The Worcester Art Museum Opens Its Doors to New Director Matthias Wascheck
By Bernie Whitmore
What is the role of a museum? The answers to that question are, I suppose, without bound. For many of us who have been fortunate enough to have explored the galleries of a museum with an open mind and spirit of adventure, the experience can be transcendent. To discover the creativity of a genius or relics of a civilization long vanished is to expand one’s own world; in short, museums nourish our minds and, often, spirits.
When I think back to memories of my own first visits to the Worcester Art Museum, I realize that they truly were that significant, so having the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the WAM’s director was highly exhilarating. For close to a year, Matthias Waschek has been guardian of what lies behind the doors of the museum, which has long been and remains an essential part of Worcester’s identity.
BW: What path ultimately led you to Worcester?
MW: I think none of our paths are actually linear; they’re very sinuous. One thing comes to another, there’s another opportunity that puts you somewhere else.
I realized at an early age that I should study art history rather than art because I wasn’t a good enough artist. So I started my study in Bonn [Germany]. In my first course my class was told by the assistant professor, “Basically you have to be cognizant of the fact that none of you will find a job.”
So I was cognizant… I didn’t quite know what a job meant… so I forged on. It was wonderful; it was a passion. My education was more ‘school of life’ with lots of travel and conversations throughout Europe.
In ’85, when I was going on to my PHD, I showed my project proposal to my supervisor and he said ‘go for it’ and I went to Paris. I spent five years researching and writing and after that, well, nothing happened until I received a grant working on French ceramics of the second half of the 19th Century. I worked on that for another two years.
After that, with money running out, I found I didn’t have a network in Germany any more and I’d passed my shelf life in Paris. I didn’t know what my next step would be; none of my applications worked out.
Then, at a dinner, I sat next to a person who called two weeks later and asked if I wanted to work at the Louvre. Not a bad place to work! I was there for eleven years and toward the end I thought, ‘Where do you go from the Louvre?’ I applied for a position in Zurich and did everything to sabotage myself.
But then you veered from scholarly pursuit in Europe to becoming a director and curator in Missouri…
I was put in touch with the person who later hired me, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, and suddenly I found myself in St Louis. I had never really been to the US before, but I had a ball; it was phenomenal! It’s a great city that’s been bruised, maybe not as badly bruised as Detroit, but bruised.
I was able to shape a very young institution situated at the fault line between challenged and stabilized parts of town. I forged my tools there in terms of impact of the institution, sustainability and engagement with community.
After eight years, when I felt I had to leave, I was too close to the founder to do it behind her back so we came to an agreement helpful to both sides where I could openly search for a position and all of a sudden I found myself in Worcester.
As you approach a year in the area, what’s your impression of Worcester?
I really had the shock of the new when I went to St. Louis, but Worcester is much closer than St. Louis to European cities, both geographically and in its historic layering.
Historic depth that you would not have in Missouri, which was settled much later. When you leave St. Louis by car it takes quite some time to get to a major place with historic significance. Whereas when you leave Worcester you find charming little towns that have been incorporated for a couple hundred years.
In my migrations in Europe and now here, everything is codified. Like language. You use certain words to describe that you like someone ~ or detest someone royally.
My initial issue was that I was not accustomed to people having rather muted facial expressions. So I had to look into people’s eyes to see if they were getting bigger to express amusement or horror. I couldn’t see it in the face. Though a generalization, that seems to be a big difference from my experience in the Midwest. ‘The Yankee poker face!’
The art community is incredibly rich here. There’s a lot going on in terms of music; I’ve been to concerts in people’s homes, which is wonderful.
For the fine arts, obviously the museum [WAM] is the ‘big gorilla?’ Sixty pound gorilla? What is it in English? A very heavy gorilla. But there are smaller institutions that are very interesting. Arts Worcester has great exhibitions going on. And you see this on an even smaller scale. I recently went to the opening of an incubator in a loft next to South Main Street and they asked artists to do wall decoration.
So it’s everywhere; it’s the richness that I appreciate very much.
In many respects, Worcester is regarded as dwelling in the shadow of Boston. Is that an issue for the WAM?
Sure, but you can make that an opportunity. When you’re in a smaller place the impact you have on the community with what you do is much bigger. That’s what we’re trying to do.
If we did something of medium size at the Louvre, although it reached a similar number of people, it was not very impactful on Paris. Doing something of similar magnitude in St. Louis or here in Worcester can be the talk of the town.
Being open for free in a town of twenty museums is, relatively speaking, a non-event. Being open for the summer months here in Worcester was a major event and we had an impact.
In a medium sized town you can be more experimental than in the big institutions in big towns. Because the more people it affects within the organization, the more you need buy-in.
We can move very fast. The decision to be open for free was made within a week. Certain initiatives that we’re going to start will, hopefully, show how experimental we are.
We’re forced to have a niche. So when people have a choice between going to Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the MFA in Boston or to see us they might say, “Whenever I go to the WAM there’s something interesting happening ~ completely out of the ordinary. Let’s go there this time.”
To come back to the two months of free admission, it was fascinating to look at the zip codes of where people came from. They were very evenly distributed to cities all across New England and as far away as New York; lots of people from New York and Boston.
Was the level of attendance and the diversity of the visitors different than in prior years?
Yes, very much so. In terms of numbers, we had in July and August of 2011 five thousand visitors. In the same months this year, when open free, we had fifteen thousand.
We had visitors who, in their behavior, showed that they were in a museum for the first time, which is wonderful. I hope we got it right and made them feel welcome.
We had comments from people who paid for the opening of the Salisbury Street doors. We needed to raise enough money for staff for the next two years. Instead of raising sixty thousand dollars, we went beyond to one hundred thousand. Phenomenal!
In our appeal we asked for modest contributions, about the same as the cost of dining out. In one of the most moving comments, a gentleman replied, ‘I’m unemployed right now and I can’t afford to go to a restaurant but I think it is very important that everyone can go by the main entrance into the museum. I’m very sorry that I cannot give more than this.’
What are your primary challenges here?
[They are] two key words provided by the board:
Relevance ~ sustained and on the rise with a measurable impact on the community.
Sustainability (financial) ~ we’ve been over-reliant on endowment-generated money and need to diversify our income streams.
How are these challenges in keeping with what you see as the role of the museum?
A museum, when it does its job well, is part of the social glue of a city. This means that everyone feels that it’s part of the local and regional identity and goes there more than once.
Art museums are about art, so scholarship is important. But scholarship, all by itself, is nothing. If you are curating exhibitions that nobody sees, writing articles that nobody reads… you have to ask yourself, ‘With so many valid causes, can I morally allow this? When kids in our city go hungry to bed, can I allow myself to indulge in pure scholarship?’
I say this possessing a PHD; I did scholarship and have been published. But the question of relevance is a very important one. Scholarly research and caring for the objects; this is what we’re about. But we’re also about communicating, about forging an identity for participating.
If we’re functioning well, we’d be a phenomenal PR machine for Worcester. The investment in us down the road would help make the local economy more vibrant.
How would the museum position itself as you describe?
It could be a string of high-profile exhibitions. So that people, when they hear of Worcester, would say, ‘Oh! That’s where the museum with these great exhibitions is!’
And once that happens, the next step is to spill beyond our walls and participate in developing our immediate surroundings; work with the student community.
The bigger part of the policies we try to reach is about relevance, not necessarily about generating income. Once we have the relevance, well then you are also an interesting partner for people who would like to make a difference [financially].
After all, why would you want to make a difference in a museum with no relevance?
Worcester Art Museum
55 Salisbury Street, Worcester