Rearranging the Pieces: New Figge Director Sean O’Harrow Wants to Reinvent the Still-Young Museum Print
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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."