Marianne Richter moved to Columbus in 2015 to head one of the city’s most cherished cultural institutions.
As director of the Columbus Museum, she manages a full-time staff of about 30 people in an 89,000-square-foot building and oversees an annual budget of $2.7 million.
Richter sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about her background, love for the arts and work at the Columbus Museum.
Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.
Q: Tell me about your life growing up in Rochester, N.Y.
A: I’m the youngest of three, and I think I was really lucky with my childhood. I had parents who put a lot of time into my education and really was a very fortunate person in that way. When I think about it, what I do now relates to my childhood because the arts were always important in my family. Neither of my parents had careers in the arts, but they both were interested in the arts, passionately, as an avocation. ... We have a number of musicians in my family, as well, so it was just routine that if my parents were going to go to a recital, or a concert, as soon as I was old enough to be counted on to behave decently in elementary school, that meant I was going, too.
I can remember going to museums with them, going to hear Shakespeare with a local company. It was just assumed that I was not too young to do those things. We were also lucky because Rochester has, associated with the University of Rochester, the Eastman School of Music. So the musical offerings in that city were amazingly good, including a number of free events. You didn’t just have the opportunity to go to see the Rochester Philharmonic, but you could go to hear faculty or student recitals, as well. There were a lot of opportunities for people interested in the arts.
Q: What did your parents do for a living?
A: My father, professor of pathology at the University of Rochester, and then my mother taught nursing at a local college there, Roberts Wesleyan. ... We were not from Rochester. We moved there for my father to take that job.
Q: Where is your family from originally?
A: My father is from Germany, and he and his family moved to the United States in August of 1939, after having spent four years in Switzerland, trying to get out. They were refugees, and then moved to Illinois. Then my mother grew up in Arkansas, so they couldn’t have been more different in terms of their background.
Q: Was your father from a Jewish family?
A: They were Protestant, but he had Jewish ancestry, so that was part of it. Also, my grandfather had been involved in the Weimar Republic before Hitler, so that didn’t help either. ... They needed to leave, and so the U.S. welcomed them.
Q: Who were your role models growing up?
A: Probably, overall, I’d say my mother.
Q: Why so?
A: She was somebody who was curious about almost everything. She was patient with people. She was just a person who people liked to be around. She was smart, she was wise, she just was a great mom. ... She also was good about things like wanting me to get out and play, helping me get better at sports, things like that that I wasn’t necessarily as naturally good at.
Q: What did you aspire to be when you grew up?
A: Well, I don’t know that I really ever had a big plan. I would have a lot of ideas. I can remember thinking maybe I wanted to be a writer. Sometimes I’d want to be an actress — that didn’t last long. I did sometimes think whether I wanted to get into art. I always wished I had a really nice singing voice, which I didn’t, because that would have made me really happy, as well. I don’t know that I necessarily had a plan. I was always interested in a lot of things, and I liked reading about history a lot. I went through a phase when I was completely obsessed with Henry VIII and his six wives, and just always enjoyed history in school.
Q: It sounds like you were pretty well-rounded growing up.
A: I think that my family did a pretty good job with that, yes.
Q: I was going to ask you how your love for art and museums developed, but it seems like that just came naturally out of the lifestyle.
A: It did, except ... I’m the only person in the family who’s really focused on the visual arts. ... The emphasis was on music. I played violin growing up, but for some reason, when I think back... my memories are very visual, more than conversations. I can kind of remember how things looked when I was very small, and then I have very strong memories of particular works of art that I’ve seen when I was a child.
I’d say somewhere in about seventh or eighth grade, I started becoming interested in reading more about artists. ... There was a particular book, I don’t remember the name of it anymore, but it was sort of an encyclopedic history of Western art. This was long enough ago that people hadn’t evolved to realize how many different histories there were. This was, I think, probably starting with the late Middle Ages to the present. I would pore over that book, and all of the works in it, over and over and over again. Then, I bought a book that had little brief biographies of famous artists, and I’d read that all of the time. Somewhere in there, I started getting really interested in works of art, as a particular focus.
Q: Do you paint?
A: I do not. I took a couple classes when I was in college for my major, but I really, personally, never had the desire to make art for myself.
Q: Tell me how you got to Columbus.
A: I got to Columbus through the search for this position. The Columbus Museum Search Committee worked with a headhunter, Marilyn Hoffman, who’s based in New Hampshire. She brought me down, among other semi-finalists, for one day of interviews that took, basically, just over an hour for the first round. Then, I was one of two people who came for the final interview.
Q: What did you think about Columbus when you first visited?
