Show off your holiday lights and you could win an iPad! Enter your photo by December 13. Winner will be selected by popular vote.
Della Watkins is building a reputation as a good listener, even as she races through jam-packed days as the Taubman Museum of Art’s new executive director.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Taubman Museum director Della Watkins stands for a portrait in downtown Roanoke on Thursday.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Watkins and Howard Risatti of Richmond participate in a zen painting workshop at the museum. Risatti knows Watkins from her time at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “I think Della’s great,” he says. “She ran a tight ship.”
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Taubman Museum Executive Director Della Watkins (left) and registrar Mary LaGue review options for a summer exhibition called “Reunion.” Working on the show has helped Watkins learn what the Taubman has in its vaults, including Lexington photographer Sally Mann’s “Jessie’s Cut.”
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
LaGue and Watkins discuss art preservation in the museum’s vault. Watkins has redistributed the staff’s tasks to cut out duplications and match their job descriptions.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
You never see Della Watkins without a notebook.
As the Taubman Museum of Art’s new executive director races through days “slammed straight through with meetings, crisis management, problem solving,” as she puts it, she has to have a steno pad with her, for data collection. “I keep it with me all the time.”
In her office, when she opens her planner, her schedule’s neatly mapped out by the month, day and hour. Yet in the unpredictable world of the arts, she’s ready to adjust that schedule on the fly. Though she admits spontaneity can be “scary,” when her plans have to change, “we alter it and we get ’er done,” she said.
She keeps a quick pace, marching through the galleries on a daily inspection, meeting with employees — and personally delivering them birthday cards. That’s when she’s not driving out to meet with benefactors, artists, volunteers or other interested community members for the sake of what she calls “friend raising.” After her employees leave for the day, she spends a couple of hours more in the office, tending to phone calls and emails and setting the next day’s agenda.
In between, she’s living in a downtown Roanoke condo and house hunting. “I’m just busy night and day, learning and getting to know the folks and places here.”
Divorced with two grown children, Watkins is making a fresh start in Roanoke in what’s arguably one of the city’s most high-pressure positions.
The huge tasks on Watkins’ plate since she started in February have included preparing the museum to renew its accreditation, reorganizing the exhibition schedule, expanding its education programs, creating a long-term strategic plan and finding a way to make it financially stable — something the museum hasn’t achieved since opening in 2008.
In addition to putting the museum’s finances in order, she also wants to get museum members and the community at large to change their perceptions of the Taubman.
“Our community needs to learn to use this building,” she said. “It’s not an international tourist destination … but it’s more than an art center.”
She wants to rebrand the museum as a place to hang out, not just a place to see art.
“You can hang out with your friends. You can have a glass of wine and listen to music. I’m very committed to this being a place for everyone,” she said. “It has to be a place you want to be.”
She knows she has an uphill battle ahead, quipping, “I might be the craziest woman in Roanoke.”
Watkins brings with her strong ties to the state-funded Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, where she worked for 15 years. She was the museum’s chief educator, responsible for all campus and statewide education programs, before being hired by the Taubman.
Her connections may lead to a stronger relationship between the two institutions, something both parties have said they’re interested in.
Next month, Watkins will present a $2.8 million balanced budget to the board of trustees. She called it the leanest, most realistic budget in the museum’s recent history.
The museum’s operating expenses were about $3 million in fiscal year 2010-11 and $3.6 million in 2011-12, according to figures provided by Taubman Chief Operating Officer Kathryn Garvin. As of April, the museum had spent about $2.7 million for fiscal year 2012-13, which ends June 30.
No programs were cut to create the new budget, and there are no layoffs involved, though a couple of open positions were left unfilled, Watkins said. Rather, expenses were trimmed through every level of operations, she said.
She has done it all by asking and listening. “A very responsible path should be a lot more listening,” she explained.
“She looks at the details and the big picture as well,” said Carilion Clinic President and CEO Nancy Agee, who’s on the museum’s board. “Even if she’s made hard decisions, she’s done it in such a respectful, collaborative way.”
In April, Watkins had her staff document how much time they’re spending during the week on various tasks, as a way to find out what’s being neglected, what’s being duplicated, and what duties don’t fit their jobs’ descriptions. With 18 full-time employees, not including Watkins, she said there’s “no bench strength.” All expertise for any given task is generally concentrated in one person.
What she learned, she said, was that “everyone here was rowing hard, but not in the same direction.” The staff’s tasks have been redistributed to cut out duplications and match their job descriptions. “Now we’re all rowing in the same direction.”
She also listens to people who want to complain about the Taubman, whether it’s how the organization is run, or the way the building looks, or just the fact that it was built at all.
She invariably invites the caller to come to the museum. Not everyone can be convinced, but for the ones on the fence, she turns on the charm. “I just think I’m going to have to turn people around one at a time.”
“My feeling is that she’s the right person at the right time,” said Troutville artist Bill White, a former museum board member. He has dealt with Watkins as curator of the museum’s recent showcase of Jean Helion paintings, and she also has visited his studio to see his art and get his perspective on what the museum needs. “She was very well organized, a very thoughtful person, a good listener,” White said.
White first met Watkins at a party held by Doug and Mary Waters in their loft downtown.
“Both my wife and I have become big fans of Della’s,” said Doug Waters, president of the Market Building Foundation. “She’s engaged in the community in a way that I think is distinctive among the directors that I’ve known over the years,” he said, calling her approach “a breath of fresh air for the museum and for Roanoke.”
