t know how to be a director at an art museum. Is there anybody there who could help me?’ ’’ Fabing recalled.
Fabing would go on to become a trustee at the Fitchburg Art Museum and form the museum’s visiting committee, a group designed to examine and suggest potential improvements to Timms.
“It is a surprising place,” says Fabing. “If you drive through downtown Fitchburg you don’t expect much. He’s really worked steadily to turn it into an art museum.”
Timms did this by looking at Boston as a resource, not competition. In the 1990s, the visiting committee would include Harvard Art Museums director James Cuno, MFA collector and future board of trustees chairman Susan Paine, and Isabella Stewart Gardner director Anne Hawley.
The committee’s visits weren’t social gatherings. They were working sessions.
“He would take us each to an area he wanted to focus on, and he would have us meet with trustees and give hard critiques,” said Hawley. “Any good museum director is looking for fresh thought, but he runs a museum in a small community which struggles with economic issues, yet here he is pulling in Harvard and a collector from Boston.”
Timms was born in Philadelphia and attended Brown University. In 1964, he was commissioned in the Marine Corps and left as a captain in 1967, having served as a forward observer in Vietnam on more than 100 combat patrols. It was that military experience, in part, that influenced so much of Timms’s leadership style at the Fitchburg Art Museum.
He does not believe in burnout or stress. You work hard and get the job done. He also shrugs when asked how his museum managed to stay out of the red. In recent years, a slew of small New England museums, including the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton and Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis, have found themselves in a financial crisis.
“My trustees wouldn’t allow deficits,” said Timms. “I remember one time flirting with a deficit and this was fairly later, one trustee said to me, ‘Peter, which building do you want to close? Which staff member are you going to lose?’ ’’
Ron Ansin, one of those trustees, remembers the day he met Timms back almost 40 years ago. The museum’s future leader was just 31 and had a stack of rejection letters at home from other positions he had applied for. Ansin met Timms for lunch with a question.
“I was thinking, gosh, I wonder what kind of person would be interested in being the director of a small, kind of sleepy museum in a place like Fitchburg. This is certainly not the MFA. And I got there and met him and thought I had answered my own question. Oh, OK. An anthropologist. That’s right. Quiet and unassuming. That’s why when I learned he was also an ex-Marine, it hit me like a ton of bricks. As I worked with him over the years, I realized he was a unique person.”
“Tough as nails,” said Ansin. “If the budget is not balanced, he’s determined to make it balanced.”
Timms said he does get his no-nonsense philosophy from his time in the military. He also believes men and women who have served make great leaders of nonprofits. But he’s loath to focus too much on his time in Vietnam. He says he doesn’t want to come off as some kind of “GI Joe.”
And while he’s proud of his budget-balancing act, he takes great pride in a range of other initiatives he took on over the years. The Fitchburg Art Museum has run school programs designed to expose local children, many of them from poorer homes, to art and culture. In 1995, the museum and Fitchburg School System created The Museum Partnership School on the campus, a middle school for the arts that at one point had 200 students. Its closing after little more than a decade remains a source of great frustration.
Timms said he could have remained at the museum if he wanted to. But when he turned 60, he decided he would step down at 70. He began talking openly about it five years ago and gave official notice last year. His last day will be Dec. 6.
He doesn’t plan on retiring, though. For starters, Timms is going to work with his daughter, Zoe, who runs the New York-based Women’s Education Project, which helps poor women in South India get education and work. He also has an idea for his own nonprofit, to recruit former military personnel for leadership in other nonprofits.
“I wanted to [leave the Fitchburg directorship] while I still felt I could do things,” Timms said. “I could have stayed for another five years and then had trustees wonder, what are we going to do with him?”
As he reflected on stepping down, Timms remembered how quickly he was charmed by the museum. It was the first day he came to visit Fitchburg after seeing an advertisement for the directorship. Timms and his wife, Romayne, an artist who was born in England, wandered through a traveling exhibition that featured works by Joan Miró and Alexander Calder. Romayne stared at one of the prints particularly closely and a guard came over.
Timms expected to be scolded for getting too close to the art, but instead the guard noted Romayne’s British accent. He asked if she liked the work in front of her. She did.
That’s Nora Unwin, the guard said, explaining that the artist was born in London.
“And then the guard ran into his office before returning with the artist’s address.
“It was such a breath of fresh air,” Timms said, noting how at that moment, he realized there was something special about the Fitchburg Art Museum.