Early into a recent interview, it becomes clear why Ghislain d’Humières landed the job of director and CEO of the Norton Museum of Art.
A native of France with a last name that exudes harmony and elegance, d’Humières is grounded, energetic and has the well-rounded business acumen to take one of Palm Beach County’s most precious cultural jewels to the next level.
This killer combination of experience and spirit is precisely what’s needed to resurrect the momentum lost to the pandemic and the sudden departure of former director Elliot Bostwick Davis last year. The Norton Museum technically should have been riding the tail end of the celebratory wave brought on by completion of a $100 million expansion. The new, bold 59,000-square-foot building opened to the public in February 2019 with a lush sculpture garden and commanding grand hall, but the buzz was short-lived.
The museum went on to close for eight months before finally reopening with limited hours. Lost revenue meant furloughs, layoffs and pay reductions.
Enter d’Humières, who took over the reins in late January and has already instituted some changes that are designed to lift staff morale and inject some much-needed enthusiasm. Those familiar with his résumé, which includes Christie’s and Sotheby’s, won’t be surprised.
He most recently served as director and CEO of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., where he oversaw a comprehensive three-year renovation project and established critical partnerships and initiatives.
D’Humières is also credited with doubling attendance at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, where he worked as director and chief curator from 2007 to 2013 and spearheaded the development and management of the museum’s new 20,000-square-foot wing. He is also a longtime supporter of and volunteer for Casa Alianza Guatemala, the first Covenant House site established in Latin America, which serves under-resourced children.
That’s not fluff on his résumé but the real stuff. D’Humières is quick to adapt, unapologetic and has already adopted the passionate/paternal tone when talking about his new home. He uses “we” instead of “I” and seizes on each opportunity that invites promotion of the museum’s main objective: connecting with each other and the community at large. Under his leadership, expect the Norton to go deep and broad.
Palm Beach ArtsPaper recently sat down with d’Humières for a talk about his new mission:
ArtsPaper: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I know your days must very hectic right now.
d’Humières: I don’t know about hectic but busy, definitely.
ArtsPaper: First of all, congratulations on the new position and welcome to South Florida. I don’t know what you have heard or explored so far but this place can get a little bit crazy. We have hurricanes, road rage, gigantic alligators; add to that this pandemic. I don’t want to make you second -uess your decision here but how badly did you want this job?
d’Humières: Well, you may have all the things you mentioned, but then you have the beautiful beach, great weather, great people who care for art and culture and a great community who cares for family and education. There is so much here to be done. This place is beautiful.
ArtsPaper: It’s been (six weeks) since you assumed the role of director and CEO. I assume you have been learning the ropes and meeting the staff. What is your impression so far? First order of business?
d’Humières: I’m very excited about the job because it’s about bringing the Norton to the next step. I consider myself to be a steward; it’s not about me or the ego but about making sure that, in the next 10 or 15 years, we become an even better place, more productive, meaningful and relevant to the community. A place with great exhibitions but also interactive programs, performing arts, music, dance and so on. There’s so much that can be done in that beautiful building. I will try to break a little bit the seasonal impression about the museum, because I disagree with that concept. The museum should not be seasonal.
I met all the staff via Zoom and I’m now meeting them one-on-one in the garden of the museum. I do that every week so it will take some time. The other thing I’ve been doing is meeting every trustee of the museum one-on-one. I have been listening. I want to listen to what people have to say — the positive, the constructive, the negative — and commit to absorbing as much information to make sure there is a soft transition and that we can move forward with all the projects we have.
ArtsPaper: By now it’s no secret your predecessor, Elliot Bostwick Davis, was not a good fit for the Norton Museum. You, on the other hand, have developed a reputation for being very good at elevating a museum’s profile in the local and global communities. I’m going to take a wild guess here and say you are a true believer in that art museums today should expand on their role as art repositories and strive to be a community resource/partner. Do you have specific community initiatives in mind to meet that goal?
d’Humières: I believe in art, of course, and in every level of creativity, which is visual art, performing art, dance, expression, literature and so on. A museum has a duty to preserve and present art but also to be a tool for the community. I think more of a museum being a hub of creativity where you can really establish a dialogue between generations.
