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Sean O’Harrow’s Exit Interview: Figge Executive Director Accepts University of Iowa Museum Position - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 18 August 2010 05:02

Making a Stronger Case

That's undoubtedly a significant accomplishment, but it's also important to note that O'Harrow fell short of his goals related to the Figge's reserves and endowment. This is particularly crucial because O'Harrow has from the outset cast an endowment as a way for the Figge to offer more to the community without having to charge for it. Included in this was the goal of free admission.

"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 told me in early 2008. "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."

He also said: "We have to get the endowment to $20 million in the next three years."

In an interview in early 2009, he reiterated the importance of a $20-million endowment, and said that was still feasible by 2011.

But as he prepares to leave, the endowment and reserves stand at roughly the same $5 million that they were when he started.

O'Harrow joked that the Figge was fortunate not to have had a large endowment, given what the recession did to investments.

But he added that the recession made significant fundraising impossible, and that the museum needed to lay operational and mission groundwork prior to a capital campaign.

"When I started the job, I thought that raising money would be the most important aspect of the position," he explained. "And it was and still is. But what occurred to me fairly quickly was that the institution needed to be accepted in the community better, the mission had to be better integrated in the needs of the Quad Cities ... , and the role that it played in the development of the Quad Cities had to be better defined. ... I realized that in order to raise ... sufficient amounts of money, I would need to sort those things out first."

Plus: "We needed to wait for this [recession] to subside ... . Wealthy people had lost so much of their wealth that really no one was in any position to give significantly."

He said that in 2008, the plan was to start a quiet fundraising campaign that year. Now, he said, the Figge is again preparing for that "silent" phase.

"The case is much stronger now than it was then," he said. "Before, it was a museum that wasn't firing on all cylinders. The ask would have been, 'Look what this could become.'" Now the Figge can point to what it is.

Koupal said O'Harrow has been successful at making the Figge "an art museum for the whole community and the whole region."

O'Harrow said that the Figge has had to create a "new model which is not necessarily seen in other cities. ... The model that we're pursuing is entirely new. ... It wasn't like I was going to be able to learn from other places how to do it." He described the model as "using partnerships to not only broaden your capability but strengthen your offerings, deepen your offerings."

He agreed with the assertion that the Figge's collection by itself isn't enough to sustain the museum: "In the sense that the collection perhaps was less appropriate for what the institution needs to do in the community. That's because the collection is very old."

Beyond expanding the collection through partnerships and collaborations, the Figge has also become more education-oriented, O'Harrow said. That includes changing the way the museum approaches schools. In the past, he said, the Davenport Museum of Art and the Figge "were sending out people teaching art. [Now] we're sending out people teaching other subjects using art. Art is not an end; it's a means to an end."

For example, a visiting instructor might teach about the Holocaust (or social studies or science) through art. This is necessary, he said, because schools today prioritize core subjects, often at the expense of secondary areas such as art. "Teaching art in a school system that doesn't value art as much is not a great program," O'Harrow said. "But teaching subjects that they do value using art is to me what art is all about. It's a way of communicating with people."

And that reflects his philosophy on the role of the Figge overall: "It isn't an art museum and it isn't art for art's sake, or an art museum's sake. It is an art museum as a way of developing our community, a way of educating our community, ... a way of communicating ideas. When people see culture in that way, they appreciate it."

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