Columbus Museum's new director 'a perfect match'

Marianne Richter wasn't looking to leave her position as executive director of the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Ind., but the recruiter for the vacancy at the Columbus Museum got her attention.

"This job just seemed to have my name on it," she said.

Indeed, the more Richter learned about the opening, the more it made sense to pursue.

Although the Swope focuses on American art as well, the Columbus Museum combines a history of the Chattahoochee Valley with its American art collection to form a rare experience for visitors. And her expertise just so happens to be in the history of American art.

"There are not that many museums that really combine both," she said. "I can think of some museums that have sort of separate centers. In the future, our plan is to integrate the two to a greater extent than they are now."

Richter also likes that the Columbus Museum is a semi-autonomous part of the Muscogee County School District. The museum has a board of trustees, but it is owned by the school district, so education is a major aspect of its mission.

"The many programs for school children as well as family programs appealed to me," she said. "It already had a lot of things in place. My hope is we will do even more."

Plus, her father, brother and other relatives live in Georgia, so this was a professional and personal opportunity too good to pass up.

"I knew moving to this part of the country wouldn't be that difficult for me," she said.

Last month, Richter officially started her new job as executive director of the Columbus Museum. She replaced Tom Butler, who concluded more than 20 years in the position when he retired in January.

In rough numbers, the move from Terre Haute to Columbus meant Richter's city population more than tripled to 200,000, her staff tripled to 34 (including 29 full-time employees), the collection quadrupled to nearly 9,000 objects, and the budget quintupled to $2.7 million.

At the Swope, the collection has "top-notch" pieces from Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood's last painting, Richter said.

"We thought of them as the triumvirate because people would ask for them all the time," she said.

Among the pieces she is excited about in the Columbus Museum:

A Stuart Davis painting "that's probably going to be on loan to a major exhibition. There will be more information on that if that happens," she said.

Gilbert Stuart portraits.

Examples from the New Hope school of impressionists.

Pieces from Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Robinson Gifford and Thomas Sully.

"There are just some wonderful works in the collection," she said.

As with the Columbus Museum, the Swope has free admission. The Swope's attendance averaged about 12,000 per year, Richter said. The Columbus Museum's average annual attendance the past five years has been 53,294. It has declined from 59,934 in 2011 to 43,643 in 2014. Mercedes Parham, the museum's marketing and media manager, said in an email, "The past two years, we have experienced a decrease in external venue rentals due to the loss of our event sales manager position, which we recently replaced."

Richter described how she intends to increase the attendance.

"I want to find new ways to reach out to the public and make them feel that this is their museum, that they're welcome here," she said. "I welcome hearing from people with ideas for what we can be doing to engage with them more. I would love to find ways of using technology to do that. That's very important to me."

Here are highlights of her plan:

Develop new ways to interpret the collection.

"Maybe do a little more in general context of the history of the time, so that would incorporate the history collection," she said. "But even as an art historian, much of the time, research that I did was much more contextual than it was just looking at the object and doing a visual analysis or connoisseurship, which has its place."

Develop new ways to engage with the schools.

"Visual education has not been emphasized in more recent times to the degree it was, say, when I was a child," said Richter, 53. "That's one thing museums can do, but part of it is making people feel comfortable with it. And we're a very highly visual culture these days, with Internet and all the various tools that we have. People are gaining more information through their visual sense probably more than any other sense, so the more visually literate somebody is the better."

Connect more with the community.

"I don't plan to simply think that people should just come to the Columbus Museum," she said. "I need to be getting out, and I want to see what's happening elsewhere."

Reinstall the galleries.

"That would be a goal of the future, to offer greater context, but we can do some short-term changes, just freshen things up," she said.

Use more technology.

"The museum has already worked with QR codes," she said. "There's evidence that people like having input. Most people don't want to go to a place that tells them what to think. We can find ways of soliciting opinions from people. It would be wonderful if there were things we could be adding to the website or an app that would give them a chance to participate."

Make the museum more explanatory.

"I would like people to have a little more sense of what goes on behind the scenes in a museum," she said. "For a lot of people, it may seem mysterious. What is involved in making an exhibition happen? If we could sort of lift the curtain on that, it would also be terrific."

Add to the collection.

"We just were successful at the auction for the Blind Tom (archive)," she said. "Kudos to the work the committee did and Rebecca Bush. We want to continue to acquire things that would really have an impact and would be important for the collection."

Increase collaboration.

"If there are ways to work with some of the other arts organizations, like the symphony, the Springer, the Bo Bartlett Center," she said, "that would be terrific."

Search process

The museum's search committee, co-chaired by Kathelen Amos and Elizabeth Ogie, narrowed the field of about 50 applicants to six semifinalists, who were interviewed in town. The committee then chose two finalists for another round of interviews and visits before unanimously selecting Richter, said Fray McCormick, the Columbus Museum Board of Trustees president.

"Marianne really stood out early on with her background and deep experience with organizations," he said.

In addition to Terre Haute, Richter also has worked at museums in San Antonio, Chicago, Dayton and Chadds Ford, Pa., in metro Philadelphia, during her 28 year professional career.

"She came very highly recommended," said McCormick, an attorney with Page, Scrantom, Sprouse Tucker & Ford P.C. of Columbus. "She's not just someone who has the credentials. When she was in a room, in both large and small settings, she just excelled all day long."

Marilyn Hoffman, the museum board's search consultant, who has conducted more than 40 searches in 11 years, called Richter "a perfect match" for the Columbus position.

"She has a lot of accomplishments in her field, and she's very personable," said Hoffman, the principal of Museum Search & Reference, based in Londonderry, N.H. "Watching her meet all these new people in Columbus, she was just able to connect with everyone. She's very poised and has a great personality."

Just ask Pat Martin, secretary of the Sheldon Swope Art Museum Board of Overseers.

"She's national class," he said.

Martin explained why.

"What you will find is that she does a considerable amount of community engagement," he said. "She's a true intellectual but also a strategic planner. She'll come in and do an assessment and define right away where the educational gaps are that need to be filled."

Martin, the chief planner for the City of Terre Haute, said Richter knows when and how to lead and cooperate.

"She's very much a team player," he said. "She's very much a consensus-type person. In fact, her nickname around here was 'Fearless Leader.' She's not afraid to go out and do something completely new, to break new ground, but she does it in a very logical and strategic fashion."

For example, Martin said, Richter increased attendance by 8-9 percent during her 3½ years there by implementing new programs, such as family day, and bringing in new exhibits, such as printmaking.

The Columbus board expects Richter to make a similar impact here, McCormick said.

"We want her to be a leader in the arts community and the community as a whole, reaching out and welcoming them in," he said. "The museum is a community resource, and we want people to enjoy it and help it grow."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.


Age: 53

Hometown: Grew up mostly in suburban Rochester, N.Y.

Experience: Executive director, Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Ind., 2011-15; Briscoe Western Art Museum, San Antonio, operations manager 2011, curator 2009-11; curator, Union League Club of Chicago, 1995-2008; Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio, curator of American Art 1992-95, associate curator of American art 1991-92; Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pa., supervisor of education 1988-91, research assistant 1987-88; intern, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, 1983-84.

Education: Reached doctoral candidacy (all but dissertation), art history, specialization in 20th Century American art, University of Illinois at Chicago, part time 2000-08; master's degree in art history, specialization in American Art, University of Delaware, 1990; bachelor's degree in art history, minor in history, Oberlin College, 1983.