A Dayton Gem is being polished
By Natasha Habib
“It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s your new DAI,” said Michael R. Roediger, executive director of the Dayton Art Institute. His quote, prominently displayed on the museum’s website, sums up how the DAI’s new leadership feels about the art institute of which they’ve become a part. Roediger and Jane A. Black, associate director of the DAI, have finished their first full year as caretakers of this tribute to Dayton’s rich culture, creativity and history.
“We’re nontraditional leaders of an art museum,” said Roediger. “Traditionally, people in our role would either have an art history degree or curatorial degree. We don’t have either.”
Black was the executive director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center (DVAC) and Roediger was the vice president of development for Victoria Threatre Association. Nontraditional is exactly what the DAI needs right now. Like the rest of the city and many of its residents, the Dayton Art Institute has been through a rough patch recently.
“By necessity, a lot of my first couple of years here was kind of a holding pattern, so to speak, just stabilizing and recovering from the shock of the economic downturn because that definitely impacted the museum,” said Eric Brockman, marketing and communications manager, who has been working at the DAI for the past three and a half years.
“We are definitely in the mode of invention, I would say,” said Black. “We are part of a national, and I would say probably international, trend of reinventing what it means to be a museum. And that’s partially for financial reasons – the old funding models are not working and museums are falling left and right. It’s very difficult to keep them on a sustainable model business-wise. But it also has a great deal to do with how people live their lives, how they consume information, how they seek entertainment. And like many, many different kinds of arts groups we’re figuring out, ‘how do we fit into that? How do we make it work for the 21st century?’ And so it’s exciting times on a lot of levels. There’s a lot of hard work to be done and there’s a lot of things to be imagined and dreamed of and moved forward.”
“It was a fresh start,” said Roediger. “We have all the opportunity to make change. But we’re doing it for the community. We don’t own this building; we’re just the caretakers of it right now.” With their combined experience, the duo is making changes to reinvent the DAI while keeping the community and the art at the heart of their mission.
Their first project was fixing the leaking roof. Buckets in the galleries collecting dripping water wasn’t a very attractive look for the museum, nor was having to remove the works of art surrounding the leaks.
“You can’t run a museum when you’re taking all the art off the walls,” said Roediger. Thanks to the generosity of patrons, the Hale Cloister (formerly Italian Cloister) was renovated with the restoration of columns and sculptures along with a new fountain, landscaping and lighting.
A major change visitors will notice immediately upon entering the museum is the new Leo Bistro, just to the left of the main entrance where the gift shop used to be (the gift shop has been relocated nearby). With over a thousand objects on display spanning 5,000 years, it’s impossible to make it through all the collections without getting hungry. Now, visitors can break for lunch in the museum, or even meet a friend for coffee and check out some art while they’re there. Leo Bistro, which is schooled to open by the end of January, will be open during regular museum hours – seating up to 68 people in the front and 80 including the back meeting space – and can also be rented for private parties, able to accommodate 100 people for a cocktail-style party.
Featuring culinary art fit for an art museum, Leo Bistro will be run by Chef Dana Downs of Roost Modern Italian on Fifth Street in the Oregon District.
“We’re very excited to have Chef Dana Downs heading up our bistro,” said Roediger. Black agreed. “She’s amazing – really creative. She is to food what the DAI is to art.”
Black and Roediger are good at identifying the needs of their building and its audience. From feeding hungry art-lovers to keeping up with the times, the team is integrating technology into the experience. Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the DAI is now featuring the “What is a Masterpiece?” program.
“It was a grant to take 50 objects from our collection and create a layered website with information about each one that can be accessed through a QR code (those square, pixilated-looking barcodes),” explained Black. “So you come up to a painting, or a vase, or a drum or a sculpture and you click the QR code and you get different interesting stories about that era and that object. If it’s a sculpture it might be, ‘how is stone carving done?’ If it’s a medieval sculpture, it might be music from that era … It tells these stories. But the final piece is always, ‘so is this a masterpiece to you?’ ‘What do you think?’ … There’s this opportunity for feedback that’s built into the system. So we are going to start hearing these stories.”
“It’s not taking away from the art to have a richer experience looking at what the music was like in the renaissance period when these tapestries were made,” said Roediger. “We could’ve designed it so that you just looked at your iPad, but it’s really asking you to take a deeper look at a piece of art.” As part of the grant, Wi-Fi has been installed throughout the museum and bistro, so you can use your smart phone, iPad or borrow an iPad from the museum to engage in an interactive experience.
