ArtsWatch talks to Tom Manley about MoCC

The Museum of Contemporary Craft

Yesterday, we reported that Jeffrey Thomas, interim director at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, had resigned after a year on the job, and that the museum and partner institution Pacific Northwest College of Art were going to start a national search for a successor.

We had several questions about the departure, specifically about what it might mean to the future of the museum and its relationship to PNCA, which bailed it out of financial difficulties a few years ago and has been the senior partner in the relationship. And we wondered how PNCA president Tom Manley viewed the last year at the museum under Thomas.  So, we sent him a few questions via email, and then we talked on the phone.

Basically, Manley confirmed, elaborated on and added to Thomas’s own description of the past year.

1. Memberships at the museum almost doubled in the past year, according to Manley.
2. Grants from foundations in support of exhibitions hit an all-time high. Manley said that for the upcoming “Generations: Betty Feves” exhibition, the museum raised more than $200,000 in grants, including one $100,000 and two $50,000 grants, a size in unprecedented in the history of the museum.
3. Thomas helped to establish a Design Council at the museum, part of an attempt to expand its mission.
4. A three-year exhibition schedule was developed, which helps marketing and fund-raising efforts going forward.
5. Collecting activity was restored at the museum, with major acquisitions as part of the museum’s “75 Gifts for 75 Years” show, honoring its 75th anniversary.
6. Thomas brought his marketing expertise to bear on the sales gallery, helping to activate it with pop-up galleries.
7. And he brought “some real personality” and “greater energy” to the museum, Manley said of Thomas.

Basically, Manley described the museum as an institution that was doing great work (he called curator Namita Wiggers a world-class curator, for example) and moving forward on a number of fronts. So, why not hire Thomas full-time?

Thomas became interim director a year ago when the museum was still struggling to find its way after PNCA essentially rescued it in 2009 by paying off and re-negotiating the terms of the museum’s $1.5 million debt. Manley said that Thomas, whom he called an “outside the box choice,” had special attributes that helped the museum get through that period.”We wanted to bring greater energy to the building, and I think he did that.”

But Thomas had never run a museum before, and the opportunities and challenges that a deeper marriage of the museum and the college raises require a different set of skills and attributes. Manley said that as he and Thomas talked, it became clear to both of them that going forward, Thomas’s strengths and weaknesses wouldn’t be as good a fit at the museum. Having spent a year already with the interim tag, Thomas decided to resign.

Going forward, Manley said that the partnership between the museum and college was strong, and planning was under way to create academic programs at the college around the museum. The joint operating agreement between the college and museum expires in 2014, and the boards of each have begun talking about how they will evaluate their progress so far and decide to “opt fully in or opt fully out,” Manley said.

While the museum has done better financially in many ways, large individual donations have been more difficult to find during the recession, Manley said, and the “right-sizing” of the museum to match its revenue and expenses has been painful. Still, he was confident that the museum was “rebuilding the trust” with its larger donors and that its increasing stability, “the discipline the museum needs to thrive,” was building confidence among them.

The museum will need another interim director while a search is concluded for a permanent one. Manley said he hopes to have someone in place very quickly, during the next week or so, and that he hopes to have a permanent director working at the museum by July.

A good measure of how far the museum has come in the past couple of years is that the crisis days of 2008 and 2009, when the museum at first seemed likely to go out of business altogether and then was absorbed into PNCA, with a certain amount of anguish and worry, now seem like old history. But the institutions are still in a transitional period, really, and will be until their relationship becomes closer and permanent. And that means a certain amount of uncertainty is still part of the mix.


Why does the PNCA-MoCC partnership matter? I wrote about that in 2009 for The Oregonian.

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