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Rearranging the Pieces: New Figge Director Sean O’Harrow Wants to Reinvent the Still-Young Museum PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Administrator   
Wednesday, 26 March 2008 02:26

Reader issue #678 Sean O'Harrow, the Figge Art Museum's executive director for the past seven months, sounds diplomatic. He says all the right, polite things about collaboration and about serving the community.


"I'm very keen on building bridges," he said last week.


He's soft-spoken and occasionally has a hint of a British accent; although the 39-year-old was born in Hawaii, he spent 16 years in England prior to coming to the Quad Cities.


But even though O'Harrow claimed that "I'm not a man for big changes early on," his vision for the young museum, which opened in August 2005, is radical. "I've decided to emphasize education above all else," he said.


And he said there's an urgency to bringing it to fruition.


"We have to get the endowment to $20 million in the next three years," he said. "I'm a doomsday-er. I'm sure we could probably last longer, but I don't want to risk the institution on that guess. I want to work as fast as I can to get us stabilized."


That stabilization, he said, would facilitate his education goal, and generally allow the museum to be more open to the public.


The stakes are high, he stressed. "This museum is the largest project in Davenport, ... and it's [in] downtown. It [success] has to happen. Even if I have to change the mission and make it more of an arts center rather than an art museum ... I'll do it."


Earlier in the interview, he cast the issue slightly differently, as one of survival for the entire metro area: "This community has to have this institution. It has to exist, in whatever form it will be in. ... The success of this community ... rests entirely on its ability to attract people. This city will die on its feet if no one moves to it."




Big Plans


In a 90-minute interview, O'Harrow didn't speak in the bureaucratic jargon so common among business and community leaders. He never used "synergy" or other similar clichés.


His realistic perspective on the Figge - and the absence of a dogmatic view of what the museum should be - is a function of a background remarkably balanced between art and business.


He has a bachelor's degree in art history from Harvard and a Ph.D. in the same subject from Cambridge, but he worked in investment banking and hedge funds prior to spending the six-plus years before the Figge as director of development at St. Catharine's College in Cambridge.


He worked in finance, he said, "because I wanted to be a good museum director." He explored "things I thought were important to learn ... : finance, fund management, fundraising, HR [human resources], risk management, corporate law ... .


Sean O'Harrow "It was all part of a plan. I've been training for 20 years" to be a museum director, he said. "It's the only thing I ever wanted to do in my life."


He worked in a museum before he started his Ph.D. work, he said, "when it occurred to me that working in a museum environment wasn't going to help me be a good museum director.


"I thought that pursuing my profession exclusively in a museum would make me so ignorant of the outside world that when museums changed ... I'll be totally unprepared for the future. And it would just sort of be the ignorant leading the ignorant."


A curatorial path, he said, "doesn't prepare them [museum directors] for more than half of what's expected of them."


Aside from his broad experience, O'Harrow sounds focused on the function a museum serves in the area's culture. He's the first among three Figge executive directors that I've interviewed who cast an endowment as a way to better meet the community's needs, rather than merely noting how it helps the institution.


Although O'Harrow is plainspoken, he does tend toward the bold statement. He called the Figge "the best-designed new art-museum building in the United States." And: "This is probably the toughest art-museum job in the country, which is what excited me."


When I asked him the magnitude of the challenges, he mentioned the "reintegration of the institution back into the community" and noted that "no one quite knows what that is yet." The second major challenge is financial, and raising tens of millions of dollars - after a major capital campaign to build the $46.9-million museum - is "no small task."


O'Harrow said that he and the museum board have developed three- and six-year plans that "are becoming more detailed. They're summaries on paper." The key elements, he said, are building the endowment and bolstering education.


There's no doubt that the goals are ambitious.


The need for a healthy endowment has long been known. When she was hired in 2002 to lead what was then the Davenport Museum of Art, Linda Downs said the organization needed an operational endowment of between $20 million and $25 million.


After Downs left suddenly in May 2006, interim Director Tom Gildehaus said the museum needed to have a $20-million endowment by 2015.


