A conversation with Michael Roediger

Michael Roediger is going on three years at the helm of one of the largest arts and cultural organizations in the Miami Valley — the Dayton Art Institute, which is looking forward in a few years to its 100th anniversary. We caught up with its director and CEO recently to talk about the ideas and thoughts he brings to the job, and to look at how the museum is changing, growing and planning for the future. To learn more about its programs, events and collections, visit daytonartinsitute.org. — Ron Rollins

Q: What’s a typical day for the director of a big art museum?

A: My day starts here about 8:15 and usually wraps up around 7:30 or 8 in the evening. It’s typically a full day of meetings, usually a combination of my leadership team, board members and donors. With my background in fundraising, I’m sort of in two worlds at once — managing the museum and leading the development team. I now schedule bathroom breaks, my meetings are so tight. Some of that’s of my own doing; I don’t like to say no to meetings.

Q: So, the surprise for some people might be that you don’t have that much interaction with the art.

A: I do through the curatorial team. That’s different from past directors, because I came to the museum in a non-traditional way. I’m not curating, but I certainly have opinions, and I try to see things the way people in the general public would enjoy, rather than from the scholarly view. I give input on how we put our seasons of special exhibitions together. For instance, if you look at our current season of shows focusing on American art, I think from a marketing standpoint, that’s a win. I interact with it that way. I do have to remind myself from time to time, though, that I work in this phenomenal place and I need to take a walk through the galleries.

Q: You mentioned your non-traditional background — remind folks about that.

A: I’m from Dayton, and my undergraduate degree is in communications and theater, with a master’s in leadership development. I spent 14 years at the Victoria Theatre Association, so I have more of a performing-arts/non-profit background, where often directors of museums come up as curators or art historians.

Q: What are some other ways your different path affects the way you do the job?

A: I think it gives me a different perspective and gives us a broader view. The curators are the scholars, and I try to bring mainstream America and Dayton into our work. And I think my experience in the performing arts gives me a focus on audience development — but also allows us to have someone who is focusing on the whole and the financial picture, while our chief curator, Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, focuses on the art and the mission, and the two come together. We work really well that way.

Q: Did you get a crash course in art-museum stuff, then?

A: Well, I grew up coming to this museum. I took classes here as a kid. It was not unfamiliar to my family when I was growing up, and we went to museums. I’ll have been in this job three years in October, and I’ve been learning the collections, and our artists — so I guess I’d say I’ve had a sort of self-evolved crash course.

Q: What do you find yourself most drawn to?

A: I’m really drawn to our American Impressionist collection. There’s also a painting by Everett Shinn, a small piece of a tightrope walker from the early 20th century where he’s performing on the wire over the audience. It’s my favorite piece that I’m personally drawn to in the collection. I’ve tried to figure out why — I think it represents what I’m going through, and it’s a performing-arts piece in a theater, and the tension of walking the tightrope really speaks to me.

Q: That’s one my favorite pieces, as well. It’s interesting you mention the way it brings together both parts of your career — the theater and now the visual arts. How do you think one has built off the other?

A: Well, even though I’ve been here a long time, I’m certainly expanding my network of relationships in Dayton in this role. And I’m very passionate about our community and what institutions like the Dayton Art Institute and all our performing arts organizations mean to the health and vitality and renaissance of our community — and I’m really excited to be in a leadership role in it.

Q: Talk about how the museum has played a part in that.

A: For the last three years as a leadership team and board, we’ve really been trying to tell the city and county that we’re a player and need to be at the table in the city’s recovery. They really have listened and been supportive. We’ve redefined our district and redefined downtown to include the DAI, which is good — it allows us to be part of the conversation as to what’s happening along the river, other downtown changes, bringing the arts element.

Q: So, how do you see those things affecting the museum in the next few years?

