LOWELL — Jonathan Stevens is, even he admits, the unlikeliest of museum directors. Of course, the American Textile History Museum is not your standard museum.
Located in the heart of this former mill town, the museum features floor-length industrial age machines, millions of textile samples and a smattering of unexpected treasures — from century-old dresses to a case featuring cross-sections of baseballs. The problem has never been finding works to exhibit. It has been how to balance the budget and also get people through the door.
Enter Stevens, 61, who took over as interim director in November 2011, replacing Jim Coleman. He had spent decades as an executive at the Ames Textile Corp., a clothing company that went through its own financial crisis during the recession. After taking the museum gig on temporarily, Stevens found that his love for the institution, and its needs, actually made taking the job make perfect sense.
So earlier last year, Stevens signed on permanently.
“I realized I could do it even though I didn’t have a museum studies degree or background,” said Stevens. “Because what the museum really needed was a businessman who could take what was an operating deficit and do some things to make it possible to break even. Two, I knew what was in the collection because I know how everything was made and how it got in there. There’s a great depository of historical information in there. And the staff there, although a very thin staff, I was impressed by them. I knew that my concern about not knowing everything about museum work that I lacked that I could rely on my staff to point me in the direction.”
Not everyone was so sure Stevens was right for the job. That includes his close friend and longtime Ames colleague, Joshua Minor. He worried that Stevens would struggle to adapt to the nonprofit world.
“John loves textile technology and he loves the history of textiles,” said Minor. “The question was whether he was going to be able to rise to the challenge of raising money. Because that’s really what he was charged with doing.”
The institution’s financial challenges are not new. In 1994, the museum bought the 170,000-square-foot, former Kitson Machine Shop on Dutton Street. In 2006, the board, struggling to stay out of the red, sold more than half the building for $3 million with the museum occupying one of the four resulting condominium units.
Only about 13,000 people a year visit the museum, which has led to a series of occasional free Saturdays to drum up excitement.
And financially, the last three years have been difficult, with annual deficits from $1.5 million in 2009 to $835,927 in 2011, according to tax filings. For 2012, after a fund-raising drive, Stevens anticipates a deficit in the $430,000 range.
That’s for a museum with a $1.6 million budget this year.
“I walked in and the budget was pretty much in place,” said Stevens. “I had two weeks to review it and present it to the board for all of 2012, and I was flying by the seat of my pants. But now I really have a handle on it. I know what our programs are costing us. We’ve controlled expenses.”
If the Stevens name sounds familiar, it is because the current director’s family created the institution.
His great aunt, Caroline Stevens Rogers, founded the museum, which opened in 1961 in North Andover as the Merrimack Valley Textile Museum. His father, Edward, served as the museum’s chairman of the board of trustees from 1978 to 2000. Edward Stevens led the move in 1997 to a larger space in Lowell. The museum also dropped the Merrimack Valley location from its title.
“They mean a lot to me,” Stevens says of the family connections. “I want to stress, though, that I didn’t get the job because of family connections. I got this job because it’s something I wanted to do.”
On a recent walk through the museum, Stevens talked excitedly about the current temporary exhibition, “Suited for Space,” a touring show which was organized by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and runs through March 3. But he was also thrilled to share his love of the permanent collection. He knows this material, stopping in front of a machine that was used for spinning cotton into thread in the mid-19th century and notes that this was just the kind of machine he got rid of at Ames. He talks of the beauty of a gold, silk dress from 1898. He stops at a computer that serves as a modern workstation to design seamless dresses, running his fingers over to emphasize the innovation.
Stevens’s enthusiasm has rubbed off on donors, says Sally Gould, who was hired as the museum’s director of development two years ago.
“He’s been extremely good at not being somebody who sits behind his desk,” she said. “He’s really taken an active role in the fund-raising and been able to make some significant asks in the first year.”
Stevens also helped push through one of Gould’s ideas, to occasionally open the museum for free on Saturdays. The next event is in May.
Diane Fagan Affleck, who worked at the museum as a curator from 1982 to 2010 and is now a consultant, admits there was some concern when Stevens was hired. A nonprofit operates differently than a normal corporation, she said. But Stevens has been particularly strong when it comes to communicating the museum’s mission.
“He’s very outgoing, very enthusiastic and he loves talking about us,” she said. “Sometimes, we’ll go to him and say, ‘Do you know this machine?’ ”