From the monumental to the not-so-huge, the Springfield Museum of Art, in association with the Smithsonian Institution, has had quite a year. The museum is completing its second year under the direction of Executive Director Ann Fortescue, who has infused the organization with innovation and energy to reach those goals.
The biggest hurdle was receiving reaccreditation from the American Association of Museums. The process had been under way for a number of years when Fortescue took the helm, but she made sure to push things across the finish line. The museum was awarded the distinction in November. “Once you’ve been accredited or reaccredited, you really have passed muster,” she said.
The reaccreditation, which is rigorous and voluntary, is important for many reasons. By completing the peer-adjudicated process, Fortescue said, museums demonstrate that they are adhering to the highest standards and best practices. “It enables us to receive loans (of collections or single objects) from other museums with greater ease. It reduces their concerns whether they are institutions or private lenders. For donors, whether their gifts are objects or financial, the accreditation is a demonstration that we’re stewarding our money properly and making our collections accessible.”
The process begins with a self-study, which is an examination of all aspects of museum operations. Categories include ethics, housekeeping, collections care practices, financial controls and human relations/employee policies. “It can include anything for which we have written guidelines and rules,” she said, adding that ethics is a major factor in the nonprofit sector and art museums enjoy the highest level of public trust. “We are respected sources of information. It’s a wonderful burden to uphold and we take it very seriously.”
On the content side, the museum staff members ask themselves how they complete research and look to see that they are ensuring accuracy and communicating optimally with their varied audiences. In the end, the accreditation shows that the museum has figured out how to bridge their operational and content responsibilities.
Also in 2012, the museum became the only art museum in Ohio to receive the designation as a Smithsonian affiliate. This makes Springfield’s museum a partner with The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and allows it access to Smithsonian’s resources including items from their collections. In the museum’s current exhibit of Ohio artist Jack Earl, there are pieces borrowed from the Smithsonian to help round out the offering.
On a daily basis, Fortescue’s focus is all about engaging the museum’s visitors. And, it’s about attracting those who might not normally consider the museum a destination. The traveling exhibit “Full Deck: A Short History of Skate Art,” featured skateboards as canvases. “That enabled us to reach out to audiences that don’t typically think of an art museum as a place to go. We also partnered with Leann Castillo at (National Trail Parks and Recreation District) and she shared the information with other parks districts that have skate parks,” Fortescue said.
The annual juried members’ exhibit is a way to include the community and more fully include members. The current exhibit of Jack Earl’s work showcases his decades-long career as shown through painting and sculpture. “It’s a longitudinal story of his creative genius.” Fortescue said, “There’s an impish, playful quality to the work and at the same time you’re seeing that, you’re suddenly struck with a deeper meaning.”
Beyond exhibits that have the potential to draw diverse audiences, the museum’s new director is working to create community partnerships. “One of the most rewarding things about community partnerships is that it sends an invitation to the community that says, ‘This is your museum and you’re welcome anytime,’ ” she said. So far, she has welcomed groups including the Clark County Deaf Community, National Council of Negro Women, City of Springfield Community Development Office and the Springfield City Schools. The museum also participated in the Buckeye Bash hosted by the Eco-Sports Corridor. The continuing partnership with Clark State Community College and Wittenberg University brings art classes to area residents.
She’s also done little things like cleaning out a storage room to create a meeting space and transforming a former stage area into a larger meeting space with unusual lighting. “That gives us a great way for our cultural assets to reach varied audiences and it gives partner organizations a built-in attraction,” she said.
Moving forward, Fortescue wants to shape the museum’s mission with a strong consideration for community needs. She came to town from more than 20 years at the Heinz Historical Center in Pittsburgh. “Springfield has many qualities that are similar to Pittsburgh’s about 20 years ago,” she said, “and it’s exciting to be part of a city’s transformation. I believe Springfield is in the early stages of a renaissance and I can see it refashioning itself in ways similar to larger cities.”
For her, the art museum plays an important role in that transformation. The Smithsonian affiliation and AAM reaccreditation, she said, show residents and visitors that the museum is a standard-bearer of quality. Along with that and the growing accumulation of arts and culture, outdoor sports and health care, “Springfield can say to the larger community that we’re the best. Not in a boastful way, but in a way that allows others to share our pride and use that as a means of promoting what Springfield has to offer. We need to show people why they should take notice,” she said.