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A Comfortable Place for Dialogues: The Figge’s New Executive Director Outlines a Modest but Tangible Vision PDF Print E-mail
Art - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 30 January 2013 05:51

Tim SchifferIf you’re looking for excitement from Tim Schiffer – the Figge Art Museum executive director who started on August 1 – don’t talk to him. Instead, just look at the walls.

In our interview on January 25, the soft-spoken Schiffer articulated a modest plan for the Figge, but one that visitors will be able to see for themselves in “clusters” of exhibits that play off each other.

Schiffer’s predecessor, Sean O’Harrow – who left after three years at the Figge to head the University of Iowa Museum of Art in November 2010 – believed that the Figge needed to emphasize education above all else (including being an art museum) and that the endowment needed to be built from $5 million to somewhere between $20 million and $50 million.

Because the process of developing a strategic plan for the Figge is just getting underway, the new executive director didn’t offer measurable goals in those areas. But Schiffer – who had been executive director of California’s Museum of Ventura County since 1999 – has already put his stamp on the museum in a different way.

In part because the Figge went almost two years without a “permanent” executive director, Schiffer at the outset had the opportunity to fill in some gaps in the exhibition schedule. He didn’t take full credit during our interview, but he played a key role in securing the Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum show (which closes February 3), the Alison Saar: STILL ... exhibit (running February 9 through April 14), and an installation this summer by local artist Terry Rathje.

The Saar exhibit shows an interest in contemporary art that’s both challenging and accessible. It will be paired with the University of Iowa Faculty Biennial (February 23 through May 5).

The quilt and Rathje exhibits Schiffer views as clear complements. “A lot of what I’ve been doing is getting those lined up and looking at the exhibit schedule out a few years and trying to get a sense of what kind of mix we want to have,” he said. “My idea is to try to present clusters of exhibits that relate to each other, and then build the programming around that.”

The quilt show, he said, was a good match for Portrait of Maquoketa: The Dimensional View (which closed January 20), and Rathje’s work will be shown with an installation by Chicago artist Juan Angel Chavez. “There’s a dialogue, so it kind of makes sense,” Schiffer said.

In the fall, the exhibit 1934: A New Deal for Artists will be augmented by Works Progress Administration art from the collection of Western Illinois University and pieces by Walter Haskell Hinton, an illustrator and painter who worked for John Deere. Schiffer said Hinton’s work is from the “same time period, but it’s kind of the flip side, because it was done for a commercial purpose – it’s kind of like commercial social realism. It’s kind of interesting, because it is so local, and it’s a different take on that era.”

Schiffer also said the museum is focusing on Thursday nights, when it’s open until 9 p.m. The museum offers a bar and free admission that night, and on February 28 it will start a monthly PechaKucha series – featuring speakers that are given the opportunity to show 20 slides, but only for 20 seconds apiece.

“A lot of what I would like to see is just doing programming and doing events that make people feel really comfortable about coming here,” he said. “A lot of times, art museums are a place where people only go to when they have friends visit from out-of-town. I’d like to see it be a place where people would feel like it’s a resource that they can just go to, and pop into.” People are often hesitant to visit an art museum, he said, and that’s exacerbated by the Figge structure itself, which Schiffer called “very formal ... . It’s a really beautiful building, but it’s a little bit forbidding – it’s this glass box. I think you have to work against that, or work to overcome that ... .”

Schiffer said he hasn’t yet gotten much direction from the Figge’s board – although the strategic plan will certainly set an agenda. “They didn’t set anything specific,” he said. “In a broad sense, I think, the vision is that the Figge would be known as one of the major Midwestern museums.”

To that end, the museum is now marketing a traveling exhibit drawn from its collection of Haitian art – an effort that was already underway when he started. “Down the line,” he said, “I’d like to look at developing more shows in-house.”

But he said he hasn’t gotten or established targets for museum attendance (presently between 60,000 and 65,000 visitors a year, including school groups) or an endowment (still roughly $5 million). The strategic plan will need to address the museum’s relationship with the City of Davenport, which has a contract through 2023 to contribute $750,000 annually to the Figge. (The museum’s annual budget is now approximately $2 million.)

Schiffer and the museum would like that financial contribution to continue. The city owns the art collection managed and displayed by the Figge, and “I would hope the city sees the value of having a landmark museum right downtown,” he said. “I happen to think they’re getting very good value for that.” But the museum needs to prepare for the possibility that the relationship won’t be extended beyond 2023.

And he didn’t deny that the Figge presents challenges to its board and its management. “I think it is a really ambitious building for a ... relatively small town,” he said. And although he compared it to a park, “it’s a public space that is different from other public spaces” – one that needs to balance entertainment with education, and its local audience with a desire for a regional and national reputation sufficient to attract visitors.


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