For O'Harrow, $20 million would merely be a start. The museum presently has an endowment of approximately $5 million, he said, and "we probably have a fifth of the endowment that an institution like this minimally needs to have."


Specifically, he said, the goal is that "in the next three years, we are relatively financially stable. Effectively that means a $20-million endowment. In the next six years, my goal is to double that. ... The first goal is to keep things going - keep the lights on. The second goal is to really optimize our service levels."


An education mission might not be initially surprising, but it is in the context of this institution. Before its opening, Downs worked to change its name from the "Figge Arts Center" to the "Figge Art Museum." That seems like a minor semantic distinction, but it stresses the collection, conservation, and exhibition of art over community-based functions.


In November, the Figge board approved an O'Harrow-initiated change to the mission statement that symbolically reverses the emphasis. The old statement read, in part: "The Figge Art Museum ... actively serves the public by collecting, conserving, and exhibiting art, and by promoting appreciation and creation of visual art through education." The new statement reads: "The Figge Art Museum actively serves the public by promoting appreciation and creation of visual art through education, and by collecting, conserving, and exhibiting art."


"We keep the same words," O'Harrow said. "Exactly the same words. We just turn it around. So we will educate first and foremost. And we will collect and conserve to support the educational mission."


In three years, he said, the aim "is to establish a school that has a regional reputation. And then we'll see how far we can go three years after that."


O'Harrow said that the community will be able to see whether the Figge is meeting his targets: "You'll know whether it's concentrating on a whole generation ahead and preparing for it, or whether it's just trying to get to the next year."


And that's contingent on one thing: money.




Buying Freedom


O'Harrow emphasized that building an endowment is not an end in itself; it facilitates serving the public.


"What the institution would be able to do with that [endowment] would be hugely different," he said. "At the moment, the institution does things that will pay the bills - earn revenue." That diverts resources from community programming. "At least a third of what we do is simply just because we don't have enough money," he said. That encompasses both raising money and working around not having enough money.


The Figge's current budget is $2.3 million, O'Harrow said, and a $50-million endowment with a 4-percent annual return would generate $2 million a year.


Sean O'Harrow "With a $50-million endowment, the institution would be able to do things for the community that it wouldn't have to worry about paying for," he said. "I would see an endowment of between $20 [million] and $50 million as a way of buying freedom for the institution to serve the community."


For example, O'Harrow said he wants to eliminate the admission fee at the Figge. "That's absolutely my goal," he said. "I think museums have to be free. ...


"I hate the fact that we charge for children. That completely offends me, but I can't do anything about it at the moment."


The museum currently earns less than $100,000 a year from admissions. "It's not a huge amount considering our budget's over $2 million," he said. "But it's $100,000 we can't lose at the moment."


Free admission would be something the museum could institute with an endowment greater than $20 million, he said.


"We have to be accessible," he added. "The more barriers we have, the harder it gets."


O'Harrow believes that he can build the endowment on his schedule, but he expressed some concern that he could do it exclusively in the Quad Cities.


"I don't know what this community's capable of" in terms of building the endowment, he said. "How much more can they help? ... I'm not a magician, and maybe the amount of money we raised for this building is the last penny this community had ... . I don't think that's the case.


"If you can raise in total 48 and a half million dollars to build this building in this community, then ... I think it's entirely possible to raise another $14 million ... . [But] if we need to get funds [from] outside the community, we'll do that."




"I'm Not Assuming Anything"


When O'Harrow arrived in the Quad Cities in late August, he was immediately faced with the question of what the Figge would be under his stewardship.


"Lucky for me, the renewal period [for museum re-accreditation] came up as I arrived," he said. "I had to think pretty quickly about a number of issues ... . I tried very hard to gather as much opinion as possible from the community leaders, people who had interest in the museum, just the general public, and the staff, and the board, to find out what they wanted. I told everyone, ‘I'm not assuming anything. Museums in general have to reinvent themselves.'"


But he knew that the Figge needed to move away from being an ivory tower. "How can you have an elite, closed institution in this community?" he asked. "Can't work. It's not in tune with the character of this town, and the Midwest in general."


