Photos by Angie Gray
These inspiring and exceptional Delaware directors of arts and culture have one thing in common: They are all women.
For many years, women have traditionally played a behind-the-scenes role in nonprofit arts and culture institutions, as curators working in fundraising and public relations roles. But that is changing, especially in the First Estate. The majority of museums and cultural institutions in the upstate are now run by women, including the Delaware Art Museum, the Hagley Museum and Library, The Delaware Contemporary, Nemours Estate, and the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage .
The women in these positions work closely together, unlike many of their predecessors. They speak frequently and share views and ideas, offering mutual support that benefits all of their institutions and, ultimately, the communities they serve. Their main goal is to attract a wider audience and foster a new appreciation for the art, objects and history they manage.
While many of these women have taken an unconventional path in their current positions, they all have a genuine passion for what they do and enjoy sharing their knowledge with visitors to their institutions and the next generation of enthusiasts. art.
Jill MacKenzie, who became executive director of the Hagley Museum and Library in May 2020, never imagined that she would end up leading the institution she has lived in for 39 years. “I started as a public relations coordinator at Hagley in 1982 and had no idea becoming a general manager,” says MacKenzie, a University of Delaware graduate with a bachelor’s and master’s degree. in communication. “I have held various roles here over the years and have loved each and every one of them.” When her predecessor moved to a new position in Philadelphia, she naturally suited the role.
“I think I was selected because of my credentials, not because I’m a woman,” she says. “The corporate culture of this institution is so open and welcoming, and we want to bring in people who share our passion for the institution’s mission to inspire all people to be innovative in their own lives through inquiry. and exploring our historic collections, the original DuPont Power Park and online resources. Hagley is the site of the gunpowder factories founded by EI du Pont in 1802, located on 235 acres along the banks of the Brandywine in Wilmington. The site includes restored mills, a working community, as well as the ancestral home and gardens of the du Pont family.
Many of the best leaders in our arts and culture organizations say they have seen things change dramatically in the arts industry, where there are now more women around every executive table participating in conversations about fundraising and revenue, not just about fundraising.
Jean Hershner, executive director of Nemours Estate, was “bitten by the history bug” while working part-time as a tour guide at Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of former President James Monroe and his family, near Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2005, when she suddenly found herself compelled to re-enter the workforce, she decided to pursue graduate studies and simultaneously pursued a master’s degree in American Studies at Penn State University and nonprofit management at Penn State University. ‘Eastern University.
“I loved the history, arts and culture involved in American studies, but I knew that in order to run a historic organization I had to be able to talk to an accountant and a curator and understand what each one needed. me, “says Hershner. After completing her graduate programs, she found a position in the fundraising office of the York County Heritage Trust (now the York County History Center) in York, Pa., And then held a fundraising position. at Preservation Pennsylvania. Her efforts led her to the Nemours / Alfred I. duPont Children’s Hospital (now the Nemours Children’s Hospital, Delaware). In July 2018, she took over the management of the museum operation of the Domaine de Nemours, on the hospital grounds.
“Like Jill [MacKenzie], I never wanted to become a general manager, ”she says. “I was really focused on my role at the estate – how we could make things better and engage with people to highlight the remarkable story of Alfred I. and Jessie Ball duPont and the legacy they have left us. leash.”
The love of art and the passion for history have led Molly Giordano, Executive Director of the Delaware Art Museum, and Leslie Shaffer, Executive Director of The Delaware Contemporary, to their respective positions.
Giordano began his role at the Delaware Art Museum in 2010 as head of marketing and public relations while attending the University of Pennsylvania to earn his Masters of Public Administration at night and on weekends. “The more I worked at the museum, the more I fell in love with it and the more I saw that the museum could become a community resource for the state and the region,” explains Giordano, who took up his current position in February 2021. after having held various positions at the museum.
“Ten years ago, maybe, with no training in traditional art, I probably wouldn’t have been chosen for a job like this,” says Giordano, who attended the University of Delaware and also holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism. “It’s been a really interesting development to mix the things that I love so much – art, writing, public administration – in one job. I’m excited to be leading the change not only through the programs and exhibits the museum offers, but also to think more holistically about what the arts can do for our community at large.
Shaffer, who came to head Delaware Contemporary in August 2019 after initially joining the institution in the programming and audience engagement department in 2017, says she always wanted to be an artist but turned herself. realized that she was more of an art history person from the start. career.
“I decided to embark on a career where I could support artists at all levels of their careers, from teaching college courses to providing exhibition opportunities,” says she. Shaffer has more than two decades of experience in art museums and nonprofit organizations, including leadership roles as executive director of Artspace in New Haven, Connecticut, curator of education at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and Acting Executive Director at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. Shaffer has a degree in museology and art history and enjoys focusing on public engagement, community interaction and mentoring young professionals.
“It’s important for the next generation [of art administrators] to have a ready path for them to take on leadership roles, ”she said. “Today’s women are winning their roles and the struggle to succeed is less and less evident. It is also important for women leaders like us to have a strong peer support group with whom we can collaborate, form partnerships and ensure the success of our nonprofits in the state.
Mentorship also plays a key role in promoting arts administration roles to the next generation of female leaders and can help open doors for career advancement that they might not otherwise be aware of.
“We work closely with young women who are considering a career in the arts,” says MacKenzie, who participates in the Lerner Executive Mentor program at the University of Delaware. “We want young women to know this is a career option for them and to highlight the actions they can take if it’s something that interests them.”
“We are very fortunate to have so many outstanding female leaders here in Delaware, including some I saw banding together during their teenage years,” said Carla Markell, former First Lady of Delaware. “These women transcend the boundaries of race, socio-economic status and political outlook. Not only does this diversity lead to a wider range of artistic offerings for the people of our state and region, but in addition, young girls from all walks of life can see what is possible when they work hard and follow their path. passions. I am so proud of these leaders. They strengthen our arts organizations today and position us well for the next generation of leaders, which will allow Delaware to stand out well above its weight in the arts world for generations to come, ”emphasizes she does.
“We all have such a great relationship with each other,” adds Giordano. “This is the first time that I have experienced a connection like this, where all the leaders of the institutions speak collectively, work together and support each other in a very meaningful and meaningful way. I believe that, through this mutual support, great things can happen for the institutions we lead, as well as the wider community we serve. “
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