Meet Phil Wallis, new executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

‘Getting up to speed in a three-act play, and coming in in the middle of the second act.’

New director Phil Wallis inside the Martha's Vineyard Museum's colorful pottery room. Photo by Sam Moore

Phil Wallis has a lot on his plate these days. After accepting the position as the new executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, he is now charged with not only creating a vision for the museum, fundraising, and overseeing their move to the Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven, but also with finding a new home for himself and his wife on the Island. But he found time to stop by the Times office and share with us his vision for the next generation of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Wallis appeared relaxed, given his hectic schedule, casually attired in corduroys, a red pullover, and loafers. He spoke candidly about both the challenges and opportunities facing the museum, at times the thoughtful Wharton M.B.A. he is, and at other times hardly able to contain his enthusiasm, edging forward in his seat and becoming animated when describing the possibilities he saw for reshaping the institution.

Wallis has his work cut out for him. After abandoning a plan to move itself to a 25-acre plot tucked between the Agricultural Hall and Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury, the museum purchased the venerable Marine Hospital. As Wallis puts it, “My challenge is getting up to speed in a three-act play, and I’m coming in in the middle of the second act.”

Martha’s Vineyard Times: What do you see as your biggest challenge, taking the museum forward?

Phil Wallis: My biggest challenge is time. We want to be up and running in 2018, and that’s an achievable goal, but I’m impatient about getting this done. There’s fundraising, access, and infrastructure issues — but mostly we need a business plan; we have to define who we are. I’m learning hourly from everyone, and there’s a lot to absorb. Fortunately, we have a great team. I really like our board of directors; they’re very engaged, fired up, and they give huge amounts of time. And the staff I’ve inherited is absolutely incredible. They’re passionate, creative, dedicated, and great team players. We also have a wonderful architectural firm, Oudens Ello — they did the West Tisbury library.

MVT: Why is the museum leaving Edgartown?

PW: If we wanted to just operate as a sleepy historical society, we could have just stayed there indefinitely. Except we have about 25,000 or 30,000 artifacts crammed into garages and attics, and we’ve run out of room. It’s amazing how well we did for so long with little or nothing. It’s hard to represent the whole Island if you’ve been placed in one community with such severe space limitations. On Nantucket they have just one town, and they have a whaling museum. It’s beautiful but limited. We’re more complex, and we needed a location that could reflect that.

MVT: You’ve said you’re in the process of redefining the mission of the museum. How do you see it changing?

PW: The museum should be as much about Aquinnah as it is about Edgartown, West Tisbury, or Oak Bluffs. That’s going to be as transformative as moving our location.
Museums are no longer a building with a lot of books and artifacts, and if they are, they’re dying. Today it’s about accessing your customers, it’s about marketing, it’s about diversity; it’s about how is the front door to a museum the portal to the life, learning, and heritage for everybody; and our job is to engage people of all ages in that learning. How do you take history and make it relevant, exciting, inspiring, and intriguing for kids so they want to learn more? We also want to think in terms of the entire environment — both the natural and human environment. What does life on Martha’s Vineyard really mean?
We need an overriding narrative for the museum, not just a lot of little stories.

MVT: How does an M.B.A. from Wharton end up as executive director of the Martha’s VIneyard Museum?

PW: I’m very entrepreneurial. I’ve started businesses, and I like capital projects that are very complex, with a lot of moving parts. When I was in Pennsylvania I worked with Audubon. We did two $20 million projects, one inside and one outside of Philadelphia. When I started with James Audubon’s homestead, Mill Grove, we had 5,000 people coming through our doors; by the time I left, we had 65,000.

MVT: Did you have any trepidations about taking the job?

PW: Any new job is a leap of faith. We came up to visit in the middle of a big blizzard, and I asked my wife, Would you want to move up here? She gave the thumbs-up, and we were in. The business opportunity seemed so much like what I’ve done, it feels like home.

MVT: Are you adjusting to Island life?

PW: I’ve actually been coming here for about 45 years; my grandfather had a house on West Chop. I guess I’m kind of an Island guy; we stay on islands, not only here but up in Maine and in Minnesota. There’s a certain mentality about people who live on islands that I can relate to. They’re creative, productive, they’re survivors — they have a certain grit.

MVT: Did you do anything special to prepare for taking on this new job?

PW: Before I actually came here, I took a 10-day, 2,000-mile journey, and visited 15 different museums. Everything from the Corning Museum of Glass, because we have Fresnel lens, to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. I saw good things and bad things — I learned a lot.

MVT: How is the fundraising going?

PW: We’re about halfway there on the fundraising for the new museum. We’re at $12 million, and that includes some for the endowment. We’d like to be at $15 million in the next few months. The hard thing is the seasonality. There are about 170 nonprofits on the Island, and people get tired of being asked for money. We plan to do a lot of fundraising off-Island.

MVT: So how do you like your job so far?

PW: I’m very excited about the job and all the possibilities, now even more than when I accepted the job. It’s an opportunity to engage all my passions, and the thought of living here year-round is joyful to me.

You can meet Martha’s Vineyard Museum executive director Phil Wallis on Friday, March 18, from 6 to 7:30 pm at a reception at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.