A: We see ourselves as a bigger part of the picture — so that we’re not just the DAI, our donors and members, but we’re seeing what the city is doing and how we can be a part of it. That’s a different lens than we’ve been used to. It used to be the city first and how we fit into it, but as we approach our centennial, we’re much more engaged and involved.

Q: So like many businesses, you’re having to change.

A: I’ve talked about this with other directors, and it’s always been the thing in the museum world for decades, if not centuries, that the experience starts when you walk into the door of the gallery. But that’s not good enough nowadays. It needs to start when you drive by the building. What makes you come in here? There are so many things taking our attention now; how are we competing with those, and drawing people in? In 2019 the museum will be 100 years old.

Q: Not in this building, right?

A: No, this building was completed in 1930. The museum was originally in a big house on Monument Avenue downtown — so as an organization, we’ll be a century old in 2019. In preparation for that, I’ve been saying since I got here, we’ve got to prepare, and the board agreed. We’re very excited about our centennial, and the board is very engaged. Our first planning study involves an expert in museum marketing and an expert in museum programming, installation and art. We’ve already surveyed more than 1,000 members and visitors at Oktoberfest and special exhibitions, plus board members, staff, community leaders. We’ll digest those into a findings report and then our two experts will digest that into this plan. It’ll include stop/go, things we’re doing that we shouldn’t be doing anymore, some new initiatives, a look at our org chart — not to get rid of anybody, but to see if we have everyone in the right place. We’ll look at the installation in our galleries and wayfinding — how to get to things. In a modern world, that can be challenging in a building that’s almost 90 years old.

Q: So people could see new galleries and new things in them?

A: Eventually, as we go through the full evaluation process over the next few years, all that. The next phase is the beginning stages of a feasibility study — we haven’t had a capital campaign since the mid-1990s when we did the rotunda; the centennial seems an appropriate time to look at that. We’re working with a firm from Columbus talking with board members and some identified friends of museum to see what the community might support in terms of a capital endowment, and gifts of art and an art endowment.

Q: How big is the DAI’s endowment fund?

A: Our general endowment is at $20 million — which is by no means small, but Cincinnati’s art museum is at $102 million, by comparison. The Cleveland Museum of Art is at $150 million; Indianapolis is at $365 million.

Q: Why is Dayton’s that size?

A: We’ve been chronically under-endowed. I think I know why. The museum building was originally underwritten by the Patterson family — Julia Shaw Carnell was the matriarch. She started raising the funds and gathering the benefactors in the early 1920s with the idea that she would match building costs in endowment — she put in nearly $2.5 million back in the 1920s, a big amount. So in 1928 you have the market crash, and the DAI is already building this museum — so, she had a choice. Stop in the middle? All the benefactors had crashed, so she took her money out of the endowment to complete the building that we knew of as the DAI pre-1996. The building was only partly completed, and it took until 1996 for the community to complete her vision for this building. So we’ve never been as fully endowed as some other museums were in their early years — it’s truly a symptom of the Great Depression, and it takes a long time to recover from something like that.

Q: What would be a proper size?

A: I’d like to see it eventually double — so, $40 million. Is that enough? Probably not, but we’re in a difficult playing field today. But I’d like to grow the staff. I’d like to see more staff in our curatorial and education departments, certainly, and I’d like to see some positions endowed.

Q: What was the third study you mentioned?

A: Well, you may recall that a little over a year ago, we generously received $2.2 million from Gov. Kasich and the state of Ohio that was funding for the historic preservation of our building. And that’s a lot of money, and so we’ll do a space study, to figure out how to use our space in a better way for our collections, special exhibits and the events we host here — weddings and corporate events are huge revenue drivers for us here.

Q: How long for all this to unfold?

A: Our target is the centennial in 2019; we hope to be able to hit a lot of our goals. That’s four years out, and we really want to have a celebration.

Q: Talk about the current fundraising climate for a place such as the museum. There’s only one big museum in the area, for instance — does that make it easier or harder to raise money for something that’s one of a kind?