A: I really liked it. The first time I came, I had enough time after the interview, before I had to go back to Atlanta for my flight, to look around. I went down to Uptown, and I looked at the river, and then I walked around on Broadway, and just was checking things out, and thought that it really felt like something was happening in Columbus, and there was a nice spirit to it. I saw people out and about, and some interesting shops. I loved the river path, the RiverWalk. I thought that was really great to see. It was also a fantastic day, weather-wise, so that really appealed to me, too. It just had a nice feel about it.
Then, when I came back the second time, I had a little more time to see neighborhoods. ... One of the things that I noticed was that there are not that many houses in Columbus that are cookie-cutter looking. There’s a lot more individuality here, and that appealed to me, that it just had a little bit more of a distinctive flair to it than some of the tract homes you may see where I was living in the Midwest. I just liked the look of the city, and everybody was really friendly, and I liked that, too.
Q: How did the museum here compare to the museum you were coming from in Indiana?
A: This is a larger museum. So for me, this is like a dream job. ... More full-time staff. The collections, however, aren’t that dissimilar. This museum has the history component; my last museum did not. But all my career I’ve focused on American art. My last museum was a museum of American art. That was really no different. The other thing that happened... in our contemporary galleries, there’s a painting by Robert Motherwell called “Caprice.” It is one of a series of five or six paintings of the same subject matter. The Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Ind., has one of the others. So when I came and I saw that, I thought, “There’s the same, related painting,” And I thought that was a good omen, as well, to see that. The Swope Art Museum is particularly known for three paintings by mid-20th century artists — fantastic Edward Hopper and then Regionalist work by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.
Q: What is this museum known for in terms of the type of art?
A: I think for being pretty comprehensive in its collection, Colonial to present. The Chihuly (glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly) definitely stands out. I think (the Deborah Butterfield sculpture in front of the building) stands out. We have some really wonderful 19th century landscapes. I think some of the Robert Henri and our William Merritt Chase stands out. A lot of people also know us because we have a drawing collection that has been the focus for some time; also for acquisitions and for some of the publications that we’ve done.
Q: Has the museum been receiving the level of support that you would like from the community?
A: I think that the community is remarkably supportive of all of the arts. Having been most recently in a community that was less so, I’m really impressed with this community. It wasn’t that long ago that there was the Columbus Challenge that raised something like $100 million for the arts. There are not many cities of this size that could pull that off, could accomplish something like that. The people we have among our supporters are very loyal. It’s just really nice to see, and I see that at other arts organizations as well.
Q: The museum here is free, correct?
A: It is free.
Q: So how are you able to afford to maintain such a nice museum?
A: We are in an unusual position, and I would say enviable position, because we are also partners with the school district. That relates to the foundations of the museum. It was, by legislation, to be part of the school district. The school district actually owns our property, and supports us with a good portion of our budget, about 40 percent. Then we raise the rest of the funds through a separate nonprofit organization, a corporation. If we didn’t have the school district budget, I think this community would still be supportive, but we really couldn’t do as much without that, and that helps us be free, as well. My last museum was also free. I like free museums. I think, ideally, museums should be free. I think the point of the museum is, this is for the people of the community, and in larger environs, a place that they can learn about the past and present, and not just art, but also our history collection, that should be accessible to everybody.
Q: How much traffic would you say that you get in a year?
A: I think, right now, our attendance is about 50,000 people, and we would love to increase that. We offer a variety of programs, really, to target people of all kinds of backgrounds and interests. I think we, at this point, are doing a really good job of having a little something for everyone. We’re partnering with a lot of other organizations, too, to also extend our reach and the scope of what we could offer.
Q: Do you think that museums have lost their appeal over the years?
A: I think that is the growing challenge for museums. I belong to the Association of Art Museum Directors, and that comes up a fair amount. I’ve been to a couple of meetings now, about how to keep younger people interested. The balance that we have is that in some ways technology could be helpful. But the balance is not having it overwhelm the actual experience so that you’re spending more time, for instance, looking on your cell phone, manipulating whatever the experience is that’s virtual, versus actually looking at what’s right in front of you. ... We now have a really great association of young art professionals that belong to the museum — young art patrons — and they are kind of driving, in some ways, some of the things they’d like to see. That’s, I think, had great success for us.
We also, for getting teenagers, created a teen advisory committee, and it’s comprised of students from the Muscogee County School District, and other schools in the area. We’ve basically had them work on the kinds of programs that they think that their fellow teens would like to see. ... We had a glass-blowing workshop last year that was quite popular, for example. We’re trying to do more of talking to people to find out how we can actually serve their interests and needs, which I think was a problem with a lot of museums, and probably other institutions, as well, in the past, of just assuming we knew.
Q: How do you go about selecting art for the museum?