Sean O'Harrow He noted the museum's roots as the municipally run Davenport Museum of Art, and said, "The institution only exists to serve the community." (And nearly $20 million to build the Figge came from government sources.)


"I want the community to be served however it wants to be served," O'Harrow said.


The people he talked to "want an institution that is accessible and open, and that is committed to art for the community ... . Teaching art, teaching about art, teaching about art-related subjects, using art as a way to communicate and educate. I don't think anybody wants an elite, detached institution."


O'Harrow said he wants to "raise the level of the school of the Figge Art Museum. ... I want the school to be more famous than the art museum."


Because the Figge operates on a July-to-June fiscal year, he said, many changes haven't been implemented yet. And some of them are going to cost money, which O'Harrow said he doesn't want to take from the museum side of the facility.


An educational emphasis "will probably require more resources," he said. Fortunately, he added, "in the world of grants, a majority of the money given is to education projects."


Already there's some sense of the museum's new focus on education. O'Harrow said he has approached all of the colleges in the Quad Cities area - Augustana, St. Ambrose, Western Illinois, Black Hawk, and the Eastern Iowa Community College District, along with Knox College in Galesburg - about "work[ing] with them in a larger educational mission."


This fall, he hopes to have some of their art and art-history classes conducted in the Figge - an initiative he hopes to have finalized within six weeks. He said he wants to make museum resources available to students and professors for both teaching and research. He's working with St. Ambrose on an internship that would touch on all aspects of museum operation.


And O'Harrow said he's talking with the colleges about the possibility of displaying some of their art collections, as a way to supplement their own galleries. For example, Knox College has a collection of prints that it doesn't have an appropriate venue to display. "Eventually, I would like this museum to be not only the community's art museum but also the art museum for those colleges," he said.


Local colleges are only one aspect of educational outreach. O'Harrow said the Figge needs to forge relationships with organizations that serve both young and old - from schools to the Center for Active Seniors, Incorporated. ("I think old people are our future," he said, half-joking but also touching on the reality that many museums emphasize children but largely ignore adults.)


And O'Harrow said that he recognizes that sometimes the Figge will need to go out into the community, rather than expecting people to visit. Field trips are increasingly rare for school children, he said, and "it's our responsibility to get to them."


He also said that he hopes the Figge can create partnerships with other community arts organizations - for instance, with the museum hosting art classes run by other groups.


"I don't think we should overlap as much as we do," O'Harrow said. "People want a lot of cooperation. ... Is there a way we can supplement their work?"


To that end, the Figge this year is allowing the Artists Advisory Council, MidCoast Fine Arts, and Quad City Arts to organize rotating two-month exhibits in the currently vacant restaurant space on the museum's first floor.


O'Harrow stressed that the goal of partnerships isn't to generate money for the Figge. "It's not about earning that dollar," he said. "It's really about getting participation, and getting those networks set up, and getting people to see in the same direction."




Building the Collection


Part of O'Harrow's charm is that he's not blind about the Figge's challenges. For instance, he acknowledged that "architecturally, we're not the warmest building in the world, and people react to that. I need to work to put things on the outside, to use our plaza better, to do everything I can to make us more inviting and open."


This is important because it shows that the executive director is not fixated on the endowment and education to the exclusion of everything else.


O'Harrow said that in terms of the museum's collection he wants "to concentrate on two areas that I think are considered to be mainstream art movements that we can go from being a regional collection to being a national collection."


Sean O'Harrow The first is American regionalism, and "I think we have a good beginning with our Grant Wood collection," he said. In particular, he said, he's like to add the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.


The executive director also said he'd like the Figge to build a 20th Century British collection. The goal, he said, is "achievable and of international importance. We're in a late-20th Century British building. [The Figge was designed by British architect David Chipperfield.] Why not have some British art and see if we can take advantage of that reputation?"


While it might not be the natural fit of American regionalism, a strong British collection, O'Harrow said, could raise the museum's profile internationally. The movement is mainstream, and the work is affordable. He said he wants to attract more visitors to the Figge from around the world.


But he stressed that the collection is first and foremost a teaching tool. "We will collect art that is of the highest quality," he said, "but it will only be in relation to educational programs."


