Elizabeth Dunbar on the Campbell Conversations

Feb 9, 2019

The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse has rebounded from a financial crisis, and is now celebrating its 50th anniversary with a variety of new exhibits and an ambitious capital campaign. This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Elizabeth Dunbar, Executive Director of the Everson. They discuss the turnaround and the current situation, and the museum's place in the cultural life of the Syracuse region. 

Interview highlights

Reeher: When we last spoke, and it was four years ago … the museum was beginning to emerge from a financial crisis that had, at that time, at least, caused some cancelations of planned exhibitions, limited staff and even, according to some accounts, cast uncertainty on the very future of the museum. So, first question, obviously, is how have things gone since then? Where does the museum stand now in those terms?

Dunbar: I’d say we’re in a very different place than we were four years ago. Things have changed dramatically and for the positive. The museum, I would say, is thriving at this point. We have grown our programs. We’ve grown our staff. We’ve grown our budget. We, as you mentioned, are celebrating our 50th anniversary of our building. In conjunction with that, we’ve launched a comprehensive campaign with the goal of $17 million, and we’re a good two-thirds of the way towards that goal. And we continue to expand in many different ways in our programs, in our ambitions, improvements in the buildings, so things are going swimmingly.

Reeher: So, where did the money that you needed back then come from? Who were the angels that came to the rescue?

Dunbar: The angels were the people among us, quite frankly, the people that you never expected to be angels. I would say, first and foremost, our board of trustees really stepped up. I joined the organization in late 2014, December 2014, and that first year, of course, was challenging, working with a very limited budget. The budget has since increased incrementally over the last four-plus years. But that first year, really, we had a lot of people dig deep in their pockets—our board of trustees, local foundations. We had a lot of supporters that really came out to help us turn the tide and invest in different things to get us mobilized and moving in the right direction.

Reeher: Was there a sense that it simply wouldn’t be acceptable for the city, and given some other problems that the city was facing at that time too, to lose the art museum? The city did, in a sense, lose the symphony, and they have now another version of it back, but they did go through that. Can you take me back to that time and what that sense was like?

Dunbar: Sure. I came here from Huston, so I did not experience the folding of the symphony first hand, but of course, coming here, I heard quite a lot about it early on. And I think there was a sense that this was a cultural treasure, that we needed to fight for it. And I think we had the right people on the board at the right time who were really, I mean, they had to make some very difficult decisions before I came in and built decisions within the board and with a core group of people to move the institution forward. It was a difficult time, no doubt, but I think people truly believed that it was worth saving, that for this institution to move forward, for the city to move forward, that we needed to do something. And they were tremendous in their efforts to really get other people to support the institution. And I think there were people sitting in the background who were waiting to see who would step up to the plate. And once a few people did and major players did, it began to roll into place.

Reeher: I remember when we were talking back then, the museum was trying to engage social media more effectively, and also, there was an increase in the focus on smaller donations as a way to try to get some traction. How did those things work?

Dunbar: I think it’s been successful for us. We’ve taken a real grassroots approach to how we do business at the museum. It’s no longer big, blockbuster shows where you pay your $20 to get in once every two to four, five years when those blockbusters arrive. No. Now, it is building membership. It’s coming repeatedly. We’re changing the exhibitions. We do 20-plus exhibitions annually now. So, there’s always something different to see. We’ve expanded our programming offerings exponentially, as I said, and again, getting people to return over and over and over. So, sometimes, it’s those $50 memberships or the annual appeal at the end of the year … and those are the investments that make this museum embedded in the fabric of the community.

Reeher: You mentioned some of the exhibits that you’ve got going on as part of the 50th anniversary … I imagine this is sort of like picking favorite children, but give me a couple that you haven’t mentioned that you think are particularly important or particularly interesting, and tell me more about them.

Dunbar: It’s difficult to pick a favorite. I think, in the four years that I’ve been here, we’ve had close to 100 shows.

Reeher: Well, the ones that are going on right now. The ones that people can see right now. Which ones sort of leap out at you?

Dunbar: Let me talk about one that’s on view now. It’s just been open for a few weeks. It’s titled, “Hidden Figures.” It’s a ceramic exhibition, and as part of our 50th anniversary celebration and our comprehensive campaign, we were able to hire a ceramics curator—the first time we’ve had a ceramics curator in decades. And, of course, the Everson has one of the premier collections of ceramic arts, being a longtime collector of ceramics since, well, I guess our first acquisition of ceramic was 1916 with the purchase of 32 porcelains by famed arts and crafts ceramist Adelaïde Robineau … So, we managed to draw our curator, Garth Johnson, from Tempe, Arizona, lured him here to the sandy shores of Syracuse … to come and work with us. He was thrilled to be able to do that, to work with this storied collection. And so, he has put together a very interesting exhibition of ceramics from 1932 to 1972 that explore the figurative tradition in ceramic sculpture. So, I would definitely recommend seeing that. It’s in our ceramics gallery, which was recently renovated—it’s just about two years old—and we will be dedicating the space later this month, on Feb. 28, actually. It will be renamed the Paul Phillips and Sharon Sullivan Ceramics Center. And Paul and Sharon have given almost $5 million to our campaign in support of our ceramics effort.

Reeher: We’re talking on the day after the president’s State of the Union Address, and you are talking about an exhibition focused on the art of women. So, obviously, my thoughts turn to politics here. … Our political sphere has become so extremely polarized in recent years, and I imagine that you have to think about that when you are making decisions about exhibitions or individual works of art. I was wondering if you could relate how those conversations take place, what you consider, what do you make a point of saying we’re not going to consider this, and we’re just going to act as if this was not an issue? How do you sort it out?

Dunbar: I think the museum … has historically been a place for all cultures, hopefully, to meet in and be able to learn from one another and see the world through the eyes of someone else. You may not agree with their point of view. You may not share their values or belief systems, but it is a space where we all feel we can get together and view work together. And that’s an important experience to have. So, from a curatorial standpoint in terms of our programming, we want to really show a range of work that’s being made. We’re not only going to show works by women artists. We’re not going to show just works by male artists, from a particular part of the country. No, we try to come up with a very varied exhibition schedule, historical work versus contemporary work, different ideas that they’re grappling with. But I would say, for the most part, some are provocative; some are less provocative. Some are more aesthetic explorations, and others are more political or sociopolitical explorations.

Reeher: I mentioned earlier in passing that you came here from Texas and this area was new to you when you arrived. Have you discovered anything different here in Syracuse relative to other areas with which you’re familiar about the relationship to art to the city and of art to the region in terms of economic development or in terms of culture more generally? What has struck you?

Dunbar: One thing that was interesting to me, and this is different, I think, from other places that I’ve lived—and I don’t know if it’s so specific to the art, but I’m seeing it through the lens of art, in a way—we just dedicated our education center. It’s the Daniel Family Education Center, and the Daniels are a young couple here in the area. Jessica Daniel is our new president of the Board of Trustees. Her husband, Patrick, is a co-owner of Parakeet, which is company downtown. And they’re young. They have two young children, and they gave a substantial donation to the museum for the education center. And not only did they give money; they encouraged many of their friends and family to do the same, to support the education center. And these are a lot of young families, and the parents are in their 30s or early 40s, and many of them have grown up here in the area, moved away … and then, they return here to raise a family. And they want to invest in this community. They want this community to be here for their children, to have the sorts of cultural activities and entertainment and robust quality of live that they’ve seen in other places. And so, they’re investing in places like the museum. … And I think it’s a very positive way to look at the city.