Kristen Shepherd, Museum of Fine Arts
Kristen Shepherd talks coming home, the business of modern museums and the MFA's Antioch mosaics project
On this episode of SPx, Joe and Ashley are joined by Kristen Shepherd, Executive Director of the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg. The youngest and the first female director of the museum, Shepherd is breathing life into the halls of St Pete's only comprehensive art collection. Equipped with more than two decades of experience working with Sotheby's and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Shepherd is well-versed in art and the business that surrounds it. Alongside her team of curators, Shepherd is weaving together old and new, and shaking the dust off of this renowned institution with relevant, socially conscious exhibits like "Can I Get A Witness" by Herb Snitzer and "Magnetic Fields, American Abstractions from the 1960’s."
- Kristen Shepherd is the Executive Director of the Museum of Fine Arts - St. Pete's only comprehensive art collection in St. Petersburg
- Shepherd's hiring took the museum in an new direction, "I’m the youngest director they’ve ever hired, I’m the first female director in the museum’s history and I think they saw my enthusiasm and passion for this museum as something that could carry into the community."
- Shepherd recently brought Margaret Murray back to the Museum of Fine Arts, where she now serves as Associate Curator of Public Programs.
- A Tampa Bay native, Shepherd has worked in some of the most prestigious art museums in the country. Shepherd has spent time in Washington DC, New York, London and Los Angeles.
- Art scene in Los Angeles vs. St. Pete: "Coming from Los Angeles or from New York city the scale in this area is different – and it’s better. It’s just better, I love it here."
- "One of the things that’s wonderful about St. Petersburg is that it is smaller, you can get to know local artists very easily, there’s a very active arts community here."
- "Inflation, particularly in the contemporary art market, is so extreme – it means that public collections like the Museum of Fine Arts – were simply priced out of being able to acquire major, major works of art."
- Consequences of inflation: "It shifts museum fundraising to be not just about financial fundraising which is absolutely essential to our sustainability, but also gifts of works of art... The way that the market has changed, museums and public collections really do rely upon the philanthropy of collectors who are passionate about what they collect."
- "One of the interesting things about the Museum of FineArts is that it is viewed in some ways old or stale, or that it’s not exciting."
- "I think the Museum of Fine Arts is one of the most exciting institutions in St. Petersburg because the nature of our museum is comprehensive, it’s the entire story of the history of art."
- "The Museum of Fine Arts is comprehensive, and we tell the entire history of the story of art, from antiquities continuously all the way to the contemporary art."
- "The idea that we have a tremendous variety and the kinds of stories we can tell is an important part of owning our brand and owning what our position is in the museum landscape in this area."
- Many museums plan exhibits up to two years in advance. As such, Shepherd's first exhibits are being shown now. 'Can I Get a Witness' and ‘Magnetic Fields, American Abstractions from the 1960’s.’
- "I’m so proud that we’re able to present it here because when we illuminate for our community areas of art history that are exciting and colorful and gorgeous to look at and so thought provoking, and also highlight works by artist who have been neglected over time, we’re doing a tremendous service both in the storytelling for our community but also contributing to that art historical perspective that only the MFA can bring out."
- The next exhibit Shepherd is looking forward to: "It’s Bunny Mellon’s collection of Jean Schlumberger jewelry so it’s mid-century chic, sparkling, the most important collection of Schlumberger jewelry in the world and I think people are gonna go crazy, it’s gonna be awesome."
- The secret to special exhibits and loaned collections: relationships. "Relationships with directors and with curators matter a lot for loans, for exhibitions, it’s reason we loan some of our important works."
- Lending out pieces of the museum's collection: "you try to be as collegial as possible, you try to be as generous as possible to the extent that you are contributing to scholarship and helping out your colleagues, they help you out later, so that’s nice."
- "Every time you come to the MFA and buy a ticket or if you purchase a membership or a gift membership, even when you buy something in our store it’s a gesture of philanthropy and it’s really important that people know that we deeply appreciate that support in all of its forms."
- "There is a big movement in museums around the world right now and particularly in the United States to open up the museum as a place that’s almost a third place, a place where you can go, you can have lunch, you can just wander the galleries, you can have quiet time to yourself."
- Buried mosaics: "Someone asked if there was anything from my childhood that I remembered and so I start waking on about this amazing mosaic and it’s still in the same place where it always was, and it’s incredible."
- "Our registrar let me know that it was one of five mosaics purchased and it turns out they were the first objects to be accessioned into the museum’s collection in the ‘60s."
- The other mosaics: "One had been on view until fairly recently and it was safely in storage under the stage in our Marley room in our theatre, which is really cool. And the other two were buried in the back loan of the museum back in the ‘80s."
- Newly-hired curators: Dr. Stanton Thomas & Dr. Michael Bennet.
"I think the quality of the art being produced here is really exciting. The energy and the vitality of the art scene in St. Petersburg and also in Tampa is really impressive."
Art market inflation makes gift-giving essential to survival of museums
St. Petersburg has been working its way onto the map as an international art destination for decades. The Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg opened as the first museum in St. Pete, anchoring its waterfront in 1965 with an impressive permanent collection that today includes masterpieces from Monet and O’Keefe, to name a few. But it was not until the Dali Museum’s entrance in 1982 that St. Petersburg’s stature began to grow on the national and international stage.
Both fine art and public contemporary art has been booming ever since. The Chihuly Collection, which began in the Museum of Fine Arts, split off on its own in 2012, and in 2017, the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, as well as the Imagine Museum, opened to the public.
