Kaywin Feldman on how America’s National Gallery of Art will ‘attract the nation and reflect it, too’

Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, at an event at the museum last year © National Gallery of Art

As Kaywin Feldman finished her first year as director of the National Gallery of Art in March, a colleague joked, “Youve made it, and no government shutdown!” True, since Feldman had arrived after a long, much-praised directorship at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the gallery had not shuttered as a result of the kind of budget fight that closed down the museum in early 2019.

“Then Covid-19 came, and weve been closed for three months,” Feldman wryly observes. (The museum shut its doors on 14 March.) She is hoping for a reopening later in the summer once the safety restrictions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic relax. “Our opening depends on the District of Columbias guidelines,” she says, “but everyone wants to get back and open the museum.”

The museums substantial and often overlooked sculpture garden did reopen to the public on 20 June. The West Building, the original museum structure, will open next. “The Districts Covid-19 statistics govern who can open what and when,” she says.

Asked about the budget impact from the Covid-19 crisis, Feldman said that would be mainly up to US lawmakers. “Most of our money comes from Congressional appropriation, so if theres a big across-the-board budget-cutting mood, well be affected like everyone else,” she says. The operating budget for the year ending 30 September is $216m, of which $173.5m comes from federal sources. That federal subsidy enabled the museum to avoid laying off or furloughing employees this spring. As for earned income, she adds, “we expect a drop in what the museum shop earns but we offer everything else free of charge,” meaning the institution does not depend on ticket revenue. The fiscal 2021 budget will not be finalised until September or later depending on future Congressional appropriations, the museum says.

The first woman to lead what could be described as the nations flagship art museum, Feldman succeeded Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, who was director for 26 years. Following a director of such longevity could be a daunting experience, but Feldman projects calm and confidence. “Im standing on the shoulders of all my predecessors, and of Andrew Mellon,” she says, referring to the museums founder, who asked Congress to establish the institution in 1937 on the strength of his own major gift of masterpieces. “They all had a vision thats made the gallery great, and Im building my vision on what they achieved.”

Kaywin Feldman © National Gallery of Art

Feldman has faced many challenges since taking over, among them a broad impression that the gallery had lost some of its creative energy and was stymied by a hidebound top-down management culture. She says her biggest priority when she arrived was “listening”. She met with each of the gallerys 985 employees in small groups, from curators to guards. “The first thing I learned was how many silos existed” between departments, she says.

Probably the biggest silos were between the curatorial and web areas.

While mammoth in size, the problem was not impossible to solve, she suggests. “Getting people to talk to each other and to listen to each other just makes for a much more creative place,” Feldman says. “Probably the biggest silos were between the curatorial and web areas.” Curators previously were not involved in the museums digital initiatives, but months of closure have made the web integral to their work, she reports. “A new Zoom culture shook up habits, too.”

Feldman is building her own team and has made new hires that promise change, among them Elisa B. Glazer, formerly with the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, as the museum's executive officer for external affairs and audience engagement. In addition to fundraising, marketing and public relations, Glazers charge includes visitor services, special events and programme evaluation. “Every message we send out in some way has to invite people to come in,” Feldman explains. “Its important to unify the message that were free, were open to everyone, and were for you.”

Another appointment, Kate Haw, previously director of the Archives of American Art, will coordinate the museums intellectual content, from its art education programmes to its prestigious library. “The gallery is a bit like a university, with lots of moving parts and different projects, but we all need to be pulling in the same direction,” Feldman says.

The National Gallerys board has changed, too. Mitchell Rales, the entrepreneur, collector and founder of Glenstone, the contemporary art museum in Potomac, Maryland, has risen to the presidency of the group's nine members. Darren Walker, who has made diversity in staffing a priority as president of the Ford Foundation while also promoting the cause in the non-profits that it supports, joined the board in September. He is viewed as a forceful advocate for the arts, especially artists omitted from the art history canon.

Darren Walker, a trustee at the National Gallery of Art, and Kaywin Feldman, the museum's director, at a preview and reception at the institution in January Photo: Khue Bui/© National Gallery of Art

Walker has also been a museum problem-solver, as seen in the Ford Foundations work to salvage the American Folk Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts during the citys bankruptcy crisis. Feldman predicts that he will embrace similar priorities in his work on the board.

Like most other major museums, the gallery has responded to the social tumult unfolding across the nation. Asked about the museums reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Feldman notes that she issued a directors statement emphasising the power of art to heal. “We mourn for our fellow Americans George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, their families and many others because our shared humanity ties us to them,” her statement said, referring to those black victims.

“Many of us look at art to see beauty and triumph, to find peace, and to be uplifted,” she wrote. “But art offers the full range of the human experience, and it may just as readily show us ugliness, suffering, aggression, injustice and tragedy. Invariably, our encounters with art leave us more complete because they remind us of our shared humanity.”

The statement drew on her experience as the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2016, when an African American was killed by police in a nearby suburb during a traffic stop. “When Philando Castile was shot, some of the staff wanted a museum response condemning police brutality and racism,” Feldman said, “which, of course, all of us condemn, but our response had to be tailored to art, because our work and mission surround art.”

She developed a response by working with Castiles mother. “Valerie Castile received dozens of works of art made by people as upset by her sons death as we were, and we displayed the art in a show about Philando and his death,” Feldman says. “It was a tragedy for Minneapolis, and I saw the museums role as using art to heal Minneapolis.”

Feldman expresses support for the Black Lives Matter protests that have gripped Washington since Floyds death. “As an American, I support the rights included in the First Amendment which ensure both freedom of expression and the right to assemble,” she said. “This is a pivotal moment in our history as we come to terms with our past in order to dismantle systemic and institutionalised racism. I recognise the struggle and remain optimistic for our future.”

We want to attract the nation and reflect it, too.

Yet Feldman does not rattle off “equity, inclusion and diversity” as a slogan. She is focused on specifics like making the museum representative of the public it serves. “We want to attract the nation and reflect it, too, in our exhibitions, our permanent collection and our digital reach,” she says.

She is also intent on better understanding tRead More – Source