When Susan Lubowsky Talbott was running the Des Moines Art Center during the 1990s, her staff suggested a unique way to promote an exhibit on extreme sports.
They wanted to have a dodge ball tournament in the lobby. Talbott said "OK."
"That idea was so far outside the box, but Susan is inviting enough, you could present it to her," says Edwina Brandon, executive director of development and external affairs at the Des Moines Art Center. "We took a risk, but it really paid off. We had people here who had never been here before."
Talbott, who was named director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art Thursday, probably won't bring any dodge balls to Hartford, but those who know her say she is willing to listen to almost any notion that will get people to come to the museum.
Angie Debnam, the programs assistant at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Talbott was executive director from 1992 to '98, says Talbott was famous for freewheeling meetings that thrived on input from the staff.
"I was an administrative assistant. Normally people don't want to hear ideas from administrative assistants," Debnam says. "But her attitude was different. She saw potential in each of her employees."
Talbott emphasized Thursday that she plans to do the work required to get to know the Hartford region and figure out ways to reach into its communities.
Certainly, the Wadsworth, as well as Hartford, faces a unique set of challenges.
From the aging physical plant to the limited parking and nagging pessimism about the city itself, Talbott will face significant obstacles.
But one major player in the Hartford art world is already convinced the Wadsworth got it right.
"This is great news," says Will Wilkins, executive director of Real Art Ways. "She's a great choice for them. She's warm. She's intelligent. She'll reach out to people in all kinds of ways."
Wilkins has known Talbott since she worked at the National Endowment for the Arts as director of its Visual Arts Program from 1989 to 1992.
"This is very good for Hartford, and that's the most important thing," Wilkins says. "She's very open, and she's going to be very perceptive about what [the Wadsworth] needs."
At the last two museums where she served as director, Talbott looked for ways to connect with people not traditionally considered to be part of the museum crowd.
In Winston-Salem, she organized a program that sent artists into the community to work with segments of the population that were not attending the museum.
In Des Moines, she reached out to the expanding Mexican-American population and helped them to organize a Day of the Dead celebration inside the museum.
The celebration had little to do with art, but it brought thousands into the museum who had not been there before.
"Susan's legacy here is that she started our focus on outreach in the community," Brandon says. "She made the museum accessible financially and intellectually."
This was done through a series of school tours, community days and programming that encouraged groups to visit the museum. The idea was that once they saw what was there, they would be back.
"Our mission statement was changed to add community outreach as part of the mission," Brandon says. "It was a great way to get the board and the staff into it because we think about what our mission is every day."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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