In Conversation with Scott Stulen
One of the wonderful things about running MuseumNext is that I get to know extraordinary people who I’d never normally get to meet. Scott Stulen is one of those people, a Museum Director with a different approach to culture, a man not afraid to walk his own path.
I was pleased to catch up with him Scott this week to ask him about his work.
Can you tell us a little about how your career has led to you becoming the Director of the Philbrook Museum of Art?
My path to becoming a museum director was not typical. I have an MFA in painting and drawing, with some art history thrown in. I was going to be a studio artist or, if that failed, an art professor. Working in a museum never crossed my mind. I applied to numerous teaching jobs out of grad school, failed, and ended teaching a summer camp for kids at a small contemporary art center. After the summer, they hired me to run their education programming and give tours. It was a small museum, so my job quickly evolved into a bit of everything from grant writing to building the website, giving tours to hanging drywall. I learned a lot and discovered that my true calling was museums, not the classroom or the studio.
After four years I joined the Walker Art Center to become the Project Director for the mnartists.org program. At the Walker I worked with local artists and communities to create innovative and sometimes jarring programming at the museum to bring new and more diverse audiences. I helped create the Open Field project and was responsible for unleashing the Internet Cat Video Festival on the world. I then moved from programmer to curator, joining the Indianapolis Museum of Art as the first Curator of Audience Experience and Performance. In this new role, I worked outside the gallery spaces to curate experiences designed to bring in younger people and create unexpected connections to the collection. Programs were off the wall: brunches with local chefs listening to unreleased records, artist–designed mini-golf exhibitions, outdoor films in the dead of winter, and the construction of an indoor park inside the restaurant. After only two years at the IMA, I was recruited for the director position at Philbrook.
My goal has always been to impact as many people as I can through art. What I have realized is that I can reach more people through my roles as educator, programmer, curator and now director than I could through my art. I don’t think of it as any different from my artistic practice, just that my materials and methods have changed.
What was it about moving to Philbrook that attracted you?
I was interested in the position because, even in my supported positions at my prior museums, it was still a constant battle to implement new approaches. Lasting change only happens when there is alignment throughout the organization, from board to staff to audience. And I strongly feel there is a need for new voices in museum leadership, so I actively pursued the opportunity.
At Philbrook, I landed an ideal situation in which to utilize my talents and vision. I followed a series of strong directors who started the process of shifting Philbrook from a reserved, mid-sized museum nestled in a wealthy neighborhood to an authentically welcoming, community-focused and socially engaged institution. Prior to my arrival, Philbrook had taken positive steps to grow and diversify its audience, but desperately needed to build revenue streams, attract younger audiences (for us, that is under 50) and bring life to the collection in order to survive. I was brought on to put those efforts into overdrive. We haven’t abandoned scholarship or the contemplative museum experience. But rather, we’re building parallel experiences to attract new audiences, generate repeatable income, and become a more frequent destination for our members.
What do you think it was that they saw in your work which made you the right fit?
As one of my the members of the hiring committee put it, “We needed an electron for Philbrook, and Scott is the person to provide that boundless energy.” Philbrook was open to a new approach, and to taking a risk with a first–time director who was not on the usual trajectory. What they saw in me was someone who could see things from a fresh perspective, rally support, had a clear vision for the future and not afraid to fail.
Throughout my stops I strive to create a culture which finds ways of saying yes to ideas, instead of all the reasons to say no or “not yet”.
You’ve been at Philbrook for two years now, what kind of changes have you made?
We have hit the ground running. Simple things like adding seating throughout the museum, opening the gardens to picnicking (and adding picnic tables throughout), changing our hours to be open earlier each day and later on Friday nights, changing the restaurant to be an destination food experience, installing collaborative, team–based processes for programming and exhibitions, rebuilding the Development department, and starting the early stages of a capital campaign. Here are a few other examples in more detail:
- Philbrook’s horticulture team planted a 9,000-square-foot edible teaching garden that serves as classroom, secluded retreat and living gallery, and produces the majority of the vegetables used in our new restaurant, Kitchen 27. The remaining produce is harvested by the local food bank and Food on the Move, a local organization focused on mobilizing good quality food into hard-to-reach, economically challenged areas. Last year we gave away a nearly a ton of vegetables from the garden to local charities.
- We added bee hives, and package honey for the museum shop and restaurant. Soon, we will have our own hot sauce, coffee and chocolate, all produced in partnership with local businesses and available for sale at Philbrook. The honey crop sold out in a week last fall and we are anticipating similar demand when the addition product lines launch this summer. The new offerings are generating revenue and provide a hip marketing vehicle.
- This summer we will unveil in the garden a new sculpture by artist Karl Unnasch. His piece takes a reclaimed, 20-by-30-foot 1880s log cabin, modified with recycled, stained–glass windows, translucent shingles and lit by dozens of glass lanterns. The piece will be a programmable space for classes, garden-to-table meals, intimate concerts and weddings.
- We changed how we approach exhibitions, most notably, Museum Confidential. The premise of the show is to answer the questions art institutions rarely address: What’s hidden away in storage, and why? How do we curate an exhibition? What do we do all day? The result showcases over 400 objects from our collection, rarely if ever shown; invites the audience to help curate a show; and openly presents our ongoing research. We also embedded an artist, Andy DuCett, to engage the collection from the artist perspective, highlighted by a Route 66 inspired motel lobby, staffed by volunteers who collected stories from guests about memorable places they have traveled in the United States. Andy DuCett’s Everywhere Motel lobby is also a programming performance platform that hosted dozens of local and regional musicians performing mini-concerts. The performances stream live on Facebook and are then uploaded.
- We launched a podcast in partnership with Public Radio Tulsa. Hosted by Jeff Martin, our Online Communities Manager, the bi-weekly podcast features untold stories about museums, from Vincent Price’s visits to Philbrook, to foot fetishes, to the Museum of Bad Art.
- We are diversifying our collection to include unrepresented voices and perspectives. We are rehanging the collection over the coming year thematically, creating a different interpretive arch. We are adding new works to the collection by artists of color, including a recent acquisition by Kehinde Wiley, and highlighting our collection’s strength in Native American art and commitment to supporting the creating of new work by contemporary artists. Finally, we are aggressively building a new acquisition endowment to support these efforts.
The changes are working: our audiences are getting younger. With more families and young professionals attending, we are the new “lit” date night for high–school students and young professionals, and our core audience is re-engaged, upping their donations and participation. Our recently completed fundraiser set a new record, raising over $3.2 million to fund programs.
What’s a stand–out moment from the past two years?
In November 2016 after the election, in response to a continued lack of funding for teachers in the state of Oklahoma, Philbrook launched a program offering free memberships to all public–school teachers in the state. The program, now in its second year, has well over a 1300 teachers participating from across Oklahoma.
You’re always coming up with great ways to engage your community, so what’s next?
In the coming months, Philbrook will introduce a working print shop, right in our lobby, in conjunction with our Innovative Impressions exhibition; offer Friday night beers and burgers in the garden, with DJ accompaniment; create a collaborative work with the Tulsa Ballet; launch a subscription membership program; and develop a new photography show with artist, actor and skateboarder Jason Lee — all while maintaining the core experience longtime Philbrook members enjoy and value.
Scott Stulen will be speaking at MuseumNext London in June 2018. – Interview by Jim Richardson