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Leading While Learning

How were you considered for the position?
When Susan Vogel [the founder and former executive director] left, the museum stumbled. We were trying to figure out what we were going to do as we approached full adulthood. We were in what I called the gangly adolescence stage. [The board] decided to look for someone nontraditional, and I’m as nontraditional as you can get. I knew a couple of the trustees already, and they said, “Elsie, would you consider something really insane? We know you don’t know much about art, but we have a number of problems, would you take them on?” I said, ‘Absolutely. I wallow in the insane.’ I figured I had absolutely nothing to lose.

Since I was carrying [twins] at the time, I thought it was an amazing opportunity to give something to my kids and all others like them. For most African American kids, their idea of Africa is an embarrassment of stereotypes. So much of what they have seen is of a primitive, ahistorical people eking out a subsistent existence in the jungle. You have to be able to embrace your ancestry and look at it with abiding pride.

What gave you the confidence to accept a position totally outside of your expertise?
I had developed a career of jumping into things about which I knew absolutely nothing. I knew absolutely nothing about the art world. I considered that one of my strengths. Whatever is the established way of doing things, isn’t necessarily so for me. With a healthy sense of irreverence I will ask well-established curators, “Why does it have to be that way?” I would ask them to explain it to me. I’m not afraid to be embarrassed. I don’t want to pretend that I get it.

What is the first order of business, when you’re leading in new and unfamiliar territory?
In my case, learning the alphabet—literally. I had to acquire a broad knowledge of my subject matter, so I started visiting other museums. I did a development audit, trying to find out who our constituencies were. Who are we doing this for? Who was funding us? That gave me an idea of what our loyal constituency was. Then I had to learn how you do exhibits—and how you market exhibits to other museums, because the core of our mission has been traveling exhibits.

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