A couple of weeks separate the Norton Museum from its new chief: Hope Alswang, a New York City native with a first name that sounds like a promise.
This is who the museum’s board of trustees chose as director and chief executive officer after conducting a national search that begun soon after Christina Orr-Cahall left in May of last year. The announcement came last month.
Come April 15, Alswang’s official start day, her job won’t be so much rescuing an institution in bad shape but rather increasing the numbers, or maintaining them at the very least. The Norton actually had a decent 2009 fiscal year, according to its annual report. There were no layoffs and attendance went up 27 percent compared to 2008.
Any director who manages to maintain the numbers or increase them is bound to make museum officials happy. But that rule doesn’t apply here. With Alswang, the expectations are higher.
She is coming from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design Museum, where she worked from 2005 until August 2009, when she left abruptly with the ever-so-diplomatic line “to pursue other opportunities.” The move triggered all kinds of speculations, which to this day she doesn’t really acknowledge and people can’t stop elaborating on.
What it’s known for sure is that during her tenure she oversaw a significant museum expansion, helped raise more than $20 million and is credited with having increased the number of visitors big-time. The RISD museum still hasn’t replaced her.
Alswang holds a bachelor’s degree in American history from Goddard College and was an Electra Havemeyer Webb Fellow at the Shelburne Museum. From 1987 to 1992, she was the director of the museum program for the New York State Council on the Arts. From 1992 to 1997, she was executive director of the New Jersey Historical Society.
From 1997 to 2005 she was president and chief executive officer of The Shelburne Museum, the largest museum in Northern New England. She has two grown children with her husband, Henry Joyce.
She is sharp, direct, comfortable with herself — comfortable enough to answer questions while crushing a piece of toast during a one-hour luncheon interview. She begins the interview by asking if I mind her answering with her mouth full. (I don’t.)
Other than an interruption here and there to acknowledge the dessert and her search for a home in Palm Beach, our session goes smoothly. She is a strong woman with strong opinions who is not afraid to state them. For better or worse it is this combination of bluntness and humor that has earned her job after job until placing her right here, in Palm Beach County, in charge of the 122,500-square-foot space known as the Norton Museum.
Sarmiento: How did you hear of this position? How did this come about?
Alswang: I was told Tina [Orr-Cahall] was leaving the Norton and that they were conducting a national search and was I interested in the job. I think that was back in July or something like that. And so I said that I would love to be considered and then there was a series of interviews over six months.
I knew about the Norton because I’d been coming down here to see board members from other organizations for years. Every year I would come down to Palm Beach and stay for several days and I would always come to the Norton several times.
Also when I was at the Shelburne Museum we did an exhibition on quilts which the Norton borrowed. It was a summer show maybe about five years ago.
Sarmiento: On a scale of 1 to 10, how surprised were you to be selected? Part of you must have been expecting it. After all, you applied because you were confident enough.
Alswang: No, no. I was confident, but you know there are a lot of great directors out there. So I won’t say surprised but I was thrilled. I think it’s always the case that it’s better to be cautious, emotionally, because you don’t want to get disappointed. And I was so in love with the Norton that I didn’t want to be rejected.
So when they invited me down for the final weekend and they told me I had the job it was like such a great feeling. I really was elated. Actually, they took me out to lunch and they said, “We would like to offer you the job.” I actually wanted to jump up and down and scream but I kept thinking, “Be discreet.” We were at the Sailfish Club. I was really, really pleased. It was great to be told I had the job because they had a lot of excellent people.
Sarmiento: What makes you the right person to lead this museum, which as you know, is well-known for its permanent collection as well as its traveling exhibitions?
Alswang: I think it’s the interjection of the Norton’s concerns and my own concerns. The Norton is really committed to interpreting and building a collection of art of the highest quality, which of course is a great interest of mine. They are also interested in how that art should be made available to the public in the most dynamic ways possible through their programming and activities. And that’s what I’m really interested in. And I think it’s a really good fit.
Institutions come with very different psychologies and I feel very drawn to this one. I think my strengths are a good fit for what the Norton wants to accomplish, which I think is just to continue to grow in the way that it has and enhance its national reputation.