The wide array of art displayed in St. Petersburg – from ancient Antioch to contemporary Western, to singular artist collections, is a microcosm of the major trends playing out throughout the art world.
Private museums like the Dali Museum, the James Museum, and the Imagine Museum are on the rise world-wide as a means to store private collectors’ amassed collections and share them with the world. This major shift sees non-profit public institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts struggle with dwindling philanthropic contributions and severe cuts in governmental support.
According to the American Alliance of Museums, museum attendance is estimated to be greater than that of major league sporting and theme parks combined, with a whopping 850 million annual visits nationwide. In St. Petersburg, the Museum of Fine Arts saw nearly 125,000 visitors last year, while the Dali brings in over 400,000 visitors annually.
Revenue from ticket sales cannot keep up with the rising costs of art acquisition, which increases dramatically each year, posing major challenges to the vitality of comprehensive public art institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg.
“Art has become and has been for millennia such a commodity and the inflation, particularly in the contemporary art market, is so extreme,” said Kristen Shepherd, Executive Director of the MFA.
“It means that public collections like the Museum of Fine Arts are simply priced out of being able to acquire major, major works of art.”
According to Robert Ecklund, Eminent Scholar and Professor of Economics Emeritus, Auburn University, it only takes a few uber-wealthy collectors to drive up market prices. And, unlike other markets, the art market is surprisingly resilient, despite the enigmatic nature of investment criteria.
“Recessions, stock market declines and turmoil in international affairs rarely subdue the fight among these collectors for the best of the best,” explains Ecklund, “especially in contemporary art.
“These soaring prices mean museums simply can’t keep up,” he adds, “and must usually depend on donations to assemble portfolios of the best work, or they’re priced out.
“And billionaires themselves are increasingly setting up their own private museums, further distancing the ability of public museums to get the good stuff.”
Everyday acts of philanthropy like memberships and ticket sales, as well as regular giving to the museum’s Collector’s Circle, are often not enough. With such a hostile and competitive environment for art acquisition, not-for-profit public museums are forced to change their means of acquisition – toward an economy of relationships.
“It really shifts some of the culture of philanthropy for us,” Shepherd explained. “It shifts museum fundraising to be not just about financial fundraising which is absolutely essential to our sustainability, but also gifts of works of art.
“A big part of my job is making sure I understand what collections are happening in my area and even outside of town with the connections that I have.
“Who are the collectors who are interested in amplifying the collection that we have? Strengthening our collection, filling gaps in our collection, understanding the impact they make when they make a gift of a work of art.”
This understanding is integral to the success of the museum’s continued acquisitions. “There are some wonderful collectors in St. Petersburg who are so knowledgeable and so passionate about their collections they want to share them,” said Shepherd.
“And it becomes a conversation about what’s the best way to share it? Is this something you’d be willing to loan to us for a while, is this something as a legacy gift you might consider?
“What we try to do is serve our community in such a broad way. And honestly, the more philanthropic support we get, the more we are able to do, the more we are able to give back to our community.”
"These particular mosaics come from a part of the world that is war torn, where ISIS is systematically trying to destroy works of art that are just like these and it gives us an opportunity to talk about our responsibility to world heritage and cultural heritage."
Table of Contents
(0:00 – 0:41) Introduction
(0:41 – 2:09) Margaret Murray at the MFA
(2:09 – 5:35) From a Metropolitan Perspective back to St. Pete
(5:35 – 10:02) Sotheby’s, Art Display and the Market Value of Art
(10:02 – 12:01) Misperceptions About the MFA
(12:01 – 19:59) The Business Side of MFA
(19:59 – 25:36) Financials in the Art World.
(25:36 – 27:03) Museum Contributing to Enhancing People’s Lives
(27:03 – 30:03) A Collaborative Arts Community
(30:03 – 31:05) Personal Passions
(31:05 – 41:23) Mosaics from Antioch
(41:23 – 42:25) Shout-outs
(42:25 – 43:07) Conclusion
Joe: St. Pete X, welcome. It’s Kristen Shepherd, the Executive Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Welcome.
Kristen: Thank you so much for having me.
Ashley: Good to have you.
Joe: I’m gonna start out with my own shout-out and high five for bringing back Margaret Murray, she’s one of my favorite people in St. Pete.
Kristen: Oh, yes.
Joe: And I know she changed roles, I believe when she left in…
Kristen: She did, she – when I first arrived almost a year and a half ago she was in our development office and then got a terrific job offer elsewhere in St. Petersburg and I was devastated. And when she left she came in my office and we talked about this opportunity and it wasn’t something that I could match or there just wasn’t that same path at the MFA. But I did promise to stay in touch with her and I had something in mind for her even then, she’s such a great community connector and she’s so interested in audience engagement and all the different ways that the MFA can serve community. So I had in mind much more of an audience building, audience strategy type job for Margaret but I just wasn’t ready yet and so I couldn’t offer it to her at the time. So when an opportunity in public programs opened up recently I reached out to her and I did the sly subtle thing of saying, ‘Do you know anybody who might be interested…’
Joe: Wow, well done.
Kristen: ‘…in the job that is perfect for you?’
Kristen: And she very kindly wrote back a little while after that and said, ‘I know a great person and that would be me.’ So we’re very lucky to have her back, I’m really excited, we are starting to develop some great ideas for the coming years and stay tuned, Margaret’s gonna make a big difference at the MFA.