A: We have endowment funds for that, first of all, through the generosity of numerous people in the community through the years. We have a collection plan that is reviewed every year by our collections committee, and it will include in that the overall scope of what our collections are now, areas that we think we could build on, things that we would like to acquire that would meet needs. In some cases, it could be strengthening something that we already have, or if there’s something that we think, in the past, we maybe needed to acquire more of, we would go back for that. We have a wonderful new director of curatorial affairs, who’s also our curator of American art, Jonathan Walz, and then a very talented director of history, Rebecca Bush. They look for work that might be possible, either through gifts, or through purchase, and then they present that to the collections committee for discussion and approval. Then, sometimes, members of our collection committee will also have suggestions, as well, from things that they’ve seen. It really has to be kind of an ongoing process.
To me, this is an exciting time to be in the art field. In particular, I think it’s an exciting time to be in collections and to be working in museums, because when I went to graduate school in the ’80s, at the University of Delaware, which was known for being a really great program in American art, it was still very much New York artists, based in and around, say, New York and New England, or those working ex-patriots abroad, primarily male, Caucasian, very few females. At the time, it felt like, “Well, this has all been researched to death, and what more is there to do?”
... Now, there’s a whole world of people of different races, ethnicities, females, men — but also different parts of the country were ignored, too. Now, people are getting interested in what’s happening, and what happened in the Southeast. Even when I (moved to Chicago in the mid-’90s) that history was still sort of seen as not as important. It’s an exciting time to see people really looking, now at... how culture developed throughout this nation, not just in central urban areas in the Northeast.
Q: Tell me about some of the exhibits that you’ve had, or have, that tell a little bit about the history of this area.
A: Last year we had an exhibition called “Once Collected, Always Cherished.” It was selections from Judge (George) Greene’s collection, and also from the archives at Columbus State University. ... It had maps, but the part that was from our collection included artifacts pertaining to Blind Tom Wiggins, who was from Columbus, born into slavery, and was an internationally traveling musician and composer in the 19th century, thought probably now to have been on the autism spectrum. ... We were fortunate enough to be able to purchase Judge Greene’s collection after his death, and keep that in Columbus, which was really important to us, because that’s something to be really, really proud of.
Then nationally right now at the Studio Museum of Harlem is an exhibition of the work of Alma Thomas. She’s a Columbus native, so that’s great. We have a lot of her archival material. We do plan to do more with that in the future. The White House, recently, in its dining room... there’s a painting by Alma Thomas there. ... She ended up working a lot of her career in Washington, but that’s a big deal, also, for us. Of course, locally, we now have some really wonderfully talented artists, including Bo Bartlett and Najee Dorsey, who are in Columbus. There’s a lot going on just in this city itself.
Q: I was going to bring up Najee because I remember when his (“Leaving Mississippi”) exhibit opened a couple of years ago. It seemed like the museum was attempting to broaden the type of art that it offered to reach a wider audience. Is that something that you’re intentionally doing?
A: That’s a priority, yes. ... I’d like to feel that over the course of the year, most people in this city will find at least one exhibition that is of interest to them. For example, right now, we have three generations of Moulthrop family on view, which is wood-turned bowls. Some of the bowls are made from wood salvaged from the old 19th-century dams from the Chattahoochee when they were removed to make the whitewater. We’re getting a lot more people in who are interested in craft, and in wood turning, so that’s a different group. Last spring, we did an exhibition about tattoos, and we tied it into a photographic series that was based on Fort Benning veterans. We had a different group for that, and that was great to see.
This fall, we have a show of photographs from the segregation series by Gordon Parks, and we also will have a show called “Reflections” that’s scenes of African American life from the collection of Myrna Colley-Lee. We intend to keep that going, and in the spring we’ll have a World War I exhibition that will tie into the history of Fort Benning. We are trying, as we can, to really make the shows that we do topical and interesting, while also showing first-rate works of art and first-rate historical artifacts.
Q: What are your goals for the museum over the next, say, five years?
A: I have an interest in seeing what we could do with the gallery spaces that we have, probably do a re-installation of our collections. It’s been a few years, and it’s probably time for that. We received a wonderful gift from the Amos (family) for a fund to collect African-American art. And with Jonathan on board, that’s now a priority to begin work on that for emerging artists, in particular, and expanding what we’re doing with education. We do a lot with outreach, and we’d like to do even more.
Hometown: Rochester, N.Y.
Job: Director of the Columbus Museum
Previous Jobs: Executive director of the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Ind.; operations manager and curator at the Briscoe Western Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas; curator at the Union League Club of Chicago; curator of American Art at the Dayton Art Institute and supervisor of education at the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pa.
Education: Graduate of Oberlin College, bachelor’s in art history major with history minor; master’s in art history, University of Delaware; doctoral work in art history at the University of Illinois - Chicago.
Family: Single, with a brother in north Georgia, a sister in Indiana, and her father and other relatives in Atlanta.