The State of the Taubman: Interview with Della Watkins - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va

The State of the Taubman: Interview with Della Watkins

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It's no secret that the Taubman Museum of Art has faced many challenges since it opened in 2008.  It's faced debt problems, criticism of the project's impact on other non-profits and perhaps the biggest problem -- a population in the Roanoke Valley that just hasn't been very interested in visiting.

Earlier this year -- a major overhaul -- the founding board members swept back into power.  They forgave loans they made to the museum, and thanks to a grant from Advance Auto Parts, admission is now free.

On top of those changes there is new management, new energy and a new vision for the Taubman's role in this community.

Will it work?  This week we'll take a look – beginning with an interview with Executive Director Della Watkins, an energetic leader with lots of heavy lifting in front of her.

After five years, critics of the Taubman might say it's had its chance to make its mark but that it hasn't happened and it never will.  But Della Watkins, the new executive director, maintains that the Taubman is a baby as museums go. So young it's just cutting its teeth and learning who or what it is.

"Having a five year old home means that sometimes you have to live in a space, you have to re-organize your vision.  Tweak the way going forward," said Watkins.

And "forward" is the way she is looking, revealing early in our interview that she's using her connections with the Virginia Museum of Art to secure an exhibit of European masters sometime in 2014.

"We will be receiving an exhibition of European masters coming in the spring.  These are the big names you recognize.  You will see artists like Van Gogh, Seurat. These artists will be shown as part of a traveling exhibition that the Virginia Museum is loaning to us, said Watkins. 

While such an exhibit promises to attract larger crowds than have historically come, Watkins says she realizes that the Taubman has to be more, if it is to be relevant in Roanoke.  It has to go beyond a place with art on the walls if it is to live up to its potential.

"The building is sort the gateway into our city.  We want it to be a welcoming and including place.  It is not just a place to come for an art history lecture.  It is to come meet a friend, have a contemplative moment.  It's a place you can bring school groups, cub scouts, church groups that want organized activity.  Different things to different people.  And that's what I want," she said.

One of her first goals when she arrived in February was to get finances in order.  She changed the contract with Nora's café and re-stocked the shelves in the museum store, now both are making instead of losing money.  The museum is at full staff -- and says Watkins when the fiscal year ended in June the Taubman was in the black.

You might remember originally the Taubman was going to include an IMAX theater.  Wall the studies suggested that IMAX would never make any money but the design was already done.  So the space for the theater is still there.  You just can't see it.  In fact it's roughly above the current theater.  And that space may be the key to the future of the Taubman.

"The unfinished space is going to be my responsibility and charge to go ahead and finish it and build it out, so that I can in fact, take some of the block buster exhibitions," says Watkins.

Watkins wants to bring in blockbuster exhibits, the kinds people stand in line for in big cities -- but the Taubman doesn't currently have enough exhibit space.  The unfinished space would add 4-thousand square feet of galleries, and would cost about 1.5-million dollars to finish.  Meaning more fund raising, and probably a separate ticket.

"Also when you bring a block buster exhibition to a community, it costs a lot, a lot a lot of money.  So in that cost we will be working on how to fund it, in order for us to have those wonderful things there may be a small ticket price to help us recover. :48  Because we rent all those outside exhibitions," she said.

Watkins says it's too soon to launch a capital campaign to pay for the build out of the new space... So in the meantime she is focusing on "friend-raising" -- Finding any way she can to get people in the door, whether it's kids in the art venture room, or adults coming to Thursday night live for live music and a drink.

"I want the folks who are having a cup of coffee in McDonald's -- like all of us blow in to do -- to talk and be chatting about what they are going to be doing for the say and think about this as a destination. … We want to be a little edgy and risky.  We want to be relevant to the folks who come here.  And I also want our community to embrace us so the everyday person will carve out just a little bit of their week to come in many times during the year to see us."

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