Ashley: So checking back for me, Kristen, I had the opportunity to meet you about a year ago and you were relatively new to your position and you had held most recently from L.A. before that, I believe New York and I wanna say even London if I’m not mistaken.
Ashley: So to meet somebody who was a recent transplant from some big metropolitan areas infusing that perspective into St. Pete, talk to me about that adjustment.
Kristen: It’s been a really interesting and easy adjustment for me in a lot of ways because I actually grew up here. So my middle school and high school years I went to a Countryside High School in Clearwater. And the story that I love to tell, my true origin story of being in this job is my first art museum I ever visited on a field trip was the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. So it’s a place that I used to go very frequently as the high school nerd that I was, I would come to the MFA and do my homework out in the garden… so I really loved the place. I left for college and grad school, I was in Washington D.C. for a long time, I was in London for a while, I was in New York for almost 20 years where I worked at Sotheby’s and then at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Before a stint in Los Angeles there was about four years when they called about this job, the head hunter called about this job and they were selling St. Pete really hard. They’re like, ‘So I don’t know if you know where St. Petersburg is but it’s this beautiful arts engaged community, it’s so terrific. It’s in the Tampa Bay area, now Tampa is on the West coast of Florida.’ Like I had no idea.
Joe: Done their research, clearly…
Kristen: So I said, ‘Let me stop you, I grew up there, I love this museum, I’d love to talk to you about this job.’ So coming from Los Angeles, and I love L.A., it’s just an incredible arts landscape and I’m a huge Los Angeles Dodgers fan, so it was hard to leave Los Angeles but there is no place I’d rather be. St. Petersburg it’s a terrific community, the Museum of Fine Arts is an incredible place I’ve loved since I was a kid and it’s getting better all the time. So it’s very exciting to be here. The scale is very different, so coming from Los Angeles or from New York city the scale in this area is different – and it’s better. It’s just better, I love it here.
Ashley: Can you contextualize the nuances between the arts experience holistically in L.A. to here?
Kristen: Yeah. A lot of it has to do I think with scale. Los Angeles is really becoming a big center of gravity for the art world; a lot of New York artists are moving to Los Angeles and L.A. is just exploding as a major center for contemporary art. It’s pretty diffuse, downtown Los Angeles is its own thing, there are also small arts communities growing up in all different areas. But L.A. is such a big city and it’s so diffuse. One of the things that’s wonderful about St. Petersburg is that it is smaller, you can get to know local artists very easily, there’s a very active arts community here and I knew it when I arrived, but I hadn’t really understood or appreciated how active and how accessible the arts are here. So in terms of contrasting and comparing to the Los Angeles scene there’s a much bigger commercial scene I would say in Los Angeles, the scale of it is just bigger but I think the quality of the art being produced here is really exciting. The energy and the vitality of the art scene in St. Petersburg and also in Tampa is really impressive.
Joe: You’ve mentioned your time at Sotheby’s and you just mentioned the commercial scene in L.A. I’d love to get a sense, you were behind the scenes or on the other side of the gavel we call it, with Sotheby’s. What is your take on the world of high end art and relic collecting and then how does that move in between the display to the world and the bit versus the out it in my lounge and that bit? How does that play work with you?
Kristen: That’s a great question. I think the first ten years of my career I was on the business side of the art world with Sotheby’s and was not on the specialists’ side. So although my academic credentials would have led me to the specialists’ side I actually went on to the business side. So I was doing strategy, worldwide marketing, I did a major construction project for Sotheby’s. So there is a lot of business in my background that has really informed my museum life, which is great and it’s a fairly unusual mix to have, a strong business background as well as a strong academic art history background. So that’s interesting. You just asked a question that’s about the market value of art and that is something that I think museum professionals struggle with in a lot of ways because art has become and has been for millennia such a commodity and the inflation, particularly in the contemporary art market, is so extreme – it means that public collections like the Museum of Fine Arts – were simply priced out of being able to acquire major, major works of art. So it really shifts some of the culture of philanthropy for us, it shifts museum fundraising to be not just about financial fundraising which is absolutely essential to our sustainability, but also gifts of works of art. So that’s a major thrust for all museum directors. A big part of my job is making sure I understand what collections are happening in my area and even outside of town with the connections that I have – who are the collectors who are interested in amplifying the collection that we have, strengthening our collection, filling gaps in our collection, understanding the impact they make when they make a gift of a work of art. The way that the market has changed, museums and public collections really do rely upon the philanthropy of collectors who are passionate about what they collect. There are some wonderful collectors in St. Petersburg who are so knowledgeable and so passionate about their collections they want to share them. And it becomes a conversation about what’s the best way to share it? Is this something you’d be willing to loan to us for a while, is this something as a legacy gift you might consider? But the high market value of really important works of art does make it challenging for museums for sure.
Joe: Can you see… especially with the contemporary works, can you see the levers of value increasing in action? You can go to Art Basel in Miami and put a piece of work up there. Take that same work and put it into a smaller gallery on Central Ave here and put it at 1/100 of the price and it still wouldn’t sell, right? Because that makes of the environment that it’s in and of course the buyer pool that’s near them. So do you have conversations around coming trends? Can you see the levers of what would make a contemporary artist become more in demand happening in advance, and do you have conversations about trying to get in front of that trend?
