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Elizabeth Dunbar on the Campbell Conversations

Last December, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse hired a new executive director, Elizabeth Dunbar.  She inherited a difficult financial situation, and has been serving double duty as the museum's temporary curator.  Host Grant Reeher engages her in a discussion of the challenges facing the museum, her strategies for renewed financial and artistic vibrancy, and the cultural function of an art museum in a small city. 

Interview Highlights (note: transcript has been edited for clarity)

(Grant Reeher): The museum's financial struggles have been in the news over the past year. How serious are the museum's financial challenges at present?

(Elizabeth Dunbar): Currently things are looking pretty good for the museum. Last year was a tough one. The board really tightened their belts. The staff made a lot of tough decisions in terms of programming, but they've managed to get things back on track and things are looking promising for 2015. I certainly have lots of money still to raise. But I think the outlook is good, a much different picture than a year ago.

(GR): How did it get into that situation? What happened?

(ED): Well, I think the museum has tried to be a lot of things to a lot of people and maybe trying to do too much. Certainly there have been exhibitions in the past that were huge, blockbuster-type shows that drew large audiences, but those exhibitions are extremely expensive to produce. You're not only dealing with traveling expenses, but you're dealing with insurance and marketing costs and truly to get enough people in the door to see those shows and to offset the costs. It just really wasn't a feasible option. So I think there have been a number of those projects over the years that on top of each other just became an insurmountable amount of debt that carried forward.

(GR): And any time you see a situation like that you immediately think of leadership issues. Did the previous executive director not manage the museum well?

(ED): It's hard to put the blame on one person's shoulders. Certainly there are a lot of factors in terms of the way the museum was moving forward, and having not been there I can only speculate as to how those troubles mounted over time. But it didn't happen overnight for sure. But I think there was the idea that you had one big exhibition that kind of dug you out of the hole and that maybe you could repeat that success over and over. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work.

(GR): And you say things are on better footing now does that mean that the museum is in the black?

(ED): Yes. We are in the black. And moving forward we are not looking at doing the same kinds of programming that we have in the past. That's not to say that we won't do a blockbuster show on occasion. But you're going to see more exhibitions that are curated in-house organized in-house and hopefully sent out on the road and those making money on their own. 

(GR): Now you've taken a social media approach toward raising some money. And part of that is a focus on, in part, on small donations. Can you tell me what about the idea for that?

  (ED): Sure. For Valentine's Day back in February, we launched a small micro-giving campaign called "Everson Actually" based on the movie "Love Actually" which was a romantic comedy hit. And it was a way for us to be playful, have some fun at the museum. Our expectations were huge in terms of raising money truly the micro-giving campaign was about raising awareness of the museum and putting a fresh face forward. And it cost us nothing to put together, so basically they were five days of video vignettes of board members and myself proclaiming their love of the Everson and why we wanted the community to support it with increments as small as $5. So, our goal is a $1,000 which seemed doable within five days or a week or whatever. And we ended up tripling our goal which was which was wonderful. 

(GR): Does a city like Syracuse need different things from an art museum than say Chicago?

(ED): Well, Chicago, New York, L.A., many of those very large cities, they have multiple museums that have their own particular niches. Here in Syracuse, we have to kind of fulfill a lot of different constituencies and that we have family activities, we want to do things with university students as well. We also want to bring in the millennial group in different ways. So we're always trying to come up with a rich tapestry of programming that can fit a lot of different audiences. So we are really moving forward in that direction in terms of community engagement from lectures and talks to films to hands on activities to tours to having lunch in our new lounge.

(GR): And you've got this exhibition going on right now Prendergast to Pollock. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Credit chaotic float / Flickr
The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse

(ED): Sure. This is a partnership with the Munson Williams Proctor Institute in Utica and it's a selection of works from the Edward Wales Root collection. We've got 35 pieces, Masterworks, from the collection that we have hung in our space alongside a few of our own masterpieces, which really details the story of American art from about the turn of the century to the mid-1950s. 

(GR): The museum was founded in 1968...

(ED): Well, the museum was not founded in 1968. The museum dates back more than 100 years. The Everson name started in 1968 in the I.M. Pei building.

(GR): That’s what I was thinking of. So, the Everson, as we know it, was founded in 1968. That was that was a different time for the city than today. So has the city simply lost, since then, too much population and in particular middle class wealth to sustain an art museum going forward?

(ED): Well, I think museums all over the country are having to reinvent themselves in different ways and it's not necessarily the population slip, if you will. Certainly economy plays into it and audience plays into it. But I also think that we're also faced, as cultural institutions, with a lot of competition. And these days, visitors are very interested in experiences and I've had a lot of conversations with different people about this, that this is an experience generation that we have now. Everything they see, they do, they post on social media. It's not really about a tangible object as much as the experience. And what does that mean to a museum which is essentially a housing for objects? We have to create experiences, create something that's different than going to the movies or going to see a sports team, which are experiences. So we're always working on how do we draw people in differently, what can they get at the museum that they can't get anywhere else, but how can we pull people in in unexpected ways. 

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.