A few weeks ago, Watkins went to Studios on the Square in Roanoke to meet artists Susan Jamison and Tif Robinette at their invitation.
She learned about both artists’ past involvement with the Taubman — Jamison has had a solo exhibition there, and Robinette has been an assistant for exhibiting artists. Jamison and Watkins turned out to have a number of mutual acquaintances in the art scene. Robinette, in her mid-20s, talked to Watkins about setting out to find her own voice as an artist before pursuing graduate school. Watkins, of course, took notes during the visit.
“She’s approachable. She’s down to earth. She projects a lot of positivity,” said Jamison. “She comes across as warm and open.”
The announcement of Watkins’ hiring capped a period of hope and tumult in the museum’s development.
In June 2012, then-President and CEO David Mickenberg told a crowd of museum supporters that the Taubman would close its doors if it couldn’t raise $1.4 million to cover a budget shortfall. In October, the museum’s biggest benefactors, businessmen Nick Taubman and Heywood Fralin, assumed command of a new board of trustees. All but two of the previous board members stepped aside, and Mickenberg (hired in 2009) resigned.
The new board largely consisted of guarantors who had made loans to the museum to assist in paying off its construction debt. The guarantors forgave the loans, and a donation from Advance Auto Parts made it possible for the museum to stop charging admission. Nick Taubman, an ambassador to Romania during the administration of former President George W. Bush, is the former president and CEO of Advance.
By then, Taubman and Fralin already were considering Watkins for the museum’s top job.
“It was a brave, bold step,” she said about leaving Richmond . “I left a job I love. I’m a new empty nester. I didn’t know one soul here.”
Watkins has two sons. Zachary Eisenman, 21, just finished his third year at the University of South Carolina. Alan Eisenman, 24, is a financial analyst working in Houston. Divorced since her sons were middle-school age, she raised them while working full time and pursuing higher education degrees on nights and weekends.
Her sons encouraged her to take the Taubman job, she said. “They released me from the guilt of selling their family home and making a move for me.”
The Tappa hannock native began a career as an art teacher in 1983, the year after she earned her bachelor’s in art history from James Madison University. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts hired her as a school and family program manager in 1997, the year after she earned her master’s in arts education from Virginia Commonwealth University.
In 2008, the year after she studied at the Getty Leadership Institute in Los Angeles, she became associate director of education and statewide partnerships for the VMFA.
The 52-year-old said she’s spent 20 years of her life near the water, 20 years in the city, and she hopes the next 20 years will be spent in the mountains.
Learning by doing
Next on Watkins’ to-do list: the renewal of the museum’s accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums. The necessary paperwork, enough to fill a three-inch binder, was submitted in April. The AAM’s Accreditation Visiting Committee will inspect the museum from June 3 to 5.
Proper accreditation is key to maintaining a partnership with the VMFA and making free use of its traveling exhibits. It’s also essential for borrowing art and exhibitions from other museums.
Watkins also wants to adjust the way the Taubman schedules exhibitions. In the past, the museum has tended to have a flurry of openings at the same time, which means the closings tend to happen at the same time, too, leaving a number of the galleries closed before the next set of exhibitions goes up.
Watkins wants to stagger the exhibits so that no more than two of the museum’s seven to nine galleries — it varies based on configuration — will ever be closed at any one time.
Ideally, “if you come every three months, then you’re engaging a new gallery experience,” she said.
The museum is planning an upcoming exhibition called “Reunion: Highlights of the Collection,” putting pieces on display from the permanent collection that haven’t been shown for years. “Reunion” opens July 19 and will continue for a year, with art being rotated in and out. Pieces by Betty Branch, Sally Mann and Roanoke Times photographer Stephanie Klein-Davis will be part of the show.
Just as Watkins has learned about the museum’s policies by working on the accreditation, working on the exhibition has helped her discover what the Taubman has in its vaults.
“I make her look at racks every day,” said museum registrar Mary LaGue . That particular day, she and Watkins went into the third-floor vault where photographs are stored , then to a larger vault on the second floor where the bulk of the museum’s collection resides, including sculptures. Watkins was looking over photograph selections for “Reunion,” jotting down particulars in her notebook about each artifact.
Five adjunct curators have made recommendations that were culled to about 50 pieces with guidance from Watkins.
“People are going to see things that they once saw and loved,” LaGue said.
‘One more shot’
During a daily inspection tour — “My walkthrough is to assure the staff that I’m around if they want to come and tell me something,” Watkins said — she observed a host of small children in one of the classrooms, supervised by parents as they made paintings on paper.
She later took part in a zen painting workshop organized by Blacksburg artist Ray Kass in connection to the recent exhibition of watercolors by John Cage. The exercises involved brushing ink onto paper.
One of the workshop attendees was Howard Risatti, a colleague of Kass and a member of the Virginia Commonwealth University faculty, who knows Watkins from her time at the VMFA. “I think Della’s great,” he said. “She ran a tight ship.”
While she mingled with the workshop attendees, a man approached her and asked if she had a minute. The two stepped aside. While they talked, Watkins wrote his contact information down in her notebook.
“I was just mentioning to her that I think the time is right for an international wine festival,” said David Martin, who was visiting Art Venture with his grandchildren. He said he had brought the idea up with the Taubman leadership before. “It fell through the cracks. I figured I’d give it one more shot.”
And Watkins got back in touch. She said Martin will help the museum launch an international wine and art fundraiser in 2014.
Weather JournalPossible scrape with snow Tues