Kristen: Oh, that’s a hard one. I have worked at two of the most important museums in the United States with focuses on contemporary art. So the Whitney Museum of the American Art does collect emerging artists and they do seem to be amazing futurists. They take chances on emerging artists and young artists all the time. The Whitney Biennial is one of those great bellwethers of what’s happening in the contemporary art world. So to be around something like the Biennial and the curators, who – their fingers are really on the pulse of contemporary, is extremely exciting. My area of specialty is 19th century British art so contemporary is not my particular passion, I’m very knowledgeable about contemporary art but I would not view myself as a person who is enough of a futurist to be a great trend spotter outside of… there are certain things that we observe: the interest in technology, the interest in augmented or virtual reality… There are certain things that are certainly hitting trend, but I would not consider myself a good person for future thinking on contemporary collecting.
Ashley: So when you arrived to St. Petersburg and were reoriented with the Museum of Fine Arts, were there perceptions or misperceptions that you were able to observe in the community that you infused into your work over the next year+ in terms of maybe correcting some misperceptions about what your museum has to offer?
Kristen: I think one of the interesting things about the Museum of FineArts is that it is viewed in some ways old or stale, or that it’s not exciting. I think when the board chose to hire me they hired someone who is – I’m the youngest director they’ve ever hired, I’m the first female director in the museum’s history and I think they saw my enthusiasm and passion for this museum as something that could carry into the community. I think the Museum of Fine Arts is one of the most exciting institutions in St. Petersburg because the nature of our museum is comprehensive, it’s the entire story of the history of art. So we’re so fortunate in St. Pete to have museums that focus on particular genres of art or time periods or mediums or even a single artist. The Museum of Fine Arts is comprehensive, and we tell the entire history of the story of art, from antiquities continuously all the way to the contemporary art. So we’re the big picture into which all the other organizations and museum collections fit, we’re the context. I think that’s tremendously exciting, it gives us the opportunity to tell all the stories. Our challenge is which stories to tell because there are so many juxtapositions, there are so many ways for us to share the collection with our community that that’s actually the biggest challenge. I think the misperception is that it’s dusty or it’s old or there’s nothing happening there or something. I’ve never felt that way, I wouldn’t be here if I felt that way about the museum.
Ashley: I think you came to our market when we are going through an identity shift and an evolution and understanding who we are and who we wanna be and… I don’t know if they told you this when they were trying to sell St. Pete to you but thankfully we are a community that values tradition, that values our history. Preserving the ‘Burg is a big part of our collective refrain, but I think having the opportunity to infuse some new life into the museum, that was a smart move on their behalf and especially allowed the expansion into a female gender for that specific role, I think that was smart to do as well. And when you and I discussed, we had a conversation about those misperceptions and you tackled very readily early on some of the thematic infusions, from Star Wars to… I have long forgotten, through the roster of exhibits that you wanted to bring in to complement your work. Talk to us about the business behind planning out the infusion of new to resurrect interest in the old or existing…
Kristen: Absolutely. I think one of the most challenging but interesting jobs for a museum director is considering how to present the collection, so this is a permanent collection although we don’t like to use the word ‘permanent’ because it changes all the time, we’re recipients of gifts all the time. So thinking about how to present the collection in ways that continually refresh, pulling things out of storage, making sure we’re refreshing galleries is one challenge; thinking about how to present those galleries is another challenge. But the temporary exhibitions, things like Star Wars that just came through, that was the last show from my predecessor. You ask about the business side of the museums – typically we plan shows out at least two years in advance. So the show that is coming that opens very soon, it’s our spring and summer exhibitions. These are the first shows under my watch, so I’m extremely excited to watch these shows come to fruition. The criteria for me is that these are shows no other museum in our area could bring. So the idea that we have a tremendous variety and the kinds of stories we can tell is an important part of owning our brand and owning what our position is in the museum landscape in this area. So the shows coming this summer, the first that will open is – Can I Get A Witness, photographs by Herb Snitzer and it’s opening at the same time as a terrific show from The Camper called ‘Magnetic Fields, American Abstractions from the 1960’s’ – that’s a show that focuses entirely on a neglected part of American abstraction, which is art by women artists of color and it’s a really important show, I’m so proud that we’re able to present it here because when we illuminate for our community areas of art history that are exciting and colorful and gorgeous to look at and so thought provoking, and also highlight works by artist who have been neglected over time, we’re doing a tremendous service both in the storytelling for our community but also contributing to that art historical perspective that only the MFA can bring out. So the coming year that abstraction show, and Herb Snitzer is really exciting, that’s a set of summer shows that they’ll enjoy. In the fall we have a show coming from LACMA where I came from, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it’s the first show that they have shared with the MFA and that is a show called, ‘This is Not a Selfie’, it’s photographic self-portraits from the 19th century forward. And these are photographers, this is a very engaging show, these are photographers that if you a huge photography aficionado these are all names you know, like Kathie Opie and Robert Mapplethorpe and others. But if you know nothing about photography it is gonna be such a great show to introduce you to photography because we’re all taking selfies right now, we are in a real photographic culture so to have the opportunity to see how artists and photographers take photos and self-portraits of themselves we’re gonna have some interactivity in those galleries and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.
Ashley: Hashtag #nofilter. No filter back then.
Ashley: That’s for sure.
Joe: That’s right.
Kristen: Yeah, it’s gonna be pretty great. And the winter show next year is gonna be so spectacular, I’m barely able to contain myself. It’s Bunny Mellon’s collection of Jean Schlumberger jewelry so it’s mid-century chic, sparkling, the most important collection of Schlumberger jewelry in the world and I think people are gonna go crazy, it’s gonna be awesome.
