ST. PETERSBURG — More than 30 years ago, a Safety Harbor middle-schooler visited her first art museum. In December, she returns to the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg as its new director.
During a meeting Tuesday morning, the museum's board of trustees voted unanimously to appoint Kristen Shepherd, 45, to the job after a monthslong search to fill the position after Kent Lydecker retired in February. She will be the museum's sixth director since its opening in 1965 and its first female director.
Mark Mahaffey, chair of the museum's board, said, "It was a very thorough process. We had four outstanding candidates. She seemed to strike us as the right person."
Though she holds bachelor's and master's degrees in art history from George Washington University, with a specialty in pre-Raphaelite art, it's her business acumen and experience in management, fundraising and membership development that made her such an attractive candidate, Mahaffey said.
The traditional journey to museum director was to rise through the curatorial ranks. Since the 1980s, that model has begun changing, with many museums opting for dual experience in both art and management.
"I fell accidentally into the business side," Shepherd said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
The family moved to Pinellas County in middle school, and she left the area to go to college. During graduate school, she had worked at a large law firm, where she found she had a facility for numbers, "learning how to do financial forecasting and modeling."
After graduation, she was hired by Sotheby's, a 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, which entailed adding six new stories to the existing four-story headquarters in Manhattan while all operations continued as normal.
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 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 19 percent.
She has continued to visit the Tampa Bay area because she has family here. Her mother, Judith Mitchell, managed Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater during the 1980s, and has resided on Florida's east coast for 25 years as the head of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.
"St. Petersburg has changed a great deal," Shepherd said. "I've watched with awe and wonder as it's grown."
Shepherd shares custody of two sons with her former husband, who lives in New York. The boys are excited about visiting their mother in Florida. She'll be in St. Petersburg for several days in November when she'll look for a rental home, preferably in the downtown area. "I have a Vespa, which could be fun to get around on," she said. Joining her will be her partner, who is also excited about the move "because he loves to sail."
Jerry N. Smith has been the interim director since Lydecker's resignation. He came to the museum in October 2015 as the Hazel and William Hough chief curator and will continue in that capacity, Mahaffey said.
Shepherd declined to discuss specific plans for her new post, saying she wants to take some time getting to know staff, museum members and the community.
The museum, 255 Beach Drive NE, is known as a comprehensive one, meaning its collection represents art from around the world from pre-history to the present.
"I always appreciated it as a storytelling museum," Shepherd said. "Seeing all these wonderful works felt like seeing old friends."
Contact Lennie Bennett at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]