By Sam Prickett
The new executive director of the Birmingham Museum of Art plans to make accessibility, expansion and renovation priorities of his tenure – with a long-term goal of doubling the museum’s attendance over the next five years.
In mid-September, the BMA named Dr. Graham C. Boettcher its new executive director. Boettcher’s appointment followed a months-long nationwide search to find a replacement for outgoing Director Gail C. Andrews, who announced her retirement in March. She had been the museum’s director for 21 years.
Boettcher has been with the museum for 11 years. After earning a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. from Yale University, he took on a two- year fellowship at the BMA in September 2006, focusing on American art.
“When I took the position, I actually turned down other positions that had more of a guarantee for long-term employment,” Boettcher said. “But I had already decided that Birmingham was where I wanted to be. I was just waiting for them to make up their minds that they felt the same way.”
Boettcher had never been to Alabama before the interview process, but he found himself drawn to the museum and the community – enough so that he took on the job without a guarantee that the position would extend beyond the fellowship’s allotted two years.
“It was a little bit of a leap of faith, but I trusted Gail and I trusted the institution,” Boettcher said.
His gamble paid off; in 2008, his position was endowed as the William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art. Six years later, he was promoted to the museum’s chief curator, and in February 2016, he became the museum’s deputy director. After what he describes as a “rigorous” interview process, he was selected to succeed Andrews as the museum’s director last month.
One of the main goals for his time as director, Boettcher said, is to increase the accessibility of the museum’s displays, which means a change for the way art is presented to visitors.
“Many of the interpretive approaches that one sees when you walk through a gallery assume a sort of expert knowledge on the part of the visitor,” Boettcher said. “You can’t really see the forest through the trees. The labels are too dense. They’re inaccessible … . If you use the term ‘cubism,’ you need to let people know exactly what that means … . Otherwise, you’re not communicating well.”
Boettcher is interested in providing visitors many “ways into” the art. In part that means greater implementation of technology. He pointed to an iPad in the center of a current exhibition of Dutch art. The iPad provides in-depth information about every work in the gallery, including historical context and biographical details about the artist. There also are audio recordings that provide additional perspectives from a variety of sources.
The iPad represents a “completely new” approach for the museum, Boettcher said, but it’s one that will likely expand.
“We have to continue to demonstrate our relevance, that this is a place where ideas can be explored, ideas that matter in the 21st century,” he said. “Sometimes, something that’s created in the 17th century can be a catalyst for a conversation or an exploration of things that matter today… . We have to have the mindset that we can experiment with new things and not get set in our ways.”
Boettcher intends to continue looking at initiatives similar to the museum’s Shift and Third Space, interdisciplinary programs that placed visual arts in conversation with other media, including dance, theater and poetry. Those programs were a “big success,” Boettcher said, though the museum won’t necessarily repeat them in the future.
“You always are looking for ways of replicating the outcomes without repeating the same thing over and over again,” he said. “That’s how you get in a rut, so we’re looking at that.”
Bricks and Mortar
Another goal of his tenure, he said, will be renovations to the museum.
“This is a building that has served us incredibly well, but it’s been 25 years since its last expansion and renovation,” Boettcher said. “It is starting to show the signs of age. There are things I feel like, presently, we could do better in terms of the visitor experience, making sure it really sparkles for our visitors… . I’m not going to goldplate the fixtures, but it needs to be a place that all of us who work here can be proud of,” he said.
He also hopes to increase the museum’s storage capacity.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” he said. “And who can really call that a problem, that people are so generous that they’ve given so much that we have to now address storage considerations? But it can be addressed … . We can add an additional 20 percent to our paintings storage capacity.”
Goal: Double Visitors
More accessibility, better facilities and more storage all have the same root goal, and it’s a big one: doubling the museum’s attendance over the next five years.
The BMA’s annual attendance, Boettcher said, hovers around 100,000 people per year. Getting to 200,000 by 2022 “is something we’d already been talking about and starting to build toward even before I took the reins as director,” Boettcher said.
“Our ultimate goal is to get people in these doors … . I want every person in the Birmingham area, both in the city proper and Over the Mountain and way out into Jefferson County and Shelby County and the surrounding area – heck, in the whole state of Alabama and the region – I want people to feel a sense of ownership over this museum as a public institution.”
Getting the message of the BMA out to those communities, Boettcher said, is essential to the museum’s growth.
“There are a lot of people who have never set foot in the Birmingham Museum of Art because we haven’t communicated to them that we even exist and that we have something here for them that they might actually care about,” he said. “They might know about us or think, ‘Well, that’s just a bunch of old stuff. Boring!’ So we have to not just get the word out about what we have, but how we’re using it and how we get people engaged with our collections.”
“And also, beyond that, the museum in its best form shouldn’t just be about the art on the walls,” Boettcher continued. “That’s a big part of it, it’s a springboard for much of what we do, but I’d like to see this be a place where people can come for any number of reasons, whether they set foot in the galleries or not, for performances, plays, a great meal in our café … . Can we ever be all things to all people? I don’t know that any institution can do that. But we can have a place where people can choose their own adventure when they walk through the door.” ❖