New MV Museum director has long-range vision
David Nathans, the new executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Museum, has committed to a three-year tenure, but Mr. Nathans told The Times, "My intention is to be here ten years, or longer."
Mr. Nathans has ambitious plans, to expand both the scope and reach of the museum, that will take more than three years, he says. "Right now the museum has about 1,000 members, half of whom live off-Island," he said. "But there are 18,000 year-round residents of Martha's Vineyard, and as many as 100,000 in summer. We need to get more of these people interested in the museum, in the wonderful collections we have."
Mr. Nathans has some experience doing that. When he became interim director of the Emerson Gallery at Hamilton College, the art gallery served only the 80 or so art and art history majors who were the principal patrons. Mr. Nathans worked to reposition the way the art gallery operated, expanding exhibitions and programs to appeal to all disciplines - such as mathematics, genetics, and history.
At the MV Museum, Mr. Nathans said that he will "challenge the curators to think about the collections in terms of themes that will reach out to broad groups of people. More people will be surprised and excited about what we have. Broader exhibitions will create awareness and greater credibility."
Mr. Nathans cites the recent exhibition on Vineyard fisheries as the kind of outreach he hopes to expand. The current exhibition of Stella Waitzkin's work will be replaced in January by an exhibit of the late Stan Murphy's sketches and finished paintings to show the artist's thinking and approach to his subjects. The sketches are part of a recent donation to the museum, and the paintings will be on loan from private owners.
"People think of us as a history museum," Mr. Nathans said, "but they don't know what a wonderful collection of art we have. An exhibition like this one can show off what we have and some of the things we don't own that we'd like to have."
The West Tisbury campus
Discussions of the future of the museum always involve questions about the cramped quarters in Edgartown. Mr. Nathans is not ready to plunge precipitously into a building program in West Tisbury, where the museum has purchased land for a new campus. He sees the museum operating on two campuses.
"We're never going to move out of Edgartown," Mr. Nathans told The Times. "There are things we can't do in Edgartown, but there are also things we do here that we couldn't do in West Tisbury. For example, on the new campus we couldn't show people a 17th century house. West Tisbury can't do collaborative walk-in projects with Edgartown nonprofits and for-profit businesses."
However, Mr. Nathan also listed several needs which would require new facilities, including better storage and display areas and easier parking. A large hall, he noted, would allow the kinds of comparative exhibitions that can not be viewed at the same time in several small rooms.
Mr. Nathans predicted that new construction in West Tisbury would be slowly phased in, according to the functions that are most critical. "It will be two to five years before we know clearly and specifically what we're going to be doing on the land.
"People have asked me, 'What would you do if someone suddenly gave the museum $2 million?' I tell them I'd catalog the holdings into digital, searchable form. I'd enlarge the professional staff. I'd make the library more accessible and enlarge the oral history collection. I'd find temporary storage for some of our holdings that are at risk. There's plenty to do. I'm not sure I'd build anything with the first $2 million."
Museums, business, and marketing
Mr. Nathan brings an unusual mixture of experiences to his new job. He has extensive experience with museums, especially art museums, but he also holds a master's degree in business administration and has worked in marketing and finance for nearly 20 years.
During recent years (2002-2006), he was interim director of the art gallery at Hamilton, his alma mater, where he has been a member of the college's committee on visual arts since 1982. He has also served at various times and in various teaching and curatorial capacities at Princeton, Wharton, Yale, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Winterthur.
Mr. Nathan also holds an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and he worked as a marketing executive for such familiar names as AIG, Merrill Lynch, and Ogilvy & Mather.
Most recently he has been a business marketing consultant whose clients, in addition to financial firms, were new or proposed museums seeking to create master plans and marketing strategies. These included the Texas State History Museum, the Motorcycle Heritage Museum, and the Fort Des Moines Memorial Park.
Why did he choose the Martha's Vineyard Museum as a next challenge? Mr. Nathans said that he was impressed by the museum, but also excited by the vision and focus of its board. "These are people I can help," he said with confidence.