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New director of St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts wants to engage the community

ST. PETERSBURG

Kent Lydecker has been on the job as the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg for less than two months.

The question people ask most often (or want to ask but don't) is: Can this distinguished scholar who has worked at three of the biggest and best museums in the United States find fulfillment at a much smaller regional museum?

His answer in a word:

"Yes."

He elaborates.

"Everything about this museum is exceptional. It's astonishing. I was so impressed when I first saw it."

He is sincere in his appraisal, even passionate in extolling the quality of the museum's location, staff, supporters and, most important, its permanent collection.

The logic of him landing here may seem curious given the ever-upward trajectory of his career, but when he talks about what each stop along the way has meant to him, and what he hopes for at this museum, the motion seems unchanged.

Lydecker, 61, had a measured but steady rise to the top of the museum world after he left his childhood home in Midland, Texas, where his father was a geologist with Sinclair Oil and his mother a homemaker. He had no art courses until he was at Rice University in Houston majoring in history. In his junior year, he took his first one, and he says the professor was "terrific." That and a trip through Europe over the summer "where I saw the things I'd studied" did it for him.

"It all fell into place," he says.

He stuck with the history major but took painting and more art history courses his senior year and received a full fellowship to Cornell University for a master's degree in art history.

After graduating, he was hired by the National Gallery in Washington to work in the education department and also enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in nearby Baltimore for a Ph.D. He spent a year in Florence, Italy, to study his specific subject, Renaissance art. By that time, he and his wife, Tony, whom he met at Rice, had a young daughter. Another would follow.

He was promoted four times at the National Gallery, becoming curator in charge of public programs in 1984, and had earned his doctoral degree when the Art Institute of Chicago tapped him to become executive director of museum education. He was also an adjunct professor at the Art Institute's prestigious school during his five years in Chicago.

In 1990, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's venerable director, Philippe de Montebello, hired Lydecker as deputy director for education, then promoted him to associate director, overseeing the myriad programs that fell under the education banner at the New York museum, which totaled some 20,000 events a year. He retired with de Montebello in 2008 and spent a year as a consultant attached to Johns Hopkins.

Then the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg came calling, in search of a new director when John Schloder announced his retirement in 2009.

Lydecker had never been a museum director.

Seymour Gordon, president of the museum's board of trustees, says, "I felt that, in view of his previous positions, he'd have no problem being a director. He had managed staffs and programs throughout his career. We had some outstanding candidates, but Lydecker was at the top of my list from the beginning.

"My concern," he says, "was whether he'd take the job."

It was a valid concern and pointed both ways. Lydecker had lived for most of his adult life in arts epicenters. His staff at the Met was about 70. The Met's annual budget was more than $200 million.

The Museum of Fine Arts is located in St. Petersburg, a charming and vibrant city, but it isn't Washington, Chicago or New York. It has a full-time staff of 19, supplemented by eight part-time employees. Its budget is about $2.9 million.

Beyond Gordon's concern that perhaps the job wasn't big enough for Lydecker was the implied question of whether Lydecker, if he took the job, could adjust to vastly different circumstances.

Lydecker doesn't seem interested in quantitative comparisons.

"The Museum of Fine Arts is very much in the tradition of America's great art museums. The greatness of a museum doesn't lie in its size but in the quality and excellence it demonstrates in everything it does."

Perhaps because he comes from institutions with such legendary collections, he understands their primacy in the success of a museum. They build the love, loyalty and pride of the community in long-term ways that no temporary exhibition can.

So, no blockbusters?

"How do you define a blockbuster?" he says. "To me a special exhibition should be about quality and excellence. And a connection to the museum's mission."

"When we first began our search," Gordon says, "I wanted someone who was going to bring in a million bucks a year with blockbusters. I thought that was the way to create more financial stability, bring in lots of tourists. But in talking to all of the candidates, I was soon disabused of that idea. It's just too expensive anymore to do them. The way we're going to prosper is expanding into the community. We didn't need a new director who could build a wing for us. We needed one to expand our membership and work on community financial assistance."

Undeniably, though, the museum's attendance, which averages about 100,000 annually, increases dramatically only when it presents a big, showy show. Dale Chihuly's large glass installations drew about 170,000 people during their run in 2004, for example. Also true is that, as lucrative as the show was, it didn't have a major long-term effect on membership or attendance.

Lydecker, as an educator, is looking at the long haul, not the quick fix, and he has done much along those lines throughout his career. But he will have a challenge launching any major new initiatives with a bare-bones staff and a budget Gordon says cannot budge in the near future.

"Museums are about people and works of art," Lydecker says. "They endorse things people think are worthwhile. You can read a book and learn about history but in a museum you have an immediacy. It's living stuff. Everyone who has ever drawn breath has a connection to it, and access to it can happen in all kinds of ways."

He is already addressing the accessibility issue. Beginning in January, and for the first time in its history, the museum will be open every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. It will open an hour earlier on Sunday, at noon instead of 1 p.m. Every K through 12 student who comes on a school tour will receive a family pass to return with their families for a free visit.

He says he didn't come to the museum with a list of specific ideas but anything introduced will be connected in some way with "engagement," bringing more people into the museum and the museum reaching out to more people beyond its physical walls.

He says that one of the greatest lessons he learned early in his career was as curator of public programs at the National Gallery.

"It taught me what genuine quality is," he says, "and about excellence. It gave me an opportunity to learn from great masterpieces, which was a special gift. And that became an opportunity to teach and communicate what art can give to all of us."

And so his great first professional love, education, will remain as a continuing preoccupation at the Museum of Fine Arts.

"One of the reasons I stayed on the public side of museum work," he says, "is that I like everything too much. With education, you're working with every aspect of what a museum has to offer."

So does a museum director.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

. IF YOU GO

Visiting the museum

The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg has a permanent collection extending from antiquities to the present. Temporary exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg are "Transcending Vision: American Impressionism 1870-1940" through Jan. 9 and "Dreams and Realities: Latin American Prints, Drawings, and Watercolors, 1959-1991" through Feb. 6.

Note that the new schedule does not begin until Jan. 1. Current hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $16 adults, $14 seniors, $10 college students with ID and youths 7 to 18. Free for children 6 and younger. (727) 896-2667 or fine-arts.org.

New director of St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts wants to engage the community 12/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 16, 2010 3:52pm]

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