A year ago this month Simone Wicha became the fifth Museum Director in The Blanton’s almost 50 year history. Previously she served as the museum’s Director of External Affairs and Director of Development.
Near the one year anniversary of her directorship, Simone was interviewed by Claire Ruud for …might be good, an arts e-journal with an international readership. Highlights from Ruud’s Q&A; with Simone about her first year as director are featured below.
You mentioned that there were a lot of challenges when you first came. Can you speak to those?
Well, there were a few key positions that I needed to fill very quickly. And there were exhibitions that we needed to book. Without key positions filled and key exhibitions booked, it’s also hard to raise money. Also, because the Museum had been in transition for a very long time, I think the community was starting to wonder, “what’s happening there?” We were half a dozen years out from the grand opening of the new Blanton, with new facilities and new programming. It’s not uncommon for institutions at that moment to need to re-center. Six years is a long time. The landscape of Austin has changed, as has the Museum itself. What are we now? We have a tremendous history to build on, and a great, smart team. We are building on that history and that excellence, figuring out how we can make the Museum even stronger.
So, when I took the job I immediately started working on key searches and key exhibition planning. With the exhibition planning, I relied on people in the field who I think are excellent. I’m not a curator, but I have an ability to think through questions thoughtfully and listen. Because some key curatorial positions were empty, I relied on relationships that The Blanton and I had for years to develop the programming schedule, and then simultaneously to start the searches to fill those positions.
So you’ve been here almost a year. What do you think your biggest success has been?
Well, I feel there’s a renewed excitement about The Blanton, I’m very proud of that. The staff has always been tremendous, and I’ve never felt this team to be more in stride than we are now.
I started searches for four key positions all at once, national searches, and I’ve filled three of those four positions. I did it myself, without a search firm, by calling people I considered great peers in the field and getting a lot of people’s help in thinking through who are the stars, who’s doing great work, in the areas we are interested in. It was a time consuming process, but it ensured that we got great talent for the Museum, and it allowed me to get our peers’ perspectives on The Blanton’s strengths. We have hired three excellent leaders, and I’m really proud of that.
In closing, tell me about a couple of highlights from the programming you’ve put in place for the next couple years.
We’ve planned through the end of 2013, with a few holes left for the new leadership who are coming in. When I took this job, one of the first things I did was to travel around and meet with university art museum directors—Jock Reynolds at Yale and Thomas Lentz at Harvard, went out to RISD and spoke with their interim director Ann Woolsey, I met with Ann Philbin at the Hammer, Tom Seligman at Stanford, I went to Berkeley. At Berkeley Larry Rinder and I talked about the idea of collaborating through our collections, since they have a strength in Asian art, we have a strength in Latin American art. As a first project in this exchange, Julia White, their curator of Asian art is putting together an exhibition for us of Tibetan Thangkas and other works that have never been seen in the U.S. before. I’m thrilled to broaden our programming beyond the scope of our collection in this way.
Into the Sacred City: Tibetan Buddhist Deities from the Theos Bernard Collection opens Sept. 16 at The Blanton. To read the full interview with Simone, visit: www.fluentcollab.org/mbg/.