Sarmiento: When you mention reaching the public in “dynamic ways,” can you be more specific?
Alswang: I think the Norton is very flexible and interested in a multiplicity of ways to reach the public. I don’t know if you have taken the cell phone tours; that is just one example.
I think the fact is that they want to make the collections available in every imaginable way that is safe and appropriate for a public institution. And I really love that. You know, there is school activities, internships, lecture series, Thursday nights open to the public, which is really saying that we are a public institution really deeply dedicated to try to making ourselves an exciting and fun part of the community. I think that’s really wonderful.
Sarmiento: I assume you already met other museum staff and department heads, including Roger Ward, who was just promoted from chief curator to deputy director. What was your first impression?
Alswang: I think there is a very cohesive and great work ethic here. People really get things done.
This is a really welcoming museum. When I came here, when I was sort of incognito, over the last few years … you get a sense of the culture of an institution. Everything, from the guards to the people who work the admission desk to the people at the gift shop, I would say this is an inherently friendly museum.
Museums can be intimidating and they can put people off. I think this museum works very hard to make itself a friendly place.
Sarmiento: It hasn’t been a year yet since you shocked everyone by leaving your position as director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. That led to all sorts of speculation, including one that had you forced out instead of leaving on your own and another theory that said you left because of heated arguments with John Maeda, RISD president. Can you finally clarify what that was all about?
Alswang: I’m not going to clarify. No. (Laughs) I’d just say that obviously I had four great years at the RISD.
There are times in your career that you can feel that you’ve been very effective. And it’s best to leave when you feel you have accomplished something significant and not work when you feel, you, yourself, are going to be less productive. And that’s all I’m prepared to say.
Sarmiento: How long do you think you’ll be on this job?
Alswang: I think it takes two or three years before you have a sense of what you are really capable. You get a lot done but it’s more like gaining momentum. And it’s probably five years before you really start to reap the benefit of whatever those initiatives are.
Every museum has its own psychology, its own voice. Part of my responsibility is not to change the Norton but to find out what kind of “person” it is and give it as much opportunity within the framework of its own psychology. And that’s a very exciting process.
Sarmiento: So it isn’t so much about you injecting your own personality into it but rather…
Alswang: No. Obviously, I think the board chose me because I’m interested in the audience and in great art. I like to believe that I’m the kind of person who helps find the inculcated vision of everyone around me.
But yeah, there is a real psychology to the Norton and it’s not my job to suppress that. It is my job to listen and find out what that is. And if I can, make it stronger, better, whatever. But we are not going to turn it into an institution that is very different from the institution that it is now.
Sarmiento: Following your departure from RISD many commented on your abilities and talent and were sad to lose you. Others’ comments suggest they thought you rude and temperamental. What do you think of this?
Alswang: I don’t think I’m rude. I think I’m forthright. I don’t think of myself as a rude person. In fact, I take manners pretty seriously.
In an academic environment there’s always people who don’t like you. People will say all kinds of things. I’m extremely straightforward. I have very strong opinions. I state them. I’m not subject to bad moods. I’m the kind of person who basically says it like it is.
I don’t always agree with everything, but I think I’m persuaded by a strong argument in a lot of cases by my subordinates. You could talk to my staff at the museum at RISD. I don’t think they’d say I’m temperamental. They might say I’m a little intense.
Sarmiento: Do you see “enemies” as an inevitable part of the job as a director of any museum? In other words, is it possible to have this job and make everyone happy?
Alswang: No. I won’t say “enemies” because that’s a strong word. There is such diverse expectations you absolutely are never going to be capable. Remember, there is limited staff and limited money. Part of my job is to make sure that we maximize our effectiveness within our resources.
The only way in which we can go forward is to understand what initiatives are sensible for us and what aren’t. And if something stands outside from what we agreed upon with our staff and board, you can’t do it. You’ll run yourself too thin. You have to stay on track with a few ideas that moves us forward, because it’s an effective and finely trained staff, but they can only accomplish so much in any given year.
I expect in six to eight months I’ll have a clear idea of two or three initiatives that would be important to us.
Sarmiento: I understand the RISD museum is more than 100 years old. How different do you anticipate it will be to lead a much younger museum such as the Norton, founded in 1941?