Joe: How were you able to make that show happen?
Kristen: I guess this goes back to your question about the business side. So a lot of shows happen due to relationships and I’m very fortunate to have a professional friendship with the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts where the Mellon collection is housed. So when they put the Schlumberger collection on view a couple of years ago I called up Alex and I said, ‘Hey man, you’re ever gonna travel that show? I’d love to – St. Petersburg is a place that cares about mid-century design, we haven’t done objets d’art in a long time, this is an important gorgeous collection, I think people will freak out, could I please take your show?’ He’s like, ‘Gosh, I haven’t really thought about traveling this, let me think about that a little bit.’ And so now we’re the first stop and I think what’s gonna be a three-venue tour for that particular collection. But the relationships with directors and with curators matter a lot for loans, for exhibitions, it’s reason we loan some of our important works and we’re very fortunate with two new curators who have just come on, I hired two senior curators in the last couple of months who’d bring tremendous relationships and the relationships that I have all over the world can be very helpful as well.
Ashley: So it’s certainly helpful to have friends in high places.
Joe: How did Alex come to have that collection?
Kristen: So Alex is Alex Nyerges who is the Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, I should have said that before, and the collection came to the VMFA over time. Paul and Rachel Lambert Mellon – and her nickname was Bunny Mellon – Paul and Bunny had their rustic retreat at Oak Spring farm and the VMFA was the beneficiary of some of their most important works of art. The other portion of their collection that went into public view is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. So the VMFA has an incredibly important trove of Mellon collection paintings, European masterpieces, they were particular collectors of impressionist and post-impressionist art and he was a big enthusiast of sporting pictures and horses and they had this beautiful horse farm in the horse country in Virginia. And Bunny was a very skilled and deep interest in horticulture and gardening, so between her interest in flowers and his interest in horses this collection of paintings is absolutely stunning, in fact the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg now has a loan from the VMFA of 11 pictures from the Mellon collection that’s on view, that’s a two-year loan from the VMFA while they’re doing construction on that part of their museum. So they were very kind to allow us to borrow 11 of the works. And the Schlumberger jewelry collection from Mrs. Mellon will also come to us next winter as part of a large exhibition. It’s a huge gift to St. Petersburg to be able to view these things on temporary loan and we’re very grateful to the VMFA for this loan.
Joe: You mentioned loan and borrow and then you mentioned relationships. So what are the nuts and bolts in the financials of how something like this works? Obviously, it’s not free for them to give up their collection, which is not in their place where they’re selling tickets to, and then there’s transportation cost and setup cost and security…
Joe: Insurance, insurance, insurance, yeah. So how does that work in the art world when you negotiate these types of financials?
Kristen: It’s a great question and it’s one of those that I think seems very mysterious if you’re not in this world, so I’m glad you asked. Loans happen all the time, if you are doing research on a particular artist or you’re creating a show, part of being a great curator is knowing where important works of art that relate to your thesis would be. So whether they’re in private collections or in public collections, what you do is you write or contact that museum or that collector, let them know what it is you’re doing, tell them why it’s important that that particular picture or that particular object be a part of your show and you very politely ask to borrow it. The financial situation there is typically that the borrower pays for transportation, pays for crating, pays for insurance and that’s how that goes. If the lending institution is agreeable, usually if it’s an important exhibition and it’s a relationship you have it’s a no-brainer for us. There are some really important works of art in the Museum of Fine Arts collection that we are lending right now that we don’t let go easily because they are fan favorites, they are pictures that people love. Our Monet Houses of Parliament right now is on loan to a very important exhibition in London at the National Gallery. When the National Gallery of London calls you up and says, ‘We’re doing a show called Monet in Architecture and we want your Monet to be in this show,’ you don’t hesitate. It’s the National Gallery of London, it’s really important scholarship, you want your picture to be part of that scholarship. So we immediately said yes to that loan. There are some loan requests we get where the work of art may be fragile and traveling it may be damaging to it, so we say no. It could be that it just traveled, and we just have it back on view, we don’t want to lend it out again. There are reasons to say no, but typically you try to be as collegial as possible, you try to be as generous as possible to the extent that you are contributing to scholarship and helping out your colleagues, they help you out later, so that’s nice.
Joe: It actually truly is a loan then, there is no money changing hands other than logistical money.
Kristen: Logistical money is required. Now when you take a traveling exhibition that’s a different thing.
Kristen: A traveling exhibition is one where the origin museum, the London museum has done scholarship, they have invested time and money and resources and putting and packaging a show that could then travel to another venue – and you see this all the time. A lot of the times when you see temporary exhibitions in museums, including at the MFA, they are not necessarily originated by the home museum, we may have taken it from another museum. Star Wars is an example of that and the Magnetic Fields that’s opening for this summer is a show that we are taking from another institution. There is typically a fee associated with it, you could think of it like a rental fee I suppose is the easiest way to think of it. But it’s the cost that the home institution is charging for the work really that went into that exhibition and the value of that show. You also pay what’s called shared costs, shared expenses with the other venues. So the cost of crating, the cost of transportation, the cost of insurance is often split between the other venues to which it’s traveling. So there is a fee associated with taking shows, which is why most museums for financial sustainability originate shows but also take shows. So we do both, we want to have a nice mix of really amplifying our own collection and originating our own scholarship and potentially traveling some of our scholarship to recoup some of the costs of that work. But also taking shows is another way that we are able to provide a really broad view of art history to our community, so we do both.
