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Big Money, Big Expectations PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 23 July 2002 18:00
This is the situation that Linda Downs is jumping into. When the Davenport Museum of Art began raising money for a new facility, it bypassed the charitable Friends of the Davenport Museum of Art for the job. Instead, a new board – the Museum of Art Foundation – was formed in 2000.

Downs, who was introduced last week as the new director of the Davenport Museum of Art, sees this as a sign that, organizationally, the museum was an institution in decline. “The existing boards couldn’t handle it,” she said in an interview with the River Cities’ Reader. This was symptomatic of a lack of strong leadership, she said. “There was no one that could bring them all together.”

When she starts her new job, probably in September, Downs will be expected to provide that strong leadership.

The job comes with significant challenges. Although the Davenport Museum of Art (DMA) has raised more than $26 million for the $30-million Figge Arts Center in downtown Davenport, and although ground will be broken on that facility in September, the organization is largely rudderless right now. The museum has gone more than a year without a director while planning and fundraising for a new facility that’s arguably the centerpiece of the River Renaissance downtown-revitalization project. And the DMA has no long-term strategic plan.

The departure of former director Steven Bradley last year left the museum without a leader at a crucial time, said Museum of Art Foundation Executive Director Dana Wilkinson. “The timing couldn’t have been worse,” she said.

More importantly for Downs right now, it’s impossible to say whether she will be leading a municipal museum (which the Davenport Museum of Art is presently) or a private one, and whether she will have a board and two fundraising organizations (the Foundation and the Friends) or a single board overseeing everything. Separate task forces are studying the ideas of privatization and board consolidation, and they’ll come back with recommendations within four months. As Wilkinson said, Downs is taking charge of “an existing organization that really needs to be re-organized.”

In addition, Downs will be asked to foster community ownership of the new Figge Arts Center, ensuring that it’s not viewed as only a Davenport institution. And she’ll be expected to turn an organization that has averaged fewer than 33,000 visitors a year into one that attracts more than 180,000 annually – the projected attendance for the Figge’s first year. (The museum is slated to open in March 2005.)

“She really has her work cut out for her,” said Davenport City Administrator Craig Malin, referring to the attendance projections. He noted that an artist’s model of the Figge Arts Center has more than 100 figures representing visitors. “You have to have that,” he said. The current facility, on West 12th Street, is “serene,” Malin said, because it has so few visitors.

But Downs, who is currently the director of education at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., doesn’t show it if she’s burdened by the expectations.

During one of her visits to the Quad Cities, she said, she visited the YMCA and the Davenport Public Library, and “those places are booming,” attracting as many as 1,500 visitors a day. People regularly visit those institutions to improve their minds and bodies, so “why can’t they go to the Figge Arts Center to work on their spirits?” she asked.

Downs understands that it will take a lot more than just a new building to reach the goals she and city and museum leaders have sketched out. One key, she said, is “exhibitions that really grab the public.”

Plan of Action

Downs comes to the Quad Cities with a background in education, having been curator of education at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1976 to 1989 and director of education at the National Gallery of Art since 1989.

It is her accomplishments at her current position that suggest to Malin that Downs is the right person for the DMA job.

The National Gallery, Malin said, is the repository of the nation’s art, yet it has generally not had much of a connection to its community. “It was a national mission, not a community mission,” Malin said. However, Downs helped establish more community involvement with programs such as Art Around the Corner. The program, which was started in 1993, earlier this year was awarded the Mayor’s Arts Award in Outstanding Contribution to Education. Art Around the Corner targets fifth- and sixth-grade students at four elementary schools and includes seven visits to the museum a year, classroom education sessions, and writing and studio projects.

The program is all the more impressive, Malin said, because the National Gallery has resisted change, especially toward greater community participation. “The National Gallery might be one of the most tradition-bound organizations there is,” said Malin, who based his comments on reference interviews. Major forces within the museum, he added, “would have preferred to keep the schoolkids out.” But Downs pushed so that kids felt that it was “their” museum.

That type of outreach is “exactly the thing that has to happen” in Davenport, Malin said.

