Q&A with High Museum Director Randall Suffolk

By November 23, 2016
Randall Suffolk, commonly known as Rand, became director of the High Museum of Art in November 2015.

Randall Suffolk has been the executive director of the High Museum of Art for a year now, so we thought it’d be a good time to check in with him. We met with Suffolk on November 9 and talked about Atlanta, his accomplishments so far, and what we can anticipate from the museum over the next few years – primarily growth, increased diversity, and originality.

Suffolk came to the High from the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, where he served in the top post for nine years. Prior to that he was director of the Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, New York.

Judging by Suffolk’s initiatives at the Philbrook, it’s easy to understand why he was selected to lead the High. In Tulsa, he oversaw the development and opening of the Philbrook Downtown, a satellite facility for the museum’s modern, contemporary and Native American collections. Suffolk is credited with strengthening and diversifying the Philbrook’s community engagement, which resulted in a 22-percent increase in membership, a 63-percent increase in attendance, and a 293-percent increase in educational program participation. The strategy implemented by Suffolk, who is a graduate of the Getty Leadership Institute, earned the Philbrook distinction as one of six national models of community engagement in a 2013 study by two independent researchers and the American Alliance of Museums.

Kirsten Stolle's Only You Can Prevent A Forest on view at Halsey Institute through Dec 10, 2022

For comparison, the Philbrook has a budget of $8 million and annual attendance of 150,000, while the High has a budget of $20 million and attendance in Fiscal Year 2016 of 360,000.

Suffolk earned a BA in English from Connecticut College, and two MAs, one in higher education administration from Columbia University, and the other in art history from Bryn Mawr College. “I’m a committed generalist,” he says. His thesis was on 19th-century Austrian critical theorist Alois Riegl, whose ideas were “essentially about spectatorship and how you engage with artworks and how artworks engage with you,” Suffolk explains. An apt choice for a future museum leader.

Stephanie Cash: How has your first year in Atlanta been? What do you do for fun?

Randall Suffolk: I’m a cyclist. I do as much riding as I can. This is a very different environment for cycling than Tulsa was because of traffic. Also, more hills. We had wind in Oklahoma, but not hills so much.

SC: Where do you live?

RS: My wife and I bought a house in Virginia-Highland.

SC: That’s a perfect location for a new Atlantan!

SC: How do you spend your free time?

RS: Um, well … I don’t really have a lot of free time. I’ve been here a year, but my wife and daughter only came in July, and so it’s still much newer for them. My first 8 months here, I told myself I wouldn’t say noto an invitation because I’m new, so I kind of killed myself. But now with my family here, I am trying to find balance. I have a 13-year-old daughter, so she is going to probably need me around for another two minutes, so to the extent that I can be there and be Dad, I want to do that.

I’m excited about being here in Atlanta, and I think that there is great energy here. The city is heading in the right direction in a lot of ways. Everything that I’m reading says that within the next decade, Atlanta should be the envy of many other major metropolitan cities because of the shifting demographics. You know there is a huge reverse migration of African-Americans, and there are growing Hispanic, Latino and Asian populations. Because of that, the High has a unique opportunity to become a national model of community engagement. The High is one of America’s great art museums, but there is a lot of really important work left to be done. That’s the exciting part.

SC: You’ve been the director of three very different institutions in three very different places. How would you compare them?

RS: From a geography standpoint, Tulsa feels a lot like Midtown Atlanta. I think that people don’t necessarily know that Tulsa is unlike any stereotype you might have about Oklahoma. Perhaps in a similar way, Atlanta feels nothing like the rest of Georgia. Tulsa isn’t altogether like the South, but there are enough similarities that Atlanta doesn’t feel unfamiliar to my family.

SC: What has been the biggest change for you, coming from the Philbrook to the High?

RS: I think it has to do with the community. This is the third institution in 17 years where I have been a director. I would say 70 to 75 percent of the work is similar. You always do exhibitions, you have a membership program, there is a retail component to it. The change is that the budget has a few more zeros. The most exciting part is trying to figure out what your strengths are as an institution and how to dovetail those with the community’s needs and interests. The better part of last year has been about doing as much listening and learning as I can about the institution and the community, and figuring out opportunities, like how do we program ourselves as an organization to do the right thing when it comes to growth, collaboration, inclusivity, and connectivity?

SC: Inclusivity and the connection to the community has in recent years been a sore point for the High. Michael Rooks [curator of modern and contemporary art] has done a tremendous job in forging some new connections there. How will you build on that?

RS: The goal is to become an institution that reflects the audience that we serve. We can’t be all things to all people, but when people walk through our doors, we want them to see some aspect of themselves reflected in their museum. Sometimes it’s little things. If you go up onto our skyway level and walk our modern and contemporary galleries, we have started a pilot project where we have added thumbnails images of the artists on the wall labels, as a way to let people know that the artist is a woman, or a woman of color, or a white guy. It’s an important opportunity to deliver a little bit of information which you may or may not find of interest. It’s no different than a book jacket.

Rafael Soldi: A body in transit is now on view at the Frost Museum, Miami through December 4

SC: Have you had any feedback on that yet?

RS: It’s all anecdotal, but it’s been positive. I don’t expect overwhelming feedback from something like that. I would rather people see it and kind of think, well of course you should do that, that makes sense.

