Meet new Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg director Kristen A. Shepherd

Museum of Fine Arts executive director Kristen A. Shepherd is gathering information. Her goal: to make the St. Petersburg museum even better.
Published February 16 2017

Kristen A. Shepherd believes the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is just great. But she believes even more that it can be greater.

Shepherd, 45, was appointed executive director in December after Kent Lydecker's retirement. She is its sixth director since the museum opened in 1965 and its first female leader. In a recent discussion about change, she spoke mostly in generalities because, she says, she's in the information-gathering phase.

"It's still early," she said. "I'm a methodical person and I'm not making any sudden decisions."

Her mandate is clear, though.

"We were looking for someone with an art and business background, and she has those," said Mark Mahaffey, president of the museum board. "She's goal oriented and knows how to execute. We're looking at external and internal operations: admissions, membership, exhibitions and the collection. Kristen has quite a bit of experience in all of those."

She's starting her tenure with news of a particularly splashy exhibit. This month, the museum announced it would be hosting "Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume," making the museum the only Florida venue for the nationally traveling show of Star Wars costumes and concept art. The show opens Nov. 11. Shepherd inherited this show, which Lydecker brought on before he retired.

She comes with an impressive pedigree. Shepherd holds bachelor's and master's degrees in art history with a specialty in pre-Raphaelite art. Early in her career, though, she chose a nonscholarly path, cutting her teeth on a big building project at Sotheby's, the prestigious auction house.

"I was offered a job as a specialist in the painting department or one as the business manager for a building project," she said. She chose the building project and, because of its success, was given others.

Shepherd became director of membership and the annual fund at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2008 and launched the award-winning Create Your Own Membership program before moving to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013. As its associate vice president of audience strategy and services, she increased visitor revenue and membership by 19 percent.

"I want people to think of membership as a gesture of philanthropy," she said, "not just a good-value proposition. To understand the value of what membership dollars do in the community. We have a membership of about 3,600, and it should be so much more with support at whatever level." (The museum's attendance was about 124,600 in 2016.)

She's looking at all of the museum's expenditures, including its publication, the Mosaic, and the activities and events associated with the museum, how they're used and who uses them. No capital, or major building, projects are in the near future, she said.

"With our comprehensive collection, we can make connections, tell stories," she said.

Her goal is to have more people hearing them.