This year marks the 30th anniversary of The Blanton’s membership program and this June we celebrate Member Appreciation Month. For over three decades, Austinites have been showing their support through membership that helps mold The Blanton into the unique cultural oasis that it is today. The following excerpt is from a conversation between Laura Barnett, Blanton Manager of Membership, and Jessie Otto Hite, former Blanton Director and founder of the membership program in 1982.
-Museum Bulletin, July 1, 1905
Laura: The above quote was written in 1905. Do you still think it holds true in 2012?
Jessie: I do agree with the quote from 1905. Members are our extended family. Membership gives people insider status. If someone enjoys an organization and cares about the future of that organization, then membership is a great way to become more involved and learn more about all that organization has to offer. And I have always thought The Blanton has an extraordinary group of members, many of whom I count as personal friends.
Laura: Next year will be The Blanton’s 50th anniversary. What was happening at that moment in 1982 that prompted you to found the membership program, 20 years into the museum’s history?
Jessie: First, when I joined the staff part-time as a graduate student in 1979, The Blanton, then known as the University Art Museum, was in an enviable financial position. The university paid for all salaries and benefits of the 25 staff members and the Archer M. Huntington Fund, the museum’s primary endowment, paid for exhibitions, catalogs, and programs. In other words, there was little reason to raise outside funds. Second, Eric McCready became director in 1978 and after he got settled he realized that the museum needed more contact with the Austin community. So in 1982 he sent me to the Toledo Museum of Art to study their membership program. Toledo used the majority of membership monies to buy a work of art for the permanent collection. Every year curators selected several works for possible acquisition, and the members voted on the works. We modeled our program on this. We called it the Friends of the Museum. I think we had 300 members that first year. Over the years, as funding from the university became tighter, the membership revenues became part of the funding that supported museum operations including exhibitions, programming, etc.
Laura: What is your fondest memory of your time working with the membership program?
Jessie: I loved the interaction with the members. I always enjoyed attending the openings and membership events. At one point, when the membership was small, I knew all the members. And as excited as I was to see our membership grow over the last 30 years, I missed getting to know each and every member personally.
Laura: In your opinion, why should someone join The Blanton now, in 2012?
Jessie: I think people today are hungry for community and for education. Being a member of The Blanton provides you entrée into a community of like-minded individuals, and it is certainly our goal that each time someone steps through the doors, they leave enriched in some way. The Blanton is a place of learning and rejuvenation—a sometimes quiet haven in our hectic lives. Being a member makes access easy and it supports this very important cultural asset.