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Danforth Art looks to build budget, add staff, relocate

Timothy Wilson, a Somerville photographer, looked at an exhibit at Danforth Art.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Timothy Wilson, a Somerville photographer, looked at an exhibit at Danforth Art.

FRAMINGHAM — The chicken mole simmered and red wine flowed as talk turned to potential acquisitions.

A Jason Berger oil. A pair of charcoal drawings by Suzanne Hodes. Other museums might hold their meetings in boardrooms. Not Danforth Art. Nine members of the Framingham museum’s collections committee, ranging from 23-year-old gallery director Adam Adelson to longtime Boston University art historian Pat Hills, gathered in a sprawling home in Carlisle to discuss the Danforth’s future.

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Before long, Nina Nielsen, the host whose namesake gallery operated on Newbury Street in Boston for 46 years, shifted the conversation from art to money. It was time to talk about dramatic plans to increase the Danforth’s budget, hire new staff, and move into a new home by 2016.

“Things are changing at the Danforth fast,” Nielsen said. “And we’ve got to get our act together. So away we go.”

Danforth Art, founded in 1975 to focus on American art and offer a community art school to children and adults, has big plans. In the next year, museum leaders want to increase its annual budget from less than $1.4 million to $1.7 million, with much of that coming from increases in individual donations and corporate and foundation support. The Danforth plans to hire a director of development, marketing manager, controller, and webmaster, adding roughly 4½ positions to 14½ currently in place.

The museum is also planning a fund-raising campaign. It is too early to estimate the size of that effort, but renovating its new home could cost as much as $30 million.

This might sound like a tall order for a small, regional museum that, until now, has been housed in a former school in downtown Framingham. But in the last two years, the Danforth has been on the receiving end of two anonymous gifts totaling $750,000 and, last spring, Framingham Town Meeting approved the purchase of a new home across town. The Jonathan Maynard Building, a historic property on the village green, is bigger and more centrally located than the museum’s current home on Union Avenue. Danforth Art agreed to buy the building from the town for $1.5 million.

Danforth director Katherine French said that she knows the process will not be easy. But she has been encouraged by the recent gifts and the energy on her board and staff.

“I’m under no illusion,” said French. “We’re a small museum. I’m not a major medical center with a 150-year history of raising money. But I’m 59. This will be my last job. This will be the thing I’m able to look back at and say, ‘I helped this great thing to happen.’ ”

Later Monday, French is expecting to move a step closer. Danforth Art’s board of trustees is expected to vote to support a budget that projects a fund-raising goal of approximately $1 million, an increase of 23 percent, with much of that increase coming from individual gifts as well as corporate and foundation support.

The board will also take up a proposal to increase its size to 40 people from 25, typical, French said, of an organization that’s priming itself for a fund-raising campaign. Hiring a development director is key, supporters say, to raising the money needed for the Danforth’s plans.

“We can’t generate the kind of revenue we need to through classes and book sales,” said John Thompson, cochairman of the development committee, who is also an art collector, painter, and printmaker.

“It has to come from one-to-one development work. We have to free up Katherine’s time. We have to get Katherine out in front of people. She wants this museum to happen. She wants the development to happen. She’s the one who is going to be out there doing most of the development work.”

If she can pull it off, French, who has run the Danforth since 2005, will be responsible for transforming an institution that, since being started by a group of locals 38 years ago, has gradually, largely through gifts of art, built up a collection of more than 3,500 pieces.

The museum includes works by James McNeill Whistler, Albert Bierstadt, and Richard Yarde and has developed a focus on Boston expressionists. That’s a school of artists loosely connected to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts or Boston University and provided an alternative to the abstract painting more popular in New York during the mid-20th century.

But that is just part of its mission. Danforth Art also has a school that offers more than 500 classes and workshops to adults and children on subjects that include ceramics, printmaking, weaving, painting, and photography.

That is a lot of activity in a worn-out home built in 1907. Beyond the physical issues — pipes wrapped in asbestos, thick walls that make a renovation costly — there is the matter of modernization. Danforth Art does not have room for a proper gift shop or café, and its galleries are limited in a place originally built as a school.

Nor is the location itself ideal, French said. Danforth Art is near Framingham’s congested town center. The Maynard building is just off Route 9, a larger space overlooking a lush common. Museum leaders believe that location will attract more out-of-town visitors.

“A sophisticated collector approaches this building and says this is like the junior high I went to,” Nielsen said. “The new building is beautiful. Art, number one, appeals to the senses. The building you’re in is a major factor. The [Institute of Contemporary Art] was in a million buildings. It was always begging people to come through the door. Now, with a new building, they have a much more active program.”

For French, the idea of growth is not just based on well-wishes and hopes. She points to a pair of donations in the last two years that, she said, raised her confidence.

Last summer, without any warning, a call came in from a financial adviser, asking how to process a donation.

“I thought it was another five- or ten-thousand-dollar donation,” French said. “That happens pretty regularly. Then they said it was a half-million.”

Then what?

“I said thank you. I felt very clear-headed. I didn’t get giddy, I didn’t get nervous. It felt right for where we are now.”

That gift came on top of another for $250,000.

French said she cannot reveal the names of the donors, but one of them took a class at the Danforth years ago, while the other simply visited the museum and told the director she liked the exhibitions.

“There are people who are watching us, French said. “It might feel you’re an organization that’s never had this experience raising this kind of money, but there’s a strong coterie of people who have been waiting for this to happen.”

On Thursday morning, French introduced the new budget, with its dramatic increase, to the museum’s staff. She then posed a question to the small group: How could they help be part of an unprecedented fund-raising effort?

The mood was positive as staffers went through an exercise in which they boiled down their own roles at the Danforth to fit into the larger mission.

Now, the hard work.

In recent years, larger museums in the region — including the MFA, Peabody Essex Museum, and ICA — have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for building projects. But many smaller museums have struggled, such as the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton and the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, which announced earlier this year it will close.

Ashley Occhino, the Danforth’s art school manager, said she is not nervous. She is encouraged by the size of the museum’s educational program.

Danforth students “are such a driving force behind us, and we have lifelong students who have been coming here for 20 years, 30 years,” said Occhino, who joined the Danforth early in 2012.

“I don’t think failure is an option for us,” she said.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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