New Blanton Museum Director Plans Greater Emphasis On Outreach [Q&A]

Blanton Museum director Simone WichaUT’s Blanton Museum of Art has named one of its own as the new director after Ned Rifkin announced he is resigning at the end of May to teach full-time.

Rather than initiate a costly and potentially disruptive national search, the University announced last week that Simone Wicha, BS ’96, deputy director for external affairs and operations, will assume director duties June 1.

In these tough economic times, a growing number of art museums are turning to development professionals as directors, rather than the more traditional route of promoting curators, according to Blanton spokesowman Kathleen Brady Stimpert.

In an interview with The Alcalde, excerpted below, Wicha says she plans to put greater emphasis on outreach, student life, and alumni relations.

Alcalde: You’re a tough lady to get ahold of. How is your life right now?

Wicha: Not slow in any way — I’m jumping in with both feet! It is a lot, but I do have the benefit of being on the inside.

Alcalde: When did you find out you got the job?

Wicha: I accepted last week, but before that Provost [Steve] Leslie approached me and we had a conversation in which he asked me if I would consider it. I didn’t apply for it. I officially start June 1, so I have a month to get up to speed.

Alcalde: What are some of the challenges facing the Blanton?

Wicha: I’ve been at the museum for some time, and I know its history. I’m very excited about its future. But I don’t have all the answers right now. I know I’ll want to continue to focus on our engagement with students and our relationship with them through the University’s Signature Courses. We’ve been reaching out to key student leaders to help us brainstorm our outreach and engagement efforts.

Alcalde: What is it you would like the Blanton to do for students?

Wicha: The goal is to get them to come into the galleries and have a rich experience. I went to UT, and I think one of the beauties of the campus is its artistic richness. Regardless of students’ majors, arts and culture are going to have a big part in their professional and social lives. Plus, the majority of our donors are alumni, and my hope is that when students leave here that art is part of their discussion.

Alcalde: What would you say has been the Blanton’s impact on the community?

Wicha: The Blanton has had a huge impact on the community. With more than 6,000 members, we have one of the largest membership programs of any university art museum in the country. A lot has changed in the Austin art world in the last five years, and we’ve really helped shape that new landscape. But there’s room to grow.

Alcalde: How is traffic to the museum?

Wicha: We’re holding steady on visitation, with about 120,000 visitors a year.

Alcalde: Is there a museum you plan to use as a model for the Blanton?

Wicha: No, we want the Blanton to be the Blanton. That we serve both a university audience and a wider community audience makes us unique in the country. And it’s really a wonderful thing to be doing.

Alcalde: Were you surprised that Dr. Rifkin resigned after just two years?

Wicha: Not really. You can tell how much he loves teaching every time he talks about it.

Alcalde: What was your working relationship like with him?

Wicha: We have a good relationship. We worked really closely together, and I respect him tremendously. He adds great value to the museum, and I would call him a mentor.

Alcalde: Where is one area you think the Blanton could stand to improve?

Wicha: One area, I’ll be honest with you, is building a stronger financial picture. We have very little acquisition funds. The core of who you are is your collection, how you present it and how you expand it. But I come from the world of strategic planning, and the thing about fundraising is: people are going to support you if you’re changing lives and making a positive impact. That’s what we’ve got to do.

Alcalde: Has Dr. Rifkin given you any parting advice?

Wicha: Actually, no. We haven’t had that discussion yet.

Photo courtesy of the Blanton Museum



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