Ashley: What about fundraising?
Kristen: Fundraising is a really important part of that.
Ashley: Can you talk to us just a little bit about the fundraising side of the work that you do?
Kristen: Sure. There’s a lot we do in fundraising and it’s one of the challenges of being the museum director, is that I’m involved in every aspect of our work, including the fundraising, which is great, it’s an opportunity for our community to start really supporting what we do, to support our mission.
Ashley: I think our community is going to enjoy all of these new exhibits that you’re bringing to St. Petersburg. You’ve illuminated a lot around the evolution of the museum. What people may not know is that you’re actually a non-profit.
Kristen: That’s true. The Museum of Fine Arts is a non-profit, we are reliant on philanthropy from our community and from businesses and ticket sales and memberships, all of that play into it, those are all gestures of philanthropy that are really important to our sustainability. But we also need major contributors, we need businesses, we need foundation support in order to do what we do, it is not a for-profit machine, what we try to do is serve our community in such a broad way. And honestly, the more philanthropic support we get, the more we are able to do, the more we are able to give back to our community. So that is one thing. Every time you come to the MFA and buy a ticket or if you purchase a membership or a gift membership, even when you buy something in our store it’s a gesture of philanthropy and it’s really important that people know that we deeply appreciate that support in all of its forms.
Joe: Well said. I’m curious, I think it would be useful for people to know and understand different ways that they can experience the museum. Obviously, it’s coming enjoying the art but beyond that, when you’re in your travels, what are some ways and perspectives that people can understand, whether it would be reflection or meditation or even coming to have a great peaceful lunch or whatever, that you see people using the museum to enhance their lives?
Kristen: I think there is a big movement in museums around the world right now and particularly in the United States to open up the museum as a place that’s almost a third place, a place where you can go, you can have lunch, you can just wander the galleries, you can have quiet time to yourself. There is a lot of learning opportunity that happens in museums but also a lot of recreational and just meditative as you said, quiet time is really important. But we also have dance parties and we also have kids doing yoga or we have painting in the park in the spring. There’s a lot of activities that happen. There’s a beer project every summer that happens where craft brewers are inspired by works in our collection, so when we have cocktails on Thursday nights. There are a lot of different ways to experience the museum, there are a lot of public programs, exhibitions. And what we try to do, we can’t be all things to all people, but we are a very welcoming inclusive place and it is a place that I hope the St. Petersburg community in particular feels is their third place.
Ashley: We’re friends with the St. Pete Arts Alliance and their efforts to bridge different entities of our community in service of the arts together. We definitely have a lot of that over time, especially with tourists coming in, giving them an accessible way to enjoy the smatterings of the arts community. It appears from the outside that your relationships with what could be viewed as competitors are largely positive, that it’s a collaborative environment of conveyors. Is this normal, is it normal to see that in the arts community?
Kristen: So are you asking about the St. Petersburg arts community, like are we competitive or are we collaborative?
Ashley: It appears as if you’re highly collaborative and I certainly laud the alliance on helping to bridge all the entities together, but I don’t know if that’s normal.
Kristen: I think it depends on what you mean. I think we are always looking for appropriate collaborations. Our position is fairly unique in our museum ecosystem in St. Petersburg in that we’re the only comprehensive collection, so it means that we have a very broad mandate. So collaborations for us can sometimes look like partnering with other non-profits and making sure our space is available for other non-profits when they’re doing their work. I think museums can sometimes feel competitive because we may be competing for eyeballs or funding dollars or hearts and minds sometimes, and it’s one of those false competitions because in St. Petersburg in particular there is no reason for the museums here not to be supportive of one another. What we’re creating is a city that is very arts engaged and it’s one of those high tides lifts all boats. There’s not a reason for any other arts organization to throw shade on another because we are all in this together in creating a community that’s really active and vibrant for the arts. It’s good for our economy, it’s good for our community, it’s good for tourism. So we’re always looking for appropriate collaborations. And in fact two winters from now – so this coming winter we have the Schlumberger show. The following winter we’re putting together a theatre arts exhibition, one of the most important theatre arts collections in North America will be at the Museum of Fine Arts and it’s an awesome opportunity for us to partner with performing arts organizations. So there’s going to be a lot of collaboration that you see between the MFA and performing arts orgs during that exhibition and throughout the year.
Joe: There’s a real groundswell, I think in talking about being a futurist, and the performing arts will play a very – I think there will be a steep increase in the attention play with the performing arts in St. Pete in the coming year.
Kristen: Absolutely. And I’m a big performing arts kid, I grew up – my mom was at Ruth Eckerd Hall in my growing up years and she is the CEO of a performing arts center in West Palm Beach. So I’ve spent a lot of time in the performing arts in my career, professionally but also personally, so I’m really excited about the intersection of performance with visual arts at our museum.
Ashley: You have us a window to your personal passions. Can you share a little bit more about who you are when you are not Executive Director?
Kristen: Oh my, I feel like I’m always the Executive Director wherever I go. I don’t know, I’m a mom of two teenage boys, I’m a girlfriend of a really wonderful man and the daughter of some great parents who are thrilled that I’m back in Florida because they are. And I’m a baseball fan and I love my classical music, but I love my 80s Electronica. I don’t know. I love my team at the MFA, I feel really fortunate to have the board I’ve got. I’ve had a really fantastic career so far, I feel very fortunate to have lived in some amazing cities, I love to travel, and I love introducing people to the magic that is in visual arts, I love helping people connect with something that’s beyond their own experience. I’m in the perfect job for that.
