Voices Of The Arts: NOMA's Susan Taylor

Oct 16, 2013

Voices of the Arts, a series presented by NolaVie and WWNO — New Orleans Public Radio, explores the thoughts and visions of eight new arts leaders in New Orleans.

Through conversations we try to understand how they will engage with the arts and the artists in this already vibrant cultural community; how they view us; what their goals are for their organizations; and what big plans are on their horizons.

Today, meet Susan Taylor, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art. She arrived in September 2010 from New Jersey, where she was director of the Princeton University Art Museum. She also is the former director of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, where she oversaw the construction of an award-winning museum facility designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. She holds art history degrees from Vassar College and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

On the local arts scene: I think my first impressions of New Orleans are the same as they are today. I find it an exiting, culturally rich city of vibrancy, ideas and activities that I really don’t see in many other cities in America. I think that what is diff about it three years in is how much more vibrant it is, and how much more connected the cultural community has become. New Orleans does a wonderful job of celebrating the arts, and the notion of celebration present in all of its activities, the music, the theater the street life. It is a kaleidoscope of activity and color and vibrancy.

On what that means for NOMA: I think that the nature of the arts in New Orleans is essentially one of celebration and, I would venture to say, interdisciplinarity. It’s important for a museum like the New Orleans Museum of Art to engage in all those aspects of the arts, including music and dance and theater and film, which are all components of this rich cultural landscape that we have in the city.

For me, the museum has the opportunity and the potential and, in some ways, the obligation to be a cultural convener, a place where these arts can merge and enhance the role of the visual arts, and enlighten the visual arts in ways that can only be done because there is an interdisciplinary focus.

On what makes NOMA unique: The New Orleans Museum of Art is different from other art centers because we use the collection as the point of departure for many of our investigations. We engage our public through the collections and also through special exhibitions. Each program or project that we take on outside of the visual arts is part of a broader cultural narrative that involves the collections, the publications and the special exhibitions.

It’s important for the museum to continually refresh and renew its collection in ways that are complimentary to what’s already there. To that end, we use our resources, our endowed funds, very wisely and strategically. In doing so we’re able to partner with other organizations and donors to create a way forward.

On why the Internet can’t replace museums: An art museum is a place where people come to be inspired, to engage with objects, to learn about histories and cultures. Many people feel that the digital image is an opportunity as a window into the museum experience. But I don’t think the digital image replaces the museum experience. Nor does it replace the experience of the original work of art in context. Issues of scale and color and shape and form and position in space cannot be resolved or better understood through a digital image. It can only come through direct experience with a work of art. A museum can do that. A museum can create the opportunity; it can enhance the experience; it can teach the visitor about the work; and it’s a way into a broader discussion of culture.

On contemporary financial issues: Raising funds is a challenge in every city in America. It is not unique to New Orleans. Our opportunities to engage audiences through various programs and education initiatives allow us to maximize the funding potential in the city.

We’ve been very successful in our fundraising. We have involved the board in very deliberate ways. They have been extraordinarily generous. We have looked for opportunities in the city, particularly in the realm of education. We believe by identifying those opportunities that are constant with the museum’s mission, we can fund them. It starts with the board.

On educational programs at NOMA: We look at education as core to our mission; we are an educational institution. We are an institute for lifelong learning. After Katrina, the education department really shrunk to virtually no level at all, one or two people. Prior to Katrina, there were 13 people in the education department. What we’ve tried to do is be very targeted in our approach to education, to grow it slowly and deliberately. And to grow it in areas where there is true need.

On what’s happening out front: The front of the building is a renovation project. We are renovating the pond in front of the museum. It will be finished at the end of December. We will have a new pond with seating around it that animates the space in front of the museum and allows us to use it more fully.

You’ll note that the Lin Emery sculpture has been moved. We decided that we would put Lin Emery’s work in the Sculpture Garden. She has pride of place along the lagoon, with a wonderful visual relationship with her mentor George Rrickey. We felt it was important to celebrate Lin’s status as one of the celebrated artists of New Orleans by putting her in the Sculpture Garden.

On what it takes to put on a great show: I’m a great believer in strong exhibitions that engage audiences in myriad ways, whether they are small focused exhibitions that look at one, two, three, works or large examinations of multiple types.