Be His Guest


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New BMA Director Graham Boettcher wants to reinvigorate the museum experience.

Written by Rosalind Fournier

Portrait by Beau Gustafson

Additional photography courtesy of the Birmingham Museum of Art

Dr. Graham Boettcher, the new R. Hugh Daniel director at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), is sitting on a simple, seamless wooden tete a tete bench—the kind with two single seats with a frame barrier between “so two people can sit simultaneously and talk to one another or not, which is kind of fun,” he explains. Boettcher loves this bench for a lot of reasons. For one, it was custom designed and built for the museum by the Rural Studio, part of the Auburn University School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture (which also did a major installation recently for the museum’s Third Space exhibit), and he admires the Rural Studio’s work to combine beautiful design with sustainability.

copy-of-007rockwell_donors-nal2012Boettcher also loves the bench’s nod to Dutch influences—it reminds him of the famous 20th century Dutch chair designer Gerrit Rietveld, which is why it is placed here in the museum’s Dutch gallery, creating a subtle hint of synchronicity. Most of all, he loves this bench because it becomes part of the museum experience, and how guests experience the BMA is, for Boettcher, a very high priority.

“I want this to be a museum where our visitors—and I want them to be many—understand that this is their museum,” explains Boettcher, who joined the BMA in 2006 as an American Art curatorial fellow and rose to become chief curator and deputy director before winning out over candidates from around the country to earn the director’s position. “This is not some precious ivory tower that you may need an engraved invitation to come to.”

Boettcher says his open-arms approach to promoting accessibility to the museum’s wide collection of priceless artistic holdings is in part his own small way of paying it forward for a lifetime of impactful experiences with art and art museums. “I am very interested in the visitor experience, probably because that’s where my love of museums arose,” he explains. “As a child, my great-grandmother used to take me to Whatcom Museum in my hometown of Bellingham, Wash., which had a great Native American art collection. Then my grandparents would take me to Seattle, where I saw the King Tut exhibition and Son of Heaven: Treasures of Chinese Emperors, and those were awe-inspiring experiences. So I remember the feeling of wonder and true awe going into museums as a young kid.

“And that feeling has never faded, to be perfectly honest. I go to museums of every size, every budget. If I see a sign that says ‘museum’ on the side of the road on the highway, if I have time, I will pull off and visit. I’ve been in one-room museums run by donation canning jars, and I’ve been in multi-million dollar museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and every size and shape of museum in between.

“All of those visits inform my feelings about the type of experience that we can craft here in Birmingham.”

grahams-presentation-3Boettcher adds that crafting that experience is far from a one-man job, and he relies on his staff, the museum’s board of directors, advisory board, docents, patrons, and members not only to offer feedback but bring back ideas from the museums they visit. “We have a lot of active travelers and people who are going to museums all the time,” he says. “They give us great information on things they’ve experienced and ideas we might want to try on for size and implement here in Birmingham.”

Boettcher earned his bachelor’s degree in German Studies with a concentration in Northern European Art History at Yale in 1995, a master of arts in Art History at the University of Washington in 1999, then returned to Yale to earn a Ph.D. in the History of Art in 2006. In the intervening years, he served as a Davidson Family Fellow at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Tex. in 1998 and a fellow of the Terra Foundation Summer Residency in Giverny, France in 2001.

In 2002, Boettcher also worked as a research assistant on a special exhibition at the Tate Britain Museum in London, which happened to include a major painting on loan from the BMA—“Looking Down the Yosemite Valley, California” (1865) by Albert Bierstadt. So when he came to interview as a curatorial fellow at the museum in 2006, while he’d never been to Alabama, he knew that one painting well. “Little did I realize four years after the London exhibit, I would be the custodian of that painting and responsible for caring for it, interpreting it, and helping to let people know what a great treasure it is,” Boettcher says. “Happily I think we got the word out, because not too much later after that, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) named it as one of the ‘50 works of art that best tells America’s story.’”

The NEH eventually sponsored a weekend symposium called “Field to Factory: Picturing America and the Changing Face of the American Landscape” around the Bierstadt in which the BMA invited public-school teachers from throughout the state to hear from scholars and historians of art, industry, music and literature. “It was a really popular, well-attended program,” Boettcher remembers. “So we try to come up with new and interesting things, and I think we’ll see even more of that now.”

One of the more recent initiatives that excites Boettcher is the smartguide, a digital, interactive guide to almost every piece in the museum that is accessible by smartphone or iPad. (The museum also makes iPad Minis available for free at the entrance.) All of the artwork has a code located next to it, giving visitors access to whatever history, background and perspective they want about the piece—the kind of details that used to be reserved for major visiting exhibits.