We are trying to be very intentional about the kind of exhibitions we bring to the museum. Historically, we have not collected demographics by ethnicity, for example. We started collecting that data in May. We’ve started asking people as they come in to self-identify. We’ve got about five touch polls in the museum that ask questions so we can start to figure out who our audience is and where we should be placing our emphasis. For example, if we find out that we have about 18-percent minority participation, then we can say, for a city like Atlanta that is unconscionable, so we can figure out how to work on that.

It’s important for us to effectively put out a consistent, ongoing, and sincere invitation to every segment of our community to let them know that we want them here. As our new tagline says, “We are here for you.” We want to ensure that we are doing everything we can to make sure that, once they get here, they are having an incredible, killer experience.

The goal is to become an institution that reflects the audience that we serve. We can’t be all things to all people, but when people walk through our doors, we want them to see some aspect of themselves reflected in their museum.

SC: Aren’t you required to keep track of demographics by the Association of Art Museum Directors or the American Alliance of Museums?

RS: We’ve kept demographics in terms of zip codes and that sort of thing, and specific studies on certain exhibitions, but we have never taken a step back and looked at an annual basis, year in and year out, to see who’s coming to the museum. So that’ll be important data for us to have within another year.

SC: Did you track demographics at the Philbrook?

RS: We started there, and it was great! That is one of the things that I think I’m most proud of. In that the first year I was there there, we had about 10-percent minority participation, and the last five years I was there we had over 40 percent. So we dramatically changed our relationship with the community.

SC: What do you think the key factors were? What initiatives were most successful?

RS: I’ve been asked that question a lot, and I think it really goes back to what I’ve just been saying. There’s no silver bullet to make that happen. It really has to be about an ongoing series of gestures that build up credibility and let people know that you really do want them there and that you are striving to create a place where they will feel comfortable and see some aspect of themselves reflected in that place.

SC: I assume that includes exhibition programming?

RS: Sure, but I’m not going to make make any assumptions. I think it’s dangerous, actually, to make assumptions about what your audience will like. If we start saying, we think you’ll like this show, but then we don’t invite you back to other exhibitions for a couple of years, then that’s pretty condescending, isn’t it? We would like to gain a reputation as an organization that consistently stays engaged with its audience.

Re:Focus a photo exhibition on view at Swan Coach House in Atlanta through October 27

SC: I remember that the Frida and Diego exhibition had a really large Latino marketing push. I know it’s challenging as a regional museum to serve your local audience but still be on the international stage. The High’s partnerships with the Louvre and MOMA were intended to build some bridges. Do you think those were fruitful alliances? Will you be seeking similar partnerships?

RS: After the Renzo Piano expansion, it was important for us to send a certain message both to our local and regional audience, and to the rest of the world, about the institution that we aspire to be and the path that we were setting ourselves on. From a stature standpoint, real value was added. I would say that it’s probably not a sustainable model in terms of building longterm relationships with people and developing your audience in the way we’ve been talking about.

We’ve had a tendency here to be almost exclusively exhibition driven. Those types of partnerships absorb a lot of resources and take a lot of energy, and I think having that focus tends to limit the potential to build capacity in other areas across the organisation. People should anticipate that we will be less exhibition-driven and increasingly experience-driven. In other words, we will continue to do those wonderful exhibitions, but we also want to gain a reputation for creating multiple gateways for people to connect with us over and above that special exhibition. That might be a program, or casting a greater spotlight on our permanent collection. It might be an exhibition that’s developed by our own curatorial team as opposed to brought in from somewhere else.

SC: So the High will begin to originate more exhibitions?

RS: Yes, that is going to take a little time because it takes several years for our team to develop something. We also are going to be spending a significant amount of time reconsidering our permanent collection installation, and that will take some bandwidth from some of those other projects. But over the long run, the goal is to enable our own curatorial team to develop more of the intellectual capital of the organization.

SC: That would be pivotal, I think, and I’m sure the staff is eager. Will you be replacing Brett Abbott [former curator of photography, now at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Ft. Worth]?

RS: Ultimately, yes, but one of the vacancies that I inherited was the chief curator position, which I’ll fill first.

SC: Was that David Brenneman [former deputy director and curator of collections, now director of the Indiana University Art Museum]?

RS: That’s right. To be honest with you, I’ve kind of abused the privilege of not having that person in place, and have held off on hiring someone because I wanted to have an opportunity myself to spend time with our curatorial team, to get to know them and to understand from them what their dreams, schemes, plans, and hopes are regarding the permanent collection.  I also think it’s given me a greater chance to start to learn about the collection in a more direct manner. That’s been a very positive experience for me. I’m in the process now of doing a search for a chief curator. Once we have that person on board, we’ll start to look at replacing some people. I want that person to have a role in developing the team, as you can imagine.

SC: What else have you accomplished in the past year?

RS: We’re excited about the lowered admission price [$14.50, down from $19.50], which we considered over a few months. I think that was an important step for us, and hopefully it will send that message of inclusivity.

SC: Free admission has been a real boon for the Contemporary. Any chance of doing away with admission fees?

RS: Free or lowered admission is really about accessibility. How do you balance the need for revenue — which is the fuel for our mission  — with being a resource for our communities? We really are trying to say, “We are here for you.” Offering a free day [Second Sundays], though this information could be made easier to find on the site] hopefully removes real and perceived barriers to access. Like I said, it’s going to be a series of gestures to develop a different kind of credibility within our community and to have people expect a different kind of relationship. That’s exciting stuff.

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