In addition to physical changes inside the museum, Black and Roediger have also been focused on building the DAI’s audience. “We do want people to really know that we value, and that we know, that the art is at the mission and at the heart of what we really have to do,” said Roediger. “We’re just looking beyond that to build the audience to keep it thriving.” One way they’re doing this is by increasing accessibility on multiple levels.
“We’re working hard to figure out ways to make the museum more accessible to people with disabilities,” said Roediger. “This is a tough building because it’s on the National (Register of Historic Places). It was completed in 1930; they didn’t think about those things.” Black and Roediger also want to make sure that visitors feel that the art is accessible to them, without necessarily having an education or background in fine arts.
“I think some of the things we learned from Rockwell was that it was very accessible to people,” Roediger said of the “American Chronicles” exhibition that ran from late 2011 through early 2012 featuring the works of Norman Rockwell. “They didn’t feel like they had to be an art expert to understand it. There was name recognition. And they felt like it was a piece of Americana, that it was something that they wanted to know because it reflected their life … We want at least one show a year that everybody feels is accessible.”
“We’re also trying to make it accessible to all different cultures,” said Roediger. He and Black explained that the neighborhood surrounding the DAI used to be a primarily white neighborhood but has since become very diverse. “(The Dayton Art Institute) has to reflect who lives here … We are looking for more and more opportunity to embrace how Dayton has evolved since the time this museum was built.”
“We have things that were collected by Americans in other places long ago as objects kind of devoid of their cultural connection,” said Black, noting the African, Asian and Oceanic collections, among others. “We now have people in our (city) who are part of that culture and those objects are meaningful to them in different ways and they have different stories to attach to them and tell about them. And I think that’s enormously exciting to have someone experience that collection from a different perspective and to be able to share that with us and with others. And that’s something I see growing … It talks about what art can do; it can really help people understand themselves and each other … That’s a real contribution to the community, is helping that process occur.”
Connecting with the community and helping those within the community connect with each other has been an integral part of Black and Roediger’s new model.
“I think people see that there are a lot more things going on here,” said Black. “I don’t think they always realize that it’s not just generated by museum staff. We’ve been working hard to develop partnerships … We’ve continued partnerships with Muse Machine and with many of the schools in the area. But we’ve added a resident company in our theater, Zoot Theatre (Company), which has been very successful.” This outside help has allowed DAI to open its doors for more audience-building events. “We had a fantastic crowd for a project that we did with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company where we presented ‘Sparkle,’ the documentary. We had a great partnership with the Jewish Federation, FilmDayton and WYSO to present ‘Take Me Home,’ another documentary.”
One of the biggest success stories of 2012 for the DAI was the Prime Time Party Rental Series, presented by Prime Time Party Rental. “(These events) are pop-cultured themed parties that involve music and specialty foods and drinks that are themed and costumes if you want to wear them and there’s always a visual arts element that ties to the collection or the special exhibition,” said Black. The 2012 series included the Olympic Opening Ceremonies Party, Superhero Costume Ball and James Bond Martini Bash, and Brockman noted that he saw a lot of new faces at these events.
The art institute has found other outside help in addition to the partnerships. Whether it’s in need of furniture for the bistro, an espresso machine or dollars, patrons and local businesses have provided much needed donations.
“The community loves the art institute; the community wants the art institute to succeeded,” said Black. “What they needed to know is what we need.” Through a mutually beneficial relationship with the community, the DAI saw its attendance climb to its highest level in three years – over 140,000 in 2012. “We are slowly but surely closing the gap between what it costs to run a humongous historic building – filled with art that has to be kept at a constant level of temperature and humidity and be highly insured and under guard – with the revenues that you can bring in with presenting that art to the public,” Black said.
The art institute, like the city it’s in, is experiencing an exciting rebirth. “When people slam on Dayton, I’m like, ‘you know what? Dayton’s a great place to live,’” said Roediger. “And there are great things happening; there’s great art, great cost of living. We’re reinventing ourselves. We have a great history but our future can be equally as great … If you’re going to complain then do something to make it better or go ahead and move. We need more champions, we don’t need more pessimists.” Black and Roediger have been shining examples of the kind of champions the DAI needs, but anyone can contribute. The easiest way is to become a member of the DAI, which pays for itself after a few visits. And just be present, said Roediger. Come for a special exhibition you’re dying to see, and then give a more eclectic one like Chinese fiber art a shot. Meet your friends for lunch at Leo Bistro, find a birthday card or unique gift in the museum’s gift shop or just come in out of the elements and hang out in the galleries.
For more information on the Dayton Art Institute, visit www.daytonartinstitute.org or call 937.223.5277. You can also find them on Facebook.