How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth, while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the organizational and artistic practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and practicing artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.
Here, we speak to Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Supported by a Center Advancement grant, the Museum presents Creative Africa—a season of five exhibitions highlighting art and design from the African continent, from contemporary photography, fashion, and architecture to centuries-old sculpture (through January 22, 2017). The project features newly commissioned works of art and performances by acclaimed living African artists-in-residence, set against the backdrop of an exhibition of historical African art.
Rub talks with us about the process of bringing historic collections to life, the importance of collaboration, his favorite painting in the collection, and the Museum’s commitment to stewardship.
Tell us about a unique quality that you believe distinguishes the Philadelphia Museum of Art from other major, encyclopedic museums around the country, and the world.
It is, both in character and purpose, a civic institution. To put this another way, we are Philadelphia’s art museum. Our main building is a prominent part of the civic landscape. Our original charter and ongoing mission focus on education and service to the city and region. And our great collection has been shaped both by the central role that Philadelphia has played in the development of American art and the commitment of collectors to share what they care about most with the community.
What are your hopes for the Museum’s multi-part exhibition, Creative Africa? Has it influenced your way of thinking and working, suggesting new programmatic and organizational pathways?
The key for me is how we can bring historic collections to life—in this case the wonderful holdings of African art in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum)—by creating a “conversation” between the past and the present. The contemporary exhibitions we are offering complement the exhibition of earlier African art and will encourage visitors to understand African culture as a vital and living tradition, and one that is an increasingly important part of our world. The programming around these exhibitions is as diverse and as wide-ranging as anything we have presented in the past. It is not—as has traditionally been the case—intended as a supplement to these exhibitions, but rather integral to them and part of our strategy to engage as broad an audience as is possible.
With Creative Africa, and more generally, how are you thinking about audience engagement and addressing the shifting demographics and cultural consumption patterns that many cultural organizations here are now facing?
Audience development is the focus of many cultural organizations today, as it should be. So, to say that one of the goals of Creative Africa is to engage new audiences is to make an obvious point. We believe that the exhibitions and programs we present will have a broad appeal, certainly to the growing community of African émigrés here in Philadelphia, as well as African Americans, but also to those who are interested in global manifestations of the contemporary. Because our summer-long family program, Art Splash, will also be housed in the Perelman Building this summer, we also expect Creative Africa to be enjoyed by those who constitute our future. Family programming should be lively, vital, surprising, and, at times, provocative. Creative Africa will be all of these.
As you’ve mentioned, the contemporary work presented in Creative Africa is set against the backdrop of an exhibition of historical African art drawn from the Penn Museum’s extensive collection. How important is collaboration for your organization, and what is its nature?
Creative—and effective—collaborations between cultural institutions are never easy, but they are critically important; and for this reason our commitment to them has to be for the long term. What matters most, in my opinion, is that each partner believes that there is something of real value to be gained in working together, and that partnerships of this type draw upon the respective strengths of each institution. In the case of Creative Africa, which is about collections sharing, we believe that presenting selections from the Penn Museum’s holdings of African art will enable us to reach new audiences. Offering different interpretive perspectives than those that might be developed by the Penn Museum can yield new and different meanings for our visitors, and that is ultimately what our work is about. There are also many other collaborative possibilities to be explored—in education, marketing, digital initiatives, and programming—that we must consider to ensure that our cultural institutions are serving the community in the most creative and cost effective ways.
What role does your board play in identifying the need for and shaping organizational change? How do you ask them to support the organization through critical moments?
That’s a good, and timely, question. Increasingly, the trustees of cultural institutions—ours included—are focusing their attention on how we need to respond to changes in the environment in which we work. These might be changes in funding patterns, demographics, communications, and programming preferences. For our trustees, it is not simply about fulfilling our strategic goals, but also how we can do so nimbly and effectively in a shifting landscape in which traditional modes of thinking and work are constantly being challenged.
What is a particularly meaningful object, or a space, in the Museum for you?
The great painting by Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning (c. 1460), has always been at the top of my list. It is a deeply moving painting, and one that epitomizes the new spirit of humanism that distinguished the Renaissance from the past. I also love the great, chapel-like space in which we display our remarkable collection of works by the modern sculptor Constantin Brancusi. It’s a beautiful, contemplative space, and one that is perfectly in tune with the nature of Brancusi’s sculpture.
How do you envision the Museum in 5 years? In 10? How do you imagine it will be different than it is today?
We’ll be different in many ways—all of them good, I hope! What will perhaps be most visible is the ongoing transformation of our landmark main building, which entails its renovation, reorganization, and expansion. At the heart of this work is a commitment to stewardship—making a great resource ready to serve our visitors as effectively in the 21st century as it has for nearly 100 years—as well as the recognition that our main building needs to be changed in ways that reflect how museums work today. Finally, our collection has grown dramatically over the past several decades, and we simply don’t have enough gallery space to share all that it is with the public. We’ll also be fundamentally different in terms of communications, programs, and our ability to share our collection because of an ongoing commitment to make the digital experience of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as rich as a visit to the Museum itself. All that said, I also hope that in many ways the Museum will feel much the same as it does today: welcoming to all, creative, and imbued with a sense of surprise and delight.