Joe: I think that’s the kind of peace you can only get from being around a lot of great art on a daily basis.
Kristen: It’s true.
Joe: One specific thing I want to make sure we cover before we go is the mosaics from Antioch, please…
Joe: …tell us everything.
Kristen: This is the greatest story. Okay, buckle up. So I think I mentioned earlier, I was the nerd who came to the Museum of Fine Arts when I was a high school kid, I would come here and do my homework sometimes after school. And there was this great mosaic in the membership garden, fragment of a mosaic second century A.D., it’s from the Syrian part of the Roman empire and it always just captured my imagination as a kid. So when I returned to St. Petersburg in December of 2016, so I’ve been at this job about a year and a half, someone asked if there was anything from my childhood that I remembered and so I start waking on about this amazing mosaic and it’s still in the same place where it always was, and it’s incredible. And our registrar let me know that it was one of five mosaics purchased and it turns out they were the first objects to be accessioned into the museum’s collection in the ‘60s. So naturally I want to know where the other four are, because this mosaic has followed me around my whole life. I went to Antiochia as a graduate student in the ‘90s, went to the place where this mosaic was from, I’ve studied Antioch mosaics, I’ve been very engaged with this topic for a long time. So she tells me there are four more, one is still in the membership garden, one is in the fountain in the membership garden, so I was aghast because it was in this murky water and it’s just not how you would treat a second century antiquity. One had been on view until fairly recently and it was safely in storage under the stage in our Marley room in our theatre, which is really cool. And the other two were buried in the back loan of the museum back in the ‘80s. Buried!
Kristen: I don’t know, and nobody knows, that’s the interesting thing. We think it may have been a means of storing them temporarily, they’re extremely heavy, they’re large and heavy. And so I immediately started fundraising to figure out how can we excavate these mosaics, restore them, put them on view, put an exhibition together etcetera. So that started happening in March. I’m so excited. We hired one of the top conservators in the world who is thrilled to be doing an archaeological dig in St. Petersburg, it’s amazing. So we excavated the mosaic out of the fountain, so that’s out and we have an outdoor conservation lab now on Bayshore. So behind the museum you’ll see a fenced off area where you can peek through and there’s an outdoor conservation lab where all of the mosaics are then being restored, they’re being cleaned and restored. So we excavated the ones out of the earth, they’re out and all of that’s happening over this spring and into the summer, so there will be an exhibition in the fall of 2020 that puts our mosaics in the context of Greco-Roman mosaics. So…
Kristen: It’s thrilling for me, I’m flying the nerd flag very high right now, but it is thrilling to be able to bring Ancient art back to life this way. It’s especially meaningful I think for me because I remember this as a kid, but it’s also a way for us to talk about Ancient art and a part of our collection that I think feels very remote to people. Ancient art feels like a million miles away and a million years ago and not relevant in our everyday lives, and it’s the foundation of all art practice, really. And these particular mosaics come from a part of the world that is war torn, where ISIS is systematically trying to destroy works of art that are just like these and it gives us an opportunity to talk about our responsibility to world heritage and cultural heritage. And it’s right here, it’s literally in our back yard and it’s really thrilling for me to be able to bring these back to life, so I’m very excited about it.
Joe: Well the ones that were in the back yard, was that written down somewhere or did you just get lucky that someone remembered that, or somebody with a metal detector out there going in and find something?
Kristen: There was kind of museum lore, there was not a whole lot of written records about this but yes, there was some information about where to find these things and…
Joe: Was it like six paces from the tree here or what?
Kristen: No kidding, it was like, ‘It’s between the two trees.’ So we did some probing out there and found them before we brought in the heavy machinery. But these things weigh 1,000 pounds and it’s a major effort to get these things up out of the ground. And it’s pretty exciting, we’ve got a lot of people in the community into it and helping us donate to pay for the rest of the project, and we’ve got kids from Eckerd who are interning and helping us both in video documentation of the project, but also in the conservation efforts. So it’s a terrific opportunity for these students as well.
Ashley: Kristen Shepherd is literally resurrecting art right here in our community. It’s true.
Joe: I just can imagine the process that you went through having this mosaic being important to you and then a, find out there are four more and then find out one is in your fountain outside. That must have been a really fun but weird experience.
Ashley: And then a lone one that’s preserved and cared for, I’ll worry about you later.
Joe: That’s in a bath under the stage somewhere.
Kristen: Yeah, exactly. It’s under the stage. Well it needs to be cleaned…
Joe: Ultimate treasure. And I’m assuming you found them one after the other…
Ashley: Look at you, you’re really excited about this!
Joe: I know, I was…
Kristen: Everyone’s excited about this.
Ashley: This is great.
Joe: It’s like finding the rare Pokémon cards with my kid at the garage sale or something.
Kristen: It’s just like that. Well one of the interesting things was the one in the fountain is beautiful, the one that was in the fountain. It’s this beautiful ribbon-like detail, it’s absolutely gorgeous. But we knew from the registration records, we have these old black and white photographs from the ‘60s… When you take the work of art into your collection there’s a record, there’s a file for it. So we knew there was more to it. All you could see in the fountain was the top part of what we knew was there, so we didn’t know where the second half of that particular mosaic was. So when we were out in the backyard digging the first one we found was the rest of that one. So we were like, ‘Yes!’ because we knew the other two were out there, we were hoping that third fragment was there, and it was.