It’s very important for us that the dialogue between the young kids and the older generation happen in front of a work of art or a contemporary dance and so on and always using art from around the world. Why? Because the next generation is global already and we have a duty – not to educate, I don’t believe in imposing knowledge – but to expose the next generation to constructive criticism, understanding creativity and understanding differences from people from around the world through the arts.
That’s the best way to prepare our children to face the world of the future, which, as you know, is going to be much more global by the minute. This is extremely important for society, which has the tendency to lose a sense of dialogue.
ArtsPaper: Let’s go back in time. You joined the Speed Museum in 2013 as it embarked on a $60 million expansion project and you successfully oversaw that. You are joining the Norton now after it’s already had a massive facelift of its own. How different from your previous leadership roles do you anticipate leading the Norton will be?
d’Humières: An expansion is always important not so much for the statement of the building but for the impact it could have internally on the staff and externally on the community. It gives you an opportunity to completely rethink your institution. Here, yes, the building is done and it’s beautiful but to be honest with you, something happened because of the departure of Hope Alswang, who retired, and Elliot, and then COVID arrived. There were some great opening months there, but we went back a little bit into a quiet place. This gives me the possibility to brainstorm with staff and really reactivate the spaces.
This summer, between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, we are going to try to do more activities outside in the garden and get the community to come around the museum, do things with us and then enter the museum. You still have parts of the community intimated by the size of the building. That’s really something I’m going to focus on.
The second focus is making sure that we create a great internal culture by revisiting job descriptions and having an open conversation to address the issue of increasing diversity, access and equity. The Norton, as you know, has been doing great exhibitions for 10, 12 years about women artists but there’s always more we can do.
ArtsPaper: So, if I understand you correctly, you are looking to revive some of the momentum lost to the pandemic and transitions.
d’Humières: I don’t know if it was lost. I think nobody had the time to think about it because we were facing a pandemic. This is really the reason why I’m going to do more things outside to take advantage of the beautiful weather and that great lawn on the side of the building. We’ll be collaborating with other nonprofit organizations to see what we can do there.
ArtsPaper: Let’s talk brand equity. The goal for any museum is usually to increase attendance and gain more recognition, right? Ideally, what association would you like people to make with this institution? What feeling would you want the mention of the Norton Museum to evoke?
d’Humières: This institution has to be here for the community. Palm Beach County is an interesting case because you have a very diversified community; from the island, where you have a concentration of wealth, to the west, where you have rural areas and communities that are challenged. We need to be here for everybody. That means, how do we make the museum more welcoming and programming-relevant?
I have talked a lot with the Education Department and when time permits and budget permits, I would love the Education Department to be 50% out of the museum and in the community. They have been doing a fantastic, dynamic job for many years, but we would love to do more of that and become known for being in and out in the community.
ArtsPaper: All industries are suffering right now and it’s no secret that art and culture are usually among the first things to fall off the priority list even during sound financial times. Right now, everyone is thinking about vaccines and dialing back spending. How do you plan to keep this institution foremost on the minds of potential donors and the community at large?
d’Humières: First of all, this is a global pandemic, so we are not the only ones. I will say it was tough for the staff of the Norton; there were not too many layoffs but there were furloughs and reductions of salary. The first thing we did in January was to get everyone back full-time. We also made the decision to increase the hourly salary from $12 to $15. The third thing I’m working on now is, when can I get staff back to collecting full salary? That’s a priority.
It is challenging because we don’t do the weddings, the space rentals and all those things that bring in revenue. That said, we do have trustees who were generous enough to give us support to help us get through that. We are doing different projects and looking at how to best balance the budget, but we don’t have a crystal ball and we have no idea what the future will look like.
ArtsPaper: Now more than ever, it seems there’s a need for unity in the world. It seems to me, there is an opportunity here to remind people of their commonalities and shared values. Do you think the division we have seen in this country in recent times poses an opportunity for art to emerge as the great unifier or do you believe we shouldn’t pin our hopes for unity on art?
d’Humières: I may just open it up a little bit. I’m wondering if Art is the great unifier or Creativity is the great unifier? Art is an expression of creativity. Creativity is not only about art. Again, it can be performing art, a movie, technology.
If a country continues to be creative and dynamic, that actually foregoes any kind of political dissent and so on. It’s going to go back to dialogue. If you continue to dialogue, even if people completely oppose in terms of politics or religion, the country will definitely be fine and better. But every institution has a responsibility to keep the dialogue going on.