The executive director said he had no articulated attendance and membership targets, although he said he wants to "stabilize" the membership. The number of memberships to the Figge peaked after its opening at approximately 1,500 and is now roughly 1,300.


The Figge had 84,000 visitors in its first year, and more than 61,000 in calendar year 2007.


Those spikes and dips are typical of a new facility and the period after its community honeymoon. And the Figge's admissions are still significantly higher than the Davenport Museum of Art's.


But they also show that it will take a lot of work to keep the Figge prominent in the public mind.




The Health of the Community


O'Harrow doesn't view the Figge in isolation. Its health contributes to the health of the Quad Cities, he said, and if it fails, it could be both a symptom and a cause of the community's downfall.


The Figge, he said, is essential to the development of downtown Davenport, and the city and surrounding communities in general. "Any advantage we have we have to keep, and we have to build on," he said. "If we become just a bunch of strip malls on cornfields, I don't know how that's going to attract anyone."


Sean O'HarrowThe community, like the Figge, needs to be re-thought. "I think things have to be regrouped," he said, and re-focused on downtown to capitalize on the public riverfront. "All the right pieces are here," he said. "It just has to be arranged in the right way."


Downtown, he said, must be be "a social focal point" in the community: "People must not underestimate the importance of downtown development in the future success of this community, of this city and the Quad Cities."


And you'll be able to gauge the vitality of the community by looking at its cultural organizations. "The health of this institution is entirely linked to the health of the Quad Cities, and the cultural community here," O'Harrow said. "I would say that we will probably be in line with the health of the symphony orchestra, and the health of the Putnam, and the health of the ballets, and the general health of the community, because we're sort of interlinked."


Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Mo, March 26, 2008
This may be the best article ever written by the Reader. It's a fantastic interview, with no cheap shots by the author, and plenty of good information to soak-in. Nice work Jeff, this one should go on your fridge. I think Sean is really going to help push both the Figge and our community in the right direction for years to come.
written by Fred, March 26, 2008
Super article! Substance, breadth, interest, lucidity. Hat's off to Mr Ignatius and Dr O'Harrow for a first rate discussion on the future of the Figge Art Museum and our city. The Quad Cities is very lucky! Maybe something will happen now!
written by schqc, March 27, 2008
It's a great article, no doubt, but quite one sided. What would building that kind of endowment do to other arts organizations in the Quad Cities? Already we see federal grants, state grants and local grants being slashed. If there is $40 million for the Figge, where do other arts groups get their funding? What about the other museums?

One also is wary of buying British art to put in an Iowa museum.

Do I go to England to see American art? Italy to see Parthenon?

Thank you for the great article. I found it interesting and will bring up some of its points with my friends in other branches of the art world.
written by Gerty, March 27, 2008
I have supported the arts in the QC for over 30 years and I am glad to finally see a director for the art museum with real world experience and not just academic credentials. This director is the real deal. I wish him all the best. I think he may just do it.
written by Fred, March 27, 2008
SCHQC wrote: "One also is wary of buying British art to put in an Iowa museum. Do I go to England to see American art? Italy to see Parthenon?"

What kind of hick comment is that? Yes, I go to the Chicago Art Institute to see the greatest collection of French Impressionist paintings. Yes, I go to the Minneapolis Art Institute to see a great collection of Chinese art. Yes, I would go to the Figge Art Museum to see 20th century British art, and OH, BY THE WAY, there is a great collection of British art at THE YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART in, guess where - New Haven in the Good Ol' U S of A.

Dude, you need to travel more.
written by schqc, March 27, 2008
I have traveled.

I also know that Chicago has many antiquities that were stolen or all but stolen from countries around the world.

Chicago also shows great American masters.

I would hate to have to go to Romania to see "American Gothic" or a Hopper original.

Either the art world is global (Then who cares what art we buy as long as its of a quality) or it is regional and we should support our own region first before we take another country's heritage into our greedy mitts so that we can charge people to see it here.

Are quad citians clamoring for British art?

