Curator reflects on time in Toledo as she prepares to run Honolulu Museum of Art

By Roberta Gedert / The Blade
Sun, 01 Dec 2019 15:00:00 GMT

Preparing for a future leadership role at an art museum takes more than knowing the difference between a Vincent Van Gogh haystack and a Wassily Kandinsky abstract.

As Toledo Museum of Art curator Halona Norton-Westbrook steps into such a role in January as director of the Honolulu Museum of Art, she is acutely aware of the wisdom imparted on her through the Toledo museum’s fellowship program, knowledge that she will take with her to Hawaii.

“It was really the training I had as part of the fellowship that never really went away,” she said. “I have a strong framework of what really worked well here, like doing things that really involved the community with the process, and being art-centric and doing things that really utilize the intellectual resources of our staff and utilize and highlight the collection in new ways. All of those things will be part of what comes to the surface [in Honolulu], but in terms of an actual plan, I feel very keen to build it with the people there.”

TMA’s Andrew W. Mellon Fellow program and now called the Brian P. Kennedy Leadership Fellowship, is designed to offer training in the administrative and financial aspects of running a museum — not just curatorial-related experiences. It was started in 2011 by former director Brian Kennedy, and was originally supported by a $500,000 donation from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. At the conclusion of that grant, the program was funded as an endowment through a $1 million grant from the foundation that was matched with $2 million by TMA.

The fellowship pays for such things as salaries, benefits, travel stipends and seminars for applicants. Thus far, six curators have been through the two-year training program since it began, including current fellow Lauren Applebaum, who came to Toledo with a Ph.D. in art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Norton-Westbrook is the second TMA fellow to leave the institution to take a top role in another museum. In 2018, Oxford University graduate Adam Levine left his post as deputy director to take on the directorship at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Fla.

“The idea is that curators understandably come out of the academic world and … when they leave school, perhaps for 10 or 15 years, they will work in the curatorial field, period. They haven’t necessarily managed anyone or managed a budget,” said John Stanley, TMA’s interim director. “These are the types of folks who are asked to step into these roles to run museums, and so there’s long been thought to be a dearth of opportunities for people on that track to get some more of the practical aspects of running a museum into their resume.”

Norton-Westbrook, who is serving as both director of curatorial affairs and curator of modern and contemporary art, leaves the posts Thursday and begins her new position in Honolulu on Jan. 6. A product of the San Francisco Bay area, she entered Toledo’s leadership program in 2013.

She said the program allowed her to work on things like the museum’s Polishing the Gem endowment campaign, which raised $43 million between 2014 and 2017, and the museum’s current multimillion-dollar master plan, which involves a physical overhaul of the campus in the next 15 to 20 years. She helped lead a $2.25 million renovation of 15,000 square feet in gallery space in the museum, and was a key player behind the outdoor block parties now thrown by the institution every summer.

On the curatorial side, she was instrumental in bringing to TMA the interactive exhibition Playtime in 2015, and currently has two shows up that she co-curated:Everything is Rhythm: Mid-Century Art & Music, and Global Conversations: Art in Dialogue. She also brought new works to the museum, including her favorite TMA piece, Nancy and the Rubber Plant by contemporary painter Alice Neel.

She said she learned through Toledo’s program to balance traveling exhibitions with finding new and innovative ways to put the museum’s permanent collection on view, and to increase the number of collaborative, on-site projects with artists, an example seen currently with the large-scale sculpture exhibition by Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha.

The Honolulu Museum of Art and TMA are similar creatures in many respects, Norton-Westbrook said. They have similar operating budgets (TMA’s is about $16 million), an extensive educational program, and a similar number of employees.

One key difference, however, is the number of pieces in Honolulu’s permanent collection, which at 55,000 is more than double TMA’s 25,000 collection.

“I think it speaks to the credit of the fellowship at TMA and the training that I received there, that they would hire a first-time director to run that large of an institution,” she said.

Norton-Westbrook said museums also are taking notice of females as viable options for directorships.

“Part of the reason for the initial motivation for the fellowship ... was that there was going to be all of these people coming of retirement age who were museum directors, and that the field was going to have to naturally turn over and shift, but that there didn’t seem to be that many things set up to intentionally train people to take on those positions,” Norton-Westbrook said. “I think there was a natural shift that happened in terms of this next generation of directors, and it just so happened that there's been more acceptance and willingness to embrace female directors.”

Stanley said discussions have begun to fill Norton-Westbrook’s positions, but that nothing has been posted publicly yet. The museum is in the midst of its search for a permanent director, and is also looking for an assistant curator of contemporary art.

Look for more information on applying for the next vacant fellowship position at TMA starting in January at toledomuseum.org.

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