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Worcester Art Museum’s Waschek Moves Aggressively Into New Era

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Going after his customer--Worcester Art Museum director Matthias Waschek.

For all of its 115 years, the Worcester Art Museum has been the mountain, and Greater Worcester’s residents have been Mohammed. Matthias Waschek wants to reverse that dynamic, so that the mountain also goes to Mohammed. One of his first small steps, after he arrived in November 2011 as WAM’s new director, was to re-open the museum’s massive front doors to the public.  

As Geoff Edgars reported for The Boston Globe in June 2012, the bronze front doors at WAM’s Salisbury Street entrance had been locked for three years, “a reminder of the institution's perpetual money crunch. That change[d], as … Waschek announce[d] the first part of his plan to revive the sleepy institution.”

Not only did WAM permanently re-open its front doors, it also waived its $14 visitor-entrance fee last July and August. The goal: to focus public attention on the struggling, 35,000-piece museum, which last year attracted less than 50,000 visitors and continued to fall in the shadow of successful Boston art showcases such as the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

"This is the unsung jewel," Edgars quoted Barry Morgan, the Worcester native whose contribution had enabled the museum to open the entrance. "It's hard to pull people from the view that everything is in Boston. You have to lure them to Worcester."

Closing the doors on the deficit

Last summer, WAM leaders expressed hope that the front-door reopening would attract many more visitors to view its collection, which includes masterpieces by Monet, Gauguin, and John Singer Sargent. It had been several decades since the museum had attracted as many as 200,000 people a year.

As Waschek noted last November in his presentation to WAM’s Annual Meeting of the Corporation, “We are still some ways off reaching our goal of welcoming 200,000 visitors a year by 2020. In [fiscal] 2011, we had 31,435 visitors to our gallery spaces. The good news is that our admissions in [fiscal] 2012, the year of transition, rose to 45,589 – this, particularly thanks to the success of Ron Rosenstock’s exhibition, and focused marketing around exhibitions and key events, including opening the Salisbury doors and free admission during July and August.”

By re-opening WAM’s front doors in order to expand its core base, Waschek expects to close the doors on the museum’s budget deficit, which was $1.5 million on $9 million in revenues. He also plans to reach out to what he calls Worcester’s “fragile publics” in a “meaningful, sustainable way.”

Becoming a part of the social glue

Prior joining WAM, Waschek had a 20-year, international career in the art world. One of his key goals has been to make the art museums where he has worked more accessible to the general public.

As director of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis from 2003 until he joined WAM nearly two years ago, Waschek built that institution’s structure and shaped its identity. Because of his leadership efforts, the Pulitzer is now both locally anchored by and nationally recognized for its exhibitions and programming.

Before moving to the United States, Waschek was head of Academic Programs at the Louvre Museumin Paris. There, he conceived and led lecture series and symposia around collections and exhibitions, to interface between academia, the museum world and the general public.

Following are edited highlights of an interview with Waschek.

What are your thoughts on making the Worcester Art Museum more accessible and more relevant to the area youth and inner-city people?

… [A] museum, if it really does its job, has to be part of the social glue and it needs to reach everyone. That is the ideal. Now the strategy is a different one. You need to have a strong core public, to then be able to be able to reach fragile publics that don’t normally come to museums. So strategically, we need to grow the core public that, at the moment, has quite some room for growth, and then we definitely have to reach fragile publics.

I have quite a background in that field, at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. I co-appointed, with the George Warren Brown School for Social Work in St. Louis, a social worker to help us to reach these audiences that are fragile and need to be reached in a very different way than how you reach core publics.

Are you looking to reach out and attract those fragile publics to WAM, or is it the museum also going to go into those communities?

It is both. With every group among the public, it is about dialogue. It is not, “We tell you to come here because we are great and you are learning.” It is [us] learning from audiences [how] to do a better job, and that means very often [for us] to visit these audiences.

That strategy would also broaden your base when it comes to charitable-foundation grants, bequests and all sorts of other funding from people and organizations that are interested in building healthy communities, and not just building a healthy art community.

Absolutely, [yes]. Before you can do these things in a meaningful and sustainable way – and sustainability is the important thing; you can’t just reach token, fragile audiences and then afterwards drop them because you’ve found another pet project – you need to get your bases done. So we need to have enough staff depth in all the other areas before we can sustainably make a commitment and say, “Within the next 10 years, this is where our energies are going to go to.”

Is it over the next three to five years that you’re looking to solidify and build WAM’s core base?

Absolutely, yes. The arrival at [WAM] of the Higgins Armory [Museum] collection and part of their programming will jump-start that [process].

In the meantime, can WAM do any outreach to fragile publics, or is it all hands on deck regarding the core public for the next three to five years?

You can’t focus too much on other things, but you can get things started.

So you can begin the conversation, begin the thought process.

Absolutely, [yes]. A program doesn’t start because you say, “Next month, the funding cycle of foundation ABC or the giving possibility of funder CDE is available, and now let’s invent a program.” These programs have to be part of the institutional landscape. So we will do small steps and then, once ideas have gelled, do what is the most appropriate for our institution, where we can really make a difference. Then, we will apply for funding.

Listen to Steven Jones-D'Agostino's 29-minute The Business Beat interview with WAM's Matthias Waschek, which aired on May 19 on 90.5 WICN.

Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production.


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