Kristen: And it’s probably the most spectacular of all. And we’re gonna put them back together the way there were meant to be. And they are just gorgeous. And one of the things we are doing right now is we’re allowing some tours with our – we have a new curator who is one of the most esteemed Ancient art curators in America, we hired him in March, we hired him away from the Cleveland Museum of Art where he was head of department of Ancient art, he was there for 20 years. And he’s thrilled because one of the first exhibitions he did for Cleveland was about Antioch. So he’s thrilled with this project and he truly hit the ground running because he showed up in March and then next week we started digging, it was fantastic timing.
Kristen: But one of the things we’re doing, his name is Dr. Michael Bennet and one of the things Michael is doing on some of these up-close tours for our donors is he’s allowing people to spray a little bit of distilled water on the mosaics because in doing so it brings out their color. So suddenly you see what they’re going to look like when they’re cleaned, and people freak out, they’re like, ‘Huh, it’s so beautiful!’ And then they start spritzing the heck out of the whole thing. It’s crazy but people are really excited about it and I couldn’t be happier because I think ancient art has been long neglected in our collection and having someone like Michael Bennet on our team is just gonna enliven it for everyone, I’m really excited.
Joe: Well on the behalf of the park I’m just gonna breathe a sigh relief that you did find that fragment because otherwise I could just see you guys make 64 holes out there all over the place.
Kristen: No, we had a pretty good idea where they were.
Kristen: We had a pretty good idea.
Joe: Not digging up the whole park?
Kristen: No, no.
Joe: I don’t know, it’s tempting, though. Who knows what other treasures are gonna be out there?
Kristen: But one of the great things about working with a collection like ours is we have ancient art, we have African art, we have European art, we have art from all time periods, all parts of the world. And the second curator who I just hired who is our curator for collections and exhibitions, Dr. Stanton Thomas is part of our team now and he is this amazingly imaginative curator who in his past work has juxtaposed old master paintings with contemporary art. And he has put things together in surprising ways. So I am really excited to think about the ways that he is gonna bring our collection to life for our community. Much the way that Michael is for Ancient art, Stanton is going be bringing the rest of our collection to life in really surprising and imaginative ways as we reinstall the collection. So there’s a lot to look forward to.
Ashley: Well now Joe is super excited and worked up as a collector and he’s probably not the only one in St. Pete who will now want to follow what’s happening with the soon-to-be infamous mosaics. Tell our audience how they can keep track of what’s going on and in general get involved with the museum.
Kristen: So as far as the mosaic project is concerned which we’re all excited about we have a very generous matching grant out there right now, it’s a $50,000 matching grant, so every dollar that you give to the mosaic program project is going to be matched. So the first thing I would say is please go to our website and check it out, there’s a page about the Antioch mosaic project and there’s a way for you to give, and if you give $50 or more you can have a private tour with your very own distilled water spritz bottle and Michael Bennet will tell you the whole history of these mosaics, which is pretty great.
Joe: You guys do have fun.
Kristen: We do have fun. Museums are fun places. I would say visit and check out or website, but follow us on Facebook, like us on Facebook, there’s a lot of information that we share about what’s going on at the museum so that’s a great place to keep up with us.
Ashley: Well you’re keeping it fresh, you’re keeping it exciting, congratulations on the work that you’ve done since you’ve been…
Kristen: Thank you.
Joe: I’m gonna officially start a rumor that there is a sixth…
Kristen: No, no…
Joe: There is, no, there is.
Ashley: You’re gonna have to dig it up…
Joe: Actually in here is that off-air Kristen told me there is a sixth…
Ashley: You’re gonna have to dig it up all over…
Joe: A thousand-pound mosaic hidden somewhere in St. Petersburg.
Ashley: Or it’s an intentional scavenger hunt that you can create a fundraising event around to find the sixth… well we’ll talk, let’s continue this conversation off-air.
Joe: It’s out there.
Ashley: It’s out there, yeah.
Joe: I don’t believe you can tell me.
Ashley: We like to end our show with a shout-out to a specific individual or organization that is doing great work in our community but perhaps doesn’t have a tremendous amount of attention on them either intentionally or just because. Anyone come to mind?
Kristen: Well I have to say that our former board chairman Mark Mahaffey is one of the most inspiring people in terms of his support for this community through the arts and lots of different ways. Mark was the chairman when I was hired so he was part of the search committee, he was one of the big reasons that I accepted the job because it’s the kind of energy and philanthropy and generosity of spirit that I see in this community. And he stays pretty under the radar, but he is a guy who has been so generous with time and with treasure for the Museum of Fine Arts, but also for lots of other arts organizations in our community, so my shout-out to Mark Mahaffey and his beautiful, amazing, fun wife, Mary Ann.
Ashley: That’s a good one.
Joe: Well done. Thank you so much. Been a pleasure.
Ashley: Kristen, thank you.
Kristen: Thank you, thanks for having me.
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is the CEO of Big Sea, publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst and a founding Insight Board member at the St. Petersburg Group. Joe brings a strong acumen for strategy and positioning businesses. He serves on several local boards, including TEDx Tampa Bay, which grew his desire to build a platform where the area’s thought leaders could share their valuable insight with the community at large.
Ashley Ryneska is the Vice President of Marketing for the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg and a founding Insight Board member at the St. Petersburg Group. Ashley believes meaningful conversations can serve as the gateway to resolution, freedom, and advancement for our city. Her passion for storytelling has been internationally recognized with multiple media accolades.