Why can't the Quad Cities be proud of what they are? We don't need British art, for heaven's sake.

written by Gerty, March 28, 2008
I don't think SCHQC read the article. Jeff wrote:

The first is American regionalism, and "I think we have a good beginning with our Grant Wood collection," he said. In particular, he said, he's like to add the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

SCHQC may not need to travel, but he definitely needs to learn how to read!
written by matt, March 28, 2008
social hippy christian - i don't get your gripe. the collection of the DMA/figge has always contained a large anount of regionalist work from our very own midwestern heavy hitters of the art world. expanding the geographic breadth of the collection is welcomed, in my opinion. we could use some of the YBA artists, even if their time has come and gone. and - also about your point - what about the large amount of haitian art already owned and on display at the figge?

and as far as the other major two arts centers in the qc region, they're on the illinois side f the river. i'm sure IAC funding will still flow to them.
written by schqc, March 28, 2008
funding has been cut for many local art groups.

My main gripe is that all art is local. Especially in the 21st century. The millions spent on an art museum won't attract artists.

Vienna, Paris, New York, Santa Fe...heck Iowa...etc can attract people by being what they are. Encouraging local artists, supporting local/regional artists should be the number one goal of arts funding in this area.

Too often precious media coverage and money is wasted doing things in the name of "ART" that does not support local artists. It is local artists that make an art scene.

There is finite money for local art development and i hate to see it wasted.
written by matt, March 28, 2008
SCH - i'd be careful not to fall into an either-or fallacy. if i may, i'd suggest the art world is both global and regional.

artists here in iowa read the midwestern edition of New American Paintings or Art in America, but also pick up Frieze or Flash Art. not one of us has gone through a formal art history education solely learning about one locale's artistic community/contribution through the ages. why further build up a wall to new artistic experiences — either visual, theatrical, or musical? should local theatre troupes focus only on american masters? should the QC Symphony Orchestra ditch Beethoven, Rachmaninov, and Bach? yes, i'd suggest that artists in the QCs do indeed yearn to see a wider variety of work at our public institutions, amongst pieces by our midwestern/local brethren (heck, i own a hand-pulled intaglio print by comtemporary russian master Ilya Kabakov). this qc area does a decent job at supporting its local artists via bucktown, midcoast, qca, and the local university/college galleries; and the figge is the place where we go to broaden our horizons. i simply don't see your view on this matter, and i suppose i respectfully disagree with you, or at least, i don't share your concerns.
written by QCpainter, March 29, 2008
Hey all,

I have been reading and I have to jump in. I am an area artist and I cannot survive in this city without seeing the best art from around the world in my local art museum. I love the work of my fellow QC artists, but I *need* to see international art *here*. With gas prices as they are, I can't afford to drive to Chicago or Des Moines to see world art. We are so lucky to have the Figge Art Museum and motivated people who want to expand the collection.

I see QC art *all* the time. Some of it is good, some of it is *really* good, but to be honest, a lot is awful. I truly believe that seeing the best art from around the world in our city museum is the best education for our QC artists and we would be really ignorant if we only got to see our own art all the time.

The Figge, as the DMA before it for about 100 years, is responsible for bringing the world of art to us. Galleries like Quad City Arts and Left Bank have the role of bringing local art to us. In the Quad Cities, we need have organizations that serve different purposes. I don't want them to do all the same thing! We already have too many art groups for local artists! We have all lived here long enough to see how art groups are formed because of personalities not because of need. Let's se the world! That's what museums are all about!

Also, my art friends and I are not as rich as you and others are to be able travel and see other cities and their art museums. We need to have it here in the Quad Cities!
written by transplant, April 03, 2008
just my two cents: when my husband and i were deciding whether or not to relocate to the QC, i came up for a visit -- and one of the selling points for me was the Figge. i thought that if the QCA was a place that could support art in this fashion, then it would be a place where we could find some community and like mindedness. so we moved here, bought a home, and brought our tax dollars to iowa.
never underestimate the economic power of a place like the figge.
written by Glynis Fricker-Moor, London, April 26, 2008
Dr. O'Harrow has projected all the right capabilities of running the magnificent Figge Art Museum. I hope to see a real change in the scope of international art coming to the Figge where local education institutes can see global cultures at first hand.

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