For new Madison Museum of Contemporary Art director Christina Brungardt, a major selling point of the job was how long the previous person held onto it.
“The fact that somebody stayed in this position for 30 years tells you a lot about an institution, and about the community and the love of the arts there,” said Brungardt, who plans to start at MMoCA by Aug. 31.
“Museum directors often switch out in eight to 10 years,” she said. “Somebody who stays for 30 years and builds a wonderful, stable organization says amazing things about the institution and the city.”
Stephen Fleischman led Madison’s contemporary art museum, now at 227 State St., since 1991. He announced his impending retirement in December 2019 and a search firm was hired to find his replacement.
Brungardt was educated at the University of Texas at Austin, earned a Master of Arts in art history at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. at the City University of New York. Born in Kansas, she has worked in galleries in New York City and Dallas. She comes to Madison after four years leading the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) as interim and deputy director.
MMoCA closed on March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but could reopen sometime next month. That date is “a moving target,” said director of communications Marni McEntee.
The exhibition that opened right before the shutdown, “Uncommon Accumulation: The Mark and Judy Bednar Collection of Chicago Imagism,” has been extended through the end of September.
“As soon as we know, everyone will know,” said McEntee. “We’re looking forward to opening.”
Brungardt spoke with the Cap Times via phone.
What are the challenges of getting to know new staff, patrons and donors during a pandemic?
Fortunately, I’ve been in that position for the last few months as the deputy director at CAMH, trying to navigate how we do fundraising, outreach, programs and exhibitions already. It’s going to be a new environment but I actually think it will be helpful to be a new person.
People are fatigued by doing virtual meetings, but as a new person I think I’ll be able to garner those — and also have relaxing conversations with people. Everyone’s a little more relaxed in their own homes.
A major part of this director job is fundraising and donor connections, which supports keeping the museum free and growing its collection. What’s your background with development?
I have a strong background from the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. I worked on a small capital campaign shortly after the director left ... and spent most of my time in the interim director role making sure we hit our goal marks. I’m very comfortable with fundraising.
The thing that’s interesting is it’s really about getting to know people and relationships, seeing what the best match is for them and what they feel the most passionate about supporting.
Are there particular artists, styles or periods of art history you’re most passionate about?
I’m pretty much modernism to contemporary, anything. I love seeing what contemporary artists are doing. The thing I love to look at is how artists are the mark of their time. That’s so critical. It doesn’t matter if I’m looking at 1500, 1900, 2000. Seeing how they’re reflecting exactly what’s happening in society around them is beautiful. It tells us so much about the world.
You visited Madison at a time when State Street looked pretty different, with public art on boarded windows downtown. What were your impressions?
The murals were going up, in process. It was wonderful to walk around the corner and suddenly see artists pulling out their paints and brushes. You know they’d been planning for hours to get to that point. It’s exciting, it’s invigorating, to see an artist in their moment of creation, responding to a moment in time.
How would you diversify leadership at MMoCA?
I need to get to know the team first, but I am a firm believer in DEAI (diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion) initiatives. At CAMH I worked to get grants from the American Alliance of Museum’s “Facing Change” initiative, which helped create better diversification of boards. I’m a firm believer in really looking at the landscape and looking at ways to create change within the institution. But I’d have to do a thorough review before I can speak to that.
It’s important to note those conversations are going to be happening, and are already happening at MMoCA. They will definitely continue and build. Coming in, we’ll be looking at strategic planning and really thinking about how to build in DEAI initiatives. A strong strategic plan has the ability to create systemic change.
A side effect of COVID pushing things online is increased access to the arts for those who may have had financial or geographic barriers. How do you think access is changing?
One thing to do is to see how reflective the collection is of diversity and accessibility. A strong point at MMoCA is that it’s free, and that’s the number one barrier people encounter with thinking museums are not accessible. By being free, it increases inclusion.
Social media creates different platforms, and people have access to artists and art in a way they haven’t before. It’s beautiful for them to be able to hear an artist speak directly about their work. That’s not something everyone usually gets to have, and it tends to be limited by the proximity to the artist.
How would you connect MMoCA with local artists?
In Houston, similar to Madison, there’s a strong local arts community. There’s a series they call “Right Here, Right Now” and they’re always looking to local artists — similar to the Triennial here, when you’re looking at what’s happening in Wisconsin.
I often will be at gallery openings, seeing what artists are doing, supporting what’s happening among the local crowd and trying to get to know the artists. I think that’s the most important thing. You get to know the artist community on a personal level. I don’t see it as a separate thing ... it’s me becoming a new member of the community.
We always made sure we did create opportunities for artists to have platforms, whether it was in an exhibition or through studio visits with our membership group.
Are there specific ideas or programs from Houston that you want to replicate here?
I’m taking everything with a sense of, I need to get to know the landscape first. I’m trying to be mindful and delicate as I enter a new city, but I have a lot of ideas.
One thing I find interesting is asking, “What’s your wild and crazy idea that you haven’t been able to do yet?” That’s my favorite place to start.
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