“There’s a quick guide to the artwork that talks about the meaning of all of the different elements and quick facts about the artist and the region in which is was painted,” Boettcher explains. “Then we can tell you the other things that were going on at the time, so it puts it in context. And then there are additional images that show the work without its frame, even what the back of the work looks like in detail. You can touch the screen and have different parts of the painting come alive and show what each individual element of the painting means symbolically.

“We’ve tried to anticipate all of the different things that a person could possibly want to know about a painting and provide that, so people can decide exactly what kind of experience they want to have.”

150bma_andrewsretirementWhen longtime director Gail Andrews announced plans to retire back in the spring of 2017, Boettcher put his hat in the ring and laid out his vision for the BMA to the board of directors and the search committee. Then he had to wait. It’s all part of the process, but it was challenging for the kind of man who admits that as a kid he used to preview his own Christmas presents to find out what he was getting and likes to know what he’s having for dinner before breakfast is over.

“I like knowing; I think that’s the best way to put it,” Boettcher says. “That’s not to say I can’t be spontaneous and enjoy surprises once in a while, but I like knowing the direction of things, particularly when it concerns my own life and my career. But it was a good exercise for me in patience, because I believed in the process. So as you can imagine, even if I’m not physically jumping up and down right here in front of you, inside I’m jumping up and down for joy. It’s still all sinking in.

“This is where I wanted to stay,” he continues. “I’ve really been grateful for the opportunities to gain administrative experience in the different roles I’ve held here—chief curator, deputy director—but in terms of my own goals and aspirations, ultimately I saw myself as director of an art museum. So this isn’t something that just sort of happened overnight—which is not to say I don’t still have a lot to learn.”

Boettcher says museum repairs, upgrades and renovation are high on his list of early priorities. That might sound routine at first glance, but for Boettcher, it goes back to elevating the guest experience. “It’s a great space to come now,” he says. “But I want it to be a phenomenal space for people to come. We have a lot to offer. We have an incredible restaurant where people enjoy spending time. We have a beautiful terrace. We have the Red Mountain Garden, which is one of the most beautiful urban spaces in America, and I want people to know about all of those resources, but I also want to make some improvements. This is a building that’s not getting any younger, and it’s been 25 years since our last renovation. It’s time for a dedicated period of time in the short term to reallocate some of our resources so that we care for the building and make sure that it’s a place everyone is proud to call their own.”

Boettcher also wants to continue inviting the public to experience the museum in new ways and contexts, offering people of all generations and interests new entry points to engage with the art. “Museums are not just about the art on the walls and sculptures on the pedestals and furniture in the galleries,” he says. “The art is often a springboard to other forms of engagement—dance, film, food—all different manner of artistic expression. I feel like this is a perfect place for that type of engagement, so we’ve done that in the past and we will continue to do that. It also gives us the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of interesting, exciting creative people in the community. I find that incredibly invigorating.”

Asked if there’s ever a danger of dumbing down the art itself by creating festive events in order to draw in crowds, Boettcher’s response is an unequivocal “no.”

“I’ll share with you an anecdote,” he says. “I had a research assistant once who wrote (art) labels for me. He was coming out of a small, new England liberal arts college with an outstanding art history department—a very smart individual who is an excellent writer. And I remember when he wrote the first labels for me, and while they were very beautifully written and would have been wonderful as part of a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation, they really didn’t hit the mark as far as accessibility. You shouldn’t leave the visitor scratching their head like, ‘What does that mean?’

“And I remember at the time, he said, ‘Well, I don’t want to dumb down the labels.’ And I said, ‘I’ll tell you what dumb label is. It’s a label that no one can understand.’ So to me, when you offer things to people on a level that they can latch onto easily, it’s exciting, and it’s not dumb at all. It’s the smartest thing that any institution can do, and the smartest thing that we can do as museum professionals.

“We need to be beat the drum loudly and often,” Boettcher says, “that this museum is for everyone. And one of the goals for me is to continue to work to make it a place where people enjoy bringing their friends, their loved ones, their families. They can come here with a date, they can come here with their toddler and find engaging activities in our Bart’s ArtVenture. I want this to be a place where there are all types of experiences available to people.”

And if he and the staff do that well, Boettcher believes the BMA could achieve its goal of doubling its attendance to 200,000 people visiting every year. “And not just once a year, but more—with exhibits, galleries, programs, and festivals of every type that inspire that desire to visit, by making this their oasis or home away from home.”

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