Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Toledo Museum director looks back at his career


Don Bacigalupi.


Don Bacigalupi, 49, ended a six-year stint as director of the Toledo Museum of Art Friday, and tomorrow takes the reins of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art being constructed on 100 wooded acres in Bentonville, Ark.

Why Bentonville, a growing city of 34,000?

The new museum, expected to open in a few years, is the vision of Alice Walton, whose father, Sam, founded Wal-Mart. Need we say more?

The board of the Toledo museum is preparing to launch a search for a new leader.

The Blade recently sat down with Bacigalupi to discuss his time here.

Q. What challenges face the Toledo museum?

A: The world-wide economic recession has not served any of us well, and so we are doing more with less. We're working with reduced staff and a smaller budget and yet we're continuing to offer more services, doing more programming to attract bigger audiences.

Summer is traditionally a rather slow time for attendance at the museum. The last two or three years it's picked up dramatically and this year we were deluged. A lot of it had to have been the staycation notion. It was kind of like, where did all these people come from? And that's new to us. So I suspect that our attendance is going to keep going up. There's an expectation that as family budgets are being trimmed, that the museum, being free, is going to have to be the provider of lots of entertainment, lots of education choices. ... We want to meet those needs.

Q. How would the public see the museum differently today than when you arrived?

A: Well we have the Glass Pavilion.

Our collection has expanded dramatically in some areas and very strategically in other areas.

The way in which we present works of art, the way we collect and juxtapose works of art, the way in which we present exhibitions, and even the type of exhibitions we present, are much more visitor focused, have much stronger appeal to a very broad audience. ... One of my hopes has been that we've been able to both broaden the audience and broaden the understanding of art.

And I think the other thing which is a more external difference is the museum is much more of a visible leader in community and cultural organizations.

Q. What are the museum's strengths?

A: Many. People, first and foremost. We have an incredibly talented staff ... well-trained, passionate, committed, marvelous. We have a great board, both representing the community very well and representing different expertise. Great core of volunteers. And great partners.

We have an extraordinary collection and a great reputation, therefore. And we have a great community that supports the museum. I think the interaction or interpenetration between the museum and the community is richer, more fully alive here than in any other museum anywhere and that's borne out by the statistics, the fact that our attendance last year was one-and-a-half times the population of the city.

Q. Art tends to go where the money is. What does that mean for a museum in one of America's poorest cities?

A: We may not have all the resources in the world to buy art but we've certainly not slowed down. We've been very crafty and creative, we've looked in unusual places, and we've acquired some astonishingly significant works of art for not so much money.

Our horizon is very long. We don't buy when things are hot, we don't have to buy when things are trendy and expensive. We often buy against the market.

Q. The Glass Pavilion has been open for three years. How were expectations different from reality?

A: When we were planning the building we modeled everything about its programing and the way people would use the building. ... And the visiting public defied all of our plans. When they came in, we believed they would spend 45 minutes in the hot shop watching demonstrations and spend an equivalent amount of time in the galleries. When we opened the doors they spent two hours and 15 minutes in the hot shop and really didn't want to leave the hot shop, and then would pass through the galleries rather quickly.

We didn't want that to be the case.

The experience of the Glass Pavilion is about seeing the masterworks in the galleries and also watching artists create works. So we had to recraft all of our program offerings — we rebuilt our whole demonstration plan — [instituting] set times, a beginning, middle, and end, then thank you, move out and bring the next group in.

Over time, buildings teach us how to use them. ... There's a fabulous view from the corridors, of both the hot shop and the galleries, and it's a very social space which we really hadn't programmed.

The financial portion was very difficult to plan because the energy markets have fluctuated dramatically and the building is very dependent on energy. ... We didn't know what the costs were going be. Happily they've been well under what we've projected and that's saved us on many fronts.

Q. Speak about the collection.

A: Given its 100 years plus of collecting, one of the challenges might be perceived how can you possibly make an impact on the collection? ... We've had great success in adding very strategically to the collection in finding ways to link disparate areas of the collection, to bring together ancient art and African art, or contemporary art and Asian art; different ways of building links to show our public that there is a common language ... even though styles differ and periods differ and materials differ and techniques differ, there is something to be said about the human production that we call art.

We've added more than 1,600 objects [in the last six years] and our total is close to 30,000, so that's about 5 percent.

Q. As an academic and as a curator, you specialized in contemporary art. What draws you to that era?

A: The most important aspects of contemporary art for me were living among the artists who were making art. I've always felt strongly we have a great deal to learn from the artists. Artists are sort of canaries in the coal mines, teaching us about issues that are of importance sometimes before we as a general culture are ready to face them.

I find it frustrating that often people will say contemporary art is something a 3-year-old could do, or I don't have an affinity for this work, or I like Impressionists or Old Masters or Egyptian art better. And they somehow relate more closely to things that were made in a different time and place. So I was challenged by contemporary art just like most people are and I wanted to get to the bottom of it and figure out what it was that these artists were trying to say.

Q. What have been the key things on your plate?

A: A mountain of material of all stripes. On a day-to-day basis my time is divided by managing a staff, there's working with the board, there's the fund-raising which is a large component of my day, there's public relations and being the spokesperson for the museum. There's the art component, which is small but relates to exhibitions, acquisitions, research, provenance, all the different aspects of the collection. There's the community cooperations, there's the education piece. Every given day is different. Legal issues that pop up. There are loans. There's a million things.

Q. How do you manage it all?

A: You keep a good team around you who are very capable and you try to delegate what's appropriate. And you keep a sense of proportion and priority.

And you have to have a sense of humor. We actually wrote into the job description for my successor, a robust sense of humor.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.

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