The role of creativity is generating a dialogue. You could have three people completely different in front of a photograph, movie or something. These people will talk. They might not agree but they will talk. I think as long we continue that dialogue, that will be good.
ArtsPaper: If done successfully, creativity can meet that need?
d’Humières: Unity should already be there. Unity for me is respecting and accepting differences, tolerating differences of cultures. A museum with international art from around the world has a big role to make people understand cultural differences. I’m not saying we are without an opinion. The museum could offer a political opinion in some exhibition, but politically and so on, we are neutral. We are here to make sure the community has a safe place for dialogue.
ArtsPaper: I’ve been reading Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. In it, he describes a point in time when all creativity ceased. Civilization reached a cultural climax. No more new content was being created. This is a novel, of course, but sometimes I feel like we have reached that point. I mean, even the new art coming out today seems to be a repetition of something already created in the past. At the risk of getting too philosophical, do you believe creativity has reached its limit? Is there such a thing as original art?
d’Humières: Pure creativity does not exist. One person is always going to be inspired by something else that came before. It’s inspiration. Some people think I’m joking when I say that. Find me one work of art which the artist could really say nothing from his/her surrounding or background inspired to create it? I would challenge that. Even the cavemen who painted on the walls were inspired by the animals around them. This is just my personal belief. Many people will disagree.
ArtsPaper: I see. It cannot be completely removed from its surroundings.
d’Humières: Yes, from its context.
ArtsPaper: What’s your take on the role Augmented Reality, deepfakes and technology in general are playing in defining the museum visitor’s experience? Is there such a thing as too much technology?
d’Humières: For a museum of art specifically, my answer is yes. You still have to experience the art by itself, be able to look at the thickness of the painting and the beauty of the line.
What I like is for technology to completely support the experience. You don’t interfere with the art, but then you find a new way for visitors to interact and connect with the art. Technology is going to be very important for outreach purposes. I think it will be stupid to refuse technology for the sake of technology. Absolutely there is a fine line, but we cannot – and should not – go without technology.
Again, the idea is to try to put you in the position to dialogue with a work of art, to dialogue with someone else about it and to be able to share the emotional response you had.
ArtsPaper: Technology is here to stay. The trick is how do you use it as a partner to advance your mission while keeping its more pervasive effect tamed? And by pervasive, I mean inviting distractions and killing attention span.
d’Humières: Absolutely. It’s not an enemy. It serves the same cause, which is to share knowledge. I don’t believe in competition.
When I was in Oklahoma, my biggest competition was the football team. Well, guess what? I went to the football coach and I said: How about you guys pay for the museum to be free for everybody? And sure enough, we were the first museum in the country to be free because of football’s support.
Our job is to listen to the community and be relevant to the community and to adapt. We are still going to be the ones making the decisions, but if you are not listening and adapting to the community’s needs, I think you become obsolete.
ArtsPaper: Do you ever worry that inclusion of technology, and modern tools in general, could alienate the traditional visitors? Is that a risk worth taking in the name of attracting youth?
d’Humières: No. There is enough space for everybody. If a person wants to have a certain experience, they will have that experience. We’ll never impose technology on people. It is there and you have the capacity to use it, if you want to.
One project I really would like – and I have talked to the curatorial and educational staff and they are happy to explore it – is to have labels that include questions. We did this at the Speed and we realized that completely different people reading the labels very often would turn to each other and ask: what do you think about this? We were able to create dialogue between people who never knew each other by sparking their curiosity via the label.
ArtsPaper: Time for a random question. Have you gone house hunting yet?
d’Humières: The job came with a house. When they did the expansion, they restored several small cottages and one of them is meant for the director because we have to entertain and do a lot of events. So, the good news is I was able to move my furniture and organize a little bit and I didn’t have to go house hunting.
ArtsPaper: On that light note, I’d like to thank you for your time. I’ve taken enough of it. I look forward to future conversations and developments.
d’Humières: Thank you so much. By the way we have a new trustee, Margarita Pinkos. I don’t know if you are familiar with her; she worked for the school system and retired and now she has joined the board. For me, this is very important because these are people who are really plugged into the community and are going to help us to do a better job there.