Alswang: That’s one of the reasons I was really attracted, because I know that the contributions that were made over the last 131 years at RISD changed the course of that museum. And wouldn’t it be great if in 50 years people look back at Roger and me and the curators?
The next 20, 25 years are absolutely critical in terms of what we acquire. Because it’s such an exciting time. There are so many active collectors in the Palm Beach area. There is a real understanding of how crucial it is that philanthropy builds museums.
People here have great collections. So we have an opportunity to work with them to say: Look, we want to be one of the best museums in America. We are right here and we are going to make it happen.
Sarmiento: Besides being a museum official, you, as any fan of the arts, must have some preference or personal taste. Care to share your personal favorite art movement or style or artist?
Alswang: I have to say mid-20th century American art. It’s always had an emotional resonance for me. But I’m also deeply moved by almost all art. There isn’t anything I can’t be interested in visually.
Sarmiento: I can’t really imagine a museum director who is not a visual person.
Alswang: You are right. I mean, we are all very visual. But I think I have … my taste is enormously eclectic. I can be really attracted to a lot of different visuals.
The thing that is most compelling here is the quality of the collection is just superb. There really is something about looking at a great picture. The quality of the paintings here is so outstanding.
Sarmiento: Any specific ideas, exhibits you already have in mind and want to implement?
Alswang: I think we need to have a balance between stuff that is very popular that would bring in certain types of audiences and you know, contemporary, traditional European art, and also probably explore more Chinese. It’s going to be interesting to see what is the best balance in relation to the audience.
The great thing is that we have five curatorial departments, all of them with fascinating possibilities, and it’s [about] how we make sure that we get each of those curators having an opportunity to express their concerns. That’s why we have them. Curators are really the lifeblood of the activities here.
Sarmiento: In your opinion, how important is it to get along with your chief curator?
Alswang: It’s really important to get along. Being the director of a museum is not unlike being the conductor of an orchestra and my job is to make sure that there is harmony between the string section and the horn section and the wind section. Being the conductor means getting the very best out of each performer. It doesn’t mean a solo activity.
The curators are really the orchestra here and we have to give them the resources so that the Norton has a strong artistic voice. And so even if the shows are very diverse and extremely from different perspectives, people will start to think “Oh, this is a very Norton-like endeavor because they do things that are very popular for certain audiences.”
And people will start to understand that curators offer different things and that the whole year cycle of exhibitions offers a kind of insight into what our concerns are for different aspects of our audience.
Sarmiento: While at the RISD you helped raised millions of dollars and oversaw a huge expansion. So let’s talk about the big F word: Fundraising. In your opinion, what is the key to a successful fundraising campaign?
Alswang: The key is knowing what you want and knowing your donors so you are asking the right people for the right thing. And not being afraid. Just can’t be afraid.
I mean, people have the right to turn you down to save money. You have the right to ask them for money. They have the right to turn you down. You can’t take it personally. There are many generous people who want to support some things and won’t support other things.
It’s the hardest and most successful museum model in the world, which is deeply dependent on private philanthropy and very donor-driven. If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be in the business.
Sarmiento: All types of organizations have been struggling in this economy. And it’s no secret that art is always one of the first things that suffers and becomes the last priority. Suddenly, people can’t afford to visit or donate or become members. Do you have any ideas as to how attract potential donors and keep the community interested?
Alswang: Art is always under fire in this country. Even when the economy is good. It’s very bleak. No doubt about it. But I think there is still money out there.
Sarmiento: Are there any circumstances under which you would ever consider selling artwork from the museum collection?
Alswang: I would sell only for curational purposes, which is to acquire other works of art. But I would never do it to pay for general operating services. No. Never.
Sarmiento: What’s your first order of business?
Alswang: Get to know the community, my staff and my board of trustees. Another thing I want to do is get around and see the other cultural leaders. Also, getting to know Florida, which I don’t know at all.
The weather is spectacular. It had no influence on me taking the job, but the whole ambience of a subtropical climate is really seductive to this old Northeastern Puritan.
Gretel Sarmiento is a freelance writer based in South Florida.