A: Well, yes, there’s only one thing like the DAI in town, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of wonderful visual arts in the community, and we’re all looking at fundraising — so it’s competitive. We’re all looking to raise money to support our missions. But it’s a healthy competition, and with any investment in any of the arts, our community is richer for it. You know, recently, I attended my first meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors — you have to be invited to join, and you have to be in the industry for at least two years. So for me, this was a new thing. It was in Mexico City, 160-plus directors there from all over North America, and one thing I found is that Dayton is very well thought of in the industry. The excellence of our collection is very well known. What a treasure this is for Dayton.

Q: From things you learned at the meeting, where is the business going?

A: I think we’re all having to look at our populations differently, and look at revenues differently, and look again at that balance of business and mission — margin to mission. We all agreed that museums need to reinvent themselves.

Q: When you first took the job, you talked a lot about using the DAI as something that sounded much like a community arts center. Is that still in the thinking?

A: There’s still an element of that, in that we want people to think of the DAI as Dayton’s living room. It’s why we added the Leo Bistro restaurant, made changes to the galleries to make them more contemporary, more comfortable. We welcome local artists and I hope they’ll come and be inspired here.

Q: Talk a bit more about the idea of the living room.

A: We did a customer service audit three years ago and we try to think of everyone here as a guest. A guest is someone you’d welcome into your living room; a customer is transactional.

Q: Good ideas come from anywhere.

A: Sure, and we share those nuances with new hires. I try to set the example myself — if I see someone in the galleries looking confused, I’ll stop to get them where they’re going, even if I have to be late for my next appointment.

Q: Recently, there was a lot of buzz in the art world about a Gauguin painting that sold for $300 million, which was believed to be a record price. How does that sort of high-cost change in the larger arts world affect a smaller place like the DAI?

A: It certainly changes the playing field for everyone. At the museum directors conference, I sat next to the head of the Normal Rockwell museum, and he talked about they can’t even afford to buy a Rockwell anymore. They only get new pieces through bequests. They’ve been priced out of the market. That said, our art acquisition fund is not large — it’s under $200,000, and there’s not a lot you can buy for that — but we have looked at ways we can buy things like glass pieces from young artists that are significant works from up-and-comers — so that’s a way we can acquire new works that will matter. But we do have to manage the collection in a strategic way. And we have donors who’ve stepped up and helped us build the collection.

Q: What sort of challenges do you face because of the size and age of the museum building itself?

A: Well, we love this building, it’s absolutely beautiful. But it does have a lot of challenges. When it was built, it had no air conditioning. Today, we’re very strict about temperature and humidity for the artworks, we constantly monitor them. That’s a big thing. When we moved in, there were 200 objects in the collection, and how there are 26,000. Storage is a big thing for us. Keeping the roof from leaking is a big thing.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

A: I worry that we still have a long way to go to be as financially sound as we want to be, though we have made great progress. I worry about the staff, that our bandwidth might not be as wide as the work that we have to do. I want them to have a good work/life balance, and feel appreciated — I think they do, but I want to them to be paid what they’re worth, and have the benefits they deserve. They work really hard, and long hours, because they love what they do. So, staff, finances, just the general structure do keep me up some nights, though I do see light at the end of the tunnel. These three studies we’re doing and the centennial commitment that we and the board have made are what keep me going. But really, this position is a lot more exciting and more challenging than I thought it would be.

Q: What do you wish you’d known before you took the job?

A: Well, the board was very transparent going in and made sure I understood what I was stepping into. But I wish at the beginning I’d had a better handle on the level of financial crisis the team had gone through before I came over.

Q: If you had a magic wand, what would you change?

A: I would more than double our endowment, I would add to our staff — more in curatorial, education. And I would have a huge art acquisition fund. And I would magically let everyone know how important it is to support the museum — not just because of what it does for us, but what it does for the culture, and what it gives back to the community.

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