A new face appears at the helm of The Taft Museum of Art.
Rebekah Beaulieu became the next Louise Taft Semple president and CEO of the Taft on Sept. 9.
After five years as director of the Florence Griswold Museum, in Old Lyme Connecticut where she did a lot of institutional planning, programming and community connectivity, she said the Taft was a new opportunity for her. Her mentors encouraged her to take a closer look at the job. She felt a connection with the Taft which has a focus on historic sites and art as well as a strong lineage. When she visited Cincinnati, she said she was swept away by the art scene and the number of institutions which are collaborative in a robust arts economy.
Search Chair and now Chair of the Board Jill McGruder has been involved in what she calls a best kept secret – the Taft – since 2007. Currently the senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Western—Southern Financial Group, she often looked out her window at the Taft and became enamored with the historic house, recently renovated.
“At the end of a bad day, I could decompress at the Taft,” she said. She eventually was approached to serve on the board where she was a member of a variety of committees. She found the exhibitions and collections committee most interesting as it was educating and inspiring to her.
Beginning in Jan. 2022, McGruder and her search team worked with the national Museum Search & Reference LLC firm and looked for a candidate who had a strong track record with external