‘Bittersweet’ move: Whitney leaves Lansing Art Gallery for MSU museums

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LAURENT COSENTINO

There’s nothing quite like the enthusiasm of Barb Whitney as she grabs you by the hand, yanks you to a painting or sculpture at the Lansing Art Gallery, and expands your mind with appreciation. breathless.

From now on, any blow she does will be in a civil capacity.

Whitney, director of the Lansing Art Gallery and Education Center since 2014, moved to Michigan State University to do fundraising and development for the MSU Broad Art Museum and the MSU Museum. Michelle Carlson, director of education at the Lansing Art Gallery, took over as director on Friday April 1 and will remain in the role until the end of June. The gallery’s board of directors has not yet decided on a timetable for the choice of a new director.

During her eight-year tenure as director, Whitney, 46, guided the gallery through some of its toughest times, raising its artistic standards, bringing art to the streets and parks of Lansing and expanding its educational programs statewide.

Still, there are things she won’t miss.

In the darkest days of the pandemic, she worked until the middle of the night, writing grants and asking for pandemic aid that would keep the gallery’s doors open.

“The gallery is so close to my heart that I have sometimes compromised my health and well-being, to my own detriment,” she said. “I had a six-part job description.”

As manager of a dedicated but small staff, Whitney had to juggle exhibits and educational programs with hiring, marketing, communications and facilities management. The crucial lifelines of grant writing and donor relations were also in his hands.

In difficult times, she thought of her predecessor, Cathy Babcock, who retired in 2014 after 15 years at the helm. Babcock resisted strong pressure, “even from insiders,” to dissolve the gallery in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, according to Whitney.

“We’re still here, in part, because Catherine Babcock said, ‘Over my corpse,'” she said. “That also happened during the pandemic.”

Unlike many small nonprofit arts and culture organizations across the country, the Lansing Art Gallery has survived the pandemic, but it’s still on the move.

Whitney hopes to be among the last directors to skipper the gallery equivalent of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to wander from port to port as leases expire and rents rise. In early 2022, the gallery moved from its basement at 119 N. Washington Square to a two-story storefront in renovated downtown Knapp, the most recent of five moves since the gallery’s inception in 1965.

Whitney and her staff worked with Mayor Andy Schor’s Arts and Culture Commission to have the gallery considered a permanent home in a future downtown performing arts center, but that project is still in the works. his beginnings. The gallery’s lease expires in one year, with an option to renew.

“Conversations about the performing arts center and whether the gallery has a place there go back many, many years,” she said.

Whitney said it would be “bittersweet” not to be there when the matter is finally resolved, but she has “complete faith” in Carlson.

“There’s no one I’d rather share my password with,” Whitney said. “She will be the eye of the hurricane through all of the next steps.”

One of Whitney’s newest fans is her new boss, Paul Andrews, who came to MSU in July 2021 to take on a new role as senior director of cultural arts development.

“Barb is an amazing writer who got perfect scores with grants from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council,” he said. “She is also a tremendous fundraiser from individuals. She has deep and deep ties to the Greater Lansing community.

At first glance, the Broad Museum and the MSU Museum look like polar opposites. The Broad is a sleek 10-year-old stainless steel swoosh designed by the late world-class architect Zaha Hadid; the MSU Museum is a classic brick pile, 165-year-old ivy-covered cabinet of wonders haunted by Allosaurus and Stegosaurus skeletons.

But both museums are exploding out of their assigned roles, especially under recent management. In July 2021, Devon Akmon took over as head of the MSU Museum, as well as MSU’s Science Gallery in Detroit.

“Barb will be key to starting a fundraising program at the MSU museum,” Andrews said.

Whitney will dig right away at the MSU museum to support a fall 2022 exhibit on climate change, “1.5 degrees Celsius,” and a spring 2023 exhibit on Michigan’s forests, in tandem with the Smithsonian Institution.

“Devon wakes a sleeping dragon,” Andrews said. “Barb’s ability to help us fundraise for programs that appeal to a more diverse audience will be key.”

Similarly, MSU Broad recently ramped up its local outreach and local exhibit content under its new director, Mónica Ramirez-Montagut.

“I’ve been a Broad Art Museum fangirl for many years,” Whitney said.

The two museums seem to be converging on a single, larger mission and taking pages from each other’s books. MSU Broad uses museum-like materials such as archival documents and artifacts to enrich recent exhibits on automotive culture and the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. For its part, the MSU (“Where Science and Culture Meet”) museum lights up with glitzy science exhibits like last fall’s “Tracked and Traced,” about the state of surveillance, and cultural hybrids like the current exposition on Marvel’s Black Panther and Afro. -Futurism.

“MSU is so new, so contemporary, so innovative, international in scope, and the MSU Museum is a pillar of our community, but also with an incredibly innovative vision from the new director,” Whitney said.

“I’m really excited to follow again, to learn, to grow under someone I trust.”

Andrews said he was “thrilled” to have her on board. “We’ve also managed to retain a community asset at East Lansing, hopefully for the rest of his career,” he added.

Instead of burning midnight oil, Whitney is looking forward to spending more time with her husband, Jon, and the small crowd of siblings and other relatives who live near their home on the rural outskirts of Lansing. .

“We recently made Monday nights ‘sister days,'” she said, returning to board meeting mode. “We have made it a priority to meet more often.”

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