Updated June 22
Taking over as the leader of a museum during a global pandemic may not seem like the best timing, but for Heather Seger, it was just the experience she needed to prove to herself that she could lead Martha’s Vineyard Museum into the future.
Seger, who took over as interim executive director for Phil Wallis when he stepped down, was hired for the permanent position by the board of directors this week, according to a press release. Seger had been the museum’s advancement director at the museum since 2018, and, indeed, the outgoing voicemail message for Seger at the Vineyard Haven Museum still includes that old title.
“I’m really excited about it. I am humbled by it. I’m challenged by it. I said to the board that I can do this job, but I need support,” Seger told The Times.
Seger graduated magna cum laude from Holy Cross, where she was the valedictorian. She said it was something from that Jesuit teaching that stuck with her, about “really listening to your own heart and mind before making big decisions.” Over the past few weeks, Seger awoke early in the morning with the revelation that this was the job for her. “I’ve been listening to that small voice, and I called the board chair and told her I’d be excited and honored to do this job,” Seger said. “I waited to put my hat in the ring because I wasn’t sure.”
She said now it absolutely feels like the right choice for her and the museum: “I look forward to it.”
In making the announcement, board chair Cathy Weiss noted that her selection was made after an international search led by Boston-based Arts Consulting Group. The search included candidates from across the country and as far away as Europe, according to the release.
“But during that long process, Heather proved herself to be a remarkable leader, one who has not only managed the museum superbly during a time for which none of us was fully prepared, but who made Martha’s Vineyard Museum even more relevant to the community we serve,” Weiss said. “What good fortune to have engaged in a professional search, only to realize the museum was already being led forward by a tremendously competent, capable, and professional individual. During what has been the most unprecedented year in any of our memory, Heather’s steady hand, respect among the Island’s nonprofit and municipal sectors, and inspiring leadership helped the museum continue to meet the needs of the community and motivate our staff to find new ways to provide an outstanding visitor experience.”
During the pandemic, the museum staff stayed in touch with its members and Vineyard visitors by sharing its collection on social media platforms. The result was more engagement, which built excitement once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and the museum doors swung back open to the public.
Seger spoke highly of the museum staff in her conversation with The Times. She also pointed to the commitment of the board of directors to keep staff employed during the pandemic.
“From the very beginning, from the first indication we were going to have to close, the board gave staff the security to know that none of the full-time staff were going to lose jobs,” Seger said. “That decision and that security that came from the board let people let go of that fear.”
According to the release, Seger grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts, and came to love Martha’s Vineyard during annual vacations as an adult, including getting married to her husband Kevin at St. Augustine’s Church. She previously worked at the Cornelia Connelly Center, a nonprofit championing girls at risk on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she helped move the organization from its entrepreneurial beginnings to a more professional and sustainable institution. During her 14 years there, she held several positions, including development director for five years, and executive director, a role she held for five years.
Seger lives in West Tisbury with her husband and children, Jackson and Addison, and is on the board of the Vineyard Montessori School.
The couple always thought they’d retire to Martha’s Vineyard. Being able to find a job she loves here has been even better. “I love working with our staff,” she said. “It’s a great team. My first visit I was sold. Just like my first visit to the Island. I want to spend my days on the Vineyard.”
In the coming weeks, Seger looks forward to continuing to welcome back members and visitors. Over the rainy Memorial Day weekend, 600 people visited the museum.
“Most exciting is how eager people are to get back out and connect with people,” she said.
Another indication that’s true is the museum’s upcoming Evening of Discovery on August 12. The fundraising event is typically held at the end of June, but museum leaders wanted to give a little more distance from the pandemic, so people would be comfortable.
Still, the event was announced publicly Thursday morning, and sold out within 45 minutes, she said: “It indicates that people are excited and eager to get back together.”
Updated to include an interview with Seger.