Malin said that his goals for Downs include getting the Figge Arts Center built; ensuring the financial viability of the museum; and transforming the organization from one with narrow appeal to one that attracts the broader community.

Those things are all on Downs’ agenda, as well.

The first step, she said, is consolidating existing plans into a single strategic plan. That process will take three to six months, she said, and will probably result in a five-year plan that can be updated regularly.

She also wants to stress quality programming and education, and ensure that the public is aware of them. In part, Downs sees herself as a spokesperson and advance person for what the museum is already doing. The DMA “needs to get the word out on the wonderful things that are going on here already,” she said, praising the museum’s programming, education, and staff. Although much attention is being focused on the Figge Arts Center, Downs said the DMA must use its current facility to its advantage, “building confidence in the future.”

Malin agreed, saying, “Let’s figure out a way to get some people through our door” before Figge opens.

Fundraising will be a major part of Downs’ job, and one that she’s used to. She raised her first individual $1 million gift in 1986 – “my first million,” she calls it – from Ford. “Since then I’ve been raising lots of funds,” she said.

At her current job, she’s had to shake the trees herself because the National Gallery’s fundraising arms don’t generally raise money for education. She said she raises between $500,000 and $1 million a year, and she also helped secure a $2 million grant from American Express for the Micro Gallery initiative. (The program is an interactive computer system that allows gallery patrons to access more than 1,700 works of art. For more information, visit http://www.nga.gov/programs/micro_ga.htm.)

Wilkinson said that Downs’ experience working with major corporations will help the DMA’s fundraising efforts; the new director will provide access to donors with more of a national profile.

But in some ways the director has limited leadership power. The board of trustees is charged with setting policy, while the director is supposed to implement it. And given the murky future of DMA governance, it’s impossible to say how much direction, guidance, or (alternatively) freedom Downs will be given. Her comments on her leadership style, though, suggest that she prefers a strong board. “I normally work by consensus,” she said. “I’m not a little dictator. In some instances I’m directing, in some instances I’m not.”

The relationship between a board and the director is complex, she said; the director can’t bend the will of the people to whom she reports. “It’s like doing a tango,” she said. “Who leads when and who follows?”

Critics within the DMA have cited a lack of board participation as a problem, leaving major decisions in the hands of a few active members. And for the past year, the executive and legislative branches of the museum have been joined: Davenport Museum of Art Board of Trustees President Glen “Budge” Gierke has served as de facto director for the past year.

Malin pitches Downs as an agent of change in previous jobs, while she noted that “I’ve always been the rogue curator” at the National Gallery. Yet she is diplomatic in describing her role with the board. It remains to be seen whether she will use her job to guide the board or will simply fall in line with the current leadership, which has had little or no turnover over the past 10 years.

Downs does suggest, though, that board members could benefit from joining trustee associations, for example, to plug into “a network of people nationwide” that are facing similar issues. Lack of leadership has also meant that staff members “have not been able to keep up with their colleagues” in terms of training. She plans to change that.

“You Get What You Pay For”

Downs was selected from more than 100 candidates in a nationwide search. According to Malin, it was obvious early that she was the leading candidate. “There’s not a whole slew of Lindas,” he said.

Downs will be in the unique position of being both the highest-paid city employee and the lowest-paid city department head. That’s because although she’ll be drawing a salary of $140,000, only $65,000 will be coming from the city. The remainder will be contributed by the Figge Foundation and the Friends of the Davenport Museum of Art.

Downs asked for a three-year contract with semi-annual evaluations. An employment contract has not yet been written, but Malin said the entities that are paying her salary have made a three-year commitment.

Downs defended her salary by saying that the average rate for a museum director in the Midwest is $165,000 a year. She also said the salary is identical to what she’s getting in Washington, although she conceded that when cost of living is factored in, “in that way, it is a raise.”

Gierke also mentioned the average salary of museum directors in the Midwest, but he was dismissive of questions about the cost. “Why do you have to pay a good first baseman 4 million bucks?” he said. “That’s what it takes.”

“You get what you pay for,” Downs said.

Malin seemed more concerned about the pay. He said the city’s contribution to the salary is $1,000 a year less than for the previous director, and for the first time, the private sector is paying more than half the salary. “There are hundreds of people who are employed by the city who in dire moments are much more important than whether the art is hung right-side-up or upside down,” he said. “I did not want to pay more than we paid the last person.”

Even though Downs will be paid that tremendous sum of money, she hasn’t yet been given a set of concrete goals by which she’ll be evaluated by either the city or the Davenport Museum of Art Board of Trustees. Considering what’s at stake – in terms of both Downs’ salary and the future of the Figge Arts Center – not having clear expectations going in is risky for Downs as well as the city and the museum.

Malin said that all department heads are evaluated on roughly 45 standard criteria, with perhaps 10 additional measures of performance that are specific to the department. Those will be determined within a month of Downs’ starting, he said. He added that it would be unfair to “lay out the goals unilaterally.”

But he suggested that attendance will be the major goal. “The most critical indicator is: Are people coming in the door?” he said.

Malin said that a consultant’s target of 180,000 visitors to the Figge Arts Center in its first year is “ambitious at a minimum. … I don’t want to say it’s unattainable. I’d rather say it’s a lofty goal.”

But some DMA leaders don’t necessarily see the figure as high. “We have no reason to doubt their expertise,” Gierke said of the consultant. He did note, however, that the project has changed significantly since the report was completed by consultant Thomas J. Martin in August 2000.

Downs called the projections optimistic and said a larger problem with the Martin study was its reliance on attendance and museum membership for operating funds. Even if the Figge Arts Center does draw peak attendance of 200,000 people a year, she said, “that’s not going to be consistent.” Attendance will vary by exhibit, she noted, so predicating a budget on the number of people through the door can be dangerous. In addition, she said, “I don’t know one museum that gets by on admission.”

What the museum needs, she said, is an operational endowment of between $20 million and $25 million. With a 5-percent return on investment, that fund would provide the Figge Arts Center with operational support of between $1 million and $1.25 million a year. She said the endowment should be built over a 10- to 15-year period.

Gierke, however, said that an endowment is an issue for the future, and then only if the museum becomes privatized. He said the museum is currently occupied raising the final money for the Figge Arts Center, and “it would be impossible to do both at the same time.”

The issue of an operating endowment is just one of several issues about which Downs and Gierke are on different pages. When asked about Downs’ participation in the decisions about privatization and board consolidation, Gierke said, “Her role is key.” (Downs favors privatization of the Davenport Museum of Art.) Yet she downplayed her involvement, at least in the current study phase. “I won’t physically be here until September,” she said. “There’s not a lot I can do long-distance.”

Downs said she also agrees with critics who’ve claimed there’s not enough room for art in the Figge Arts Center. Peter Marzio, director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, discussed various DMA issues in a visit to the Quad Cities in January. He told DMA representatives that the Figge Arts Center included too little space for art and suggested maximizing the size and number of galleries. Plans for the 82,000-square-foot facility feature 12,000 square feet for the museum’s permanent collection and approximately 7,000 square feet of temporary-exhibition space (less than 25 percent).

Downs said space for the permanent collection would be “pretty tight” in the designs she’s seen. “The majority of the collections could be on-view, but it was chockablock,” she said. She said she would prefer to give the art some room to breathe, and thought that she’d be able to assist in decisions about space usage. “There’s always the possibility for moving things around,” she said. “We’ve [only] got the footprint right now.”

But Wilkinson said that Downs’ role will be more of refinement – issues such as traffic flow and how art is hung. “The larger issues have been decided,” she said. While the Museum of Art Foundation has heard concerns about space dedicated to artwork, it feels there is adequate room for the permanent collection. She noted that there is three times the gallery space in the Figge Arts Center as the current Davenport Museum of Art.

These issues show that the Davenport Museum of Art and its new director will need some time to set their ship straight. And Downs is coming in with her eyes open. She herself notes that the DMA has been an institution on the downslide, and that she’s being charged with changing that direction. She also doesn’t pretend that she knows all the challenges she’ll be dealing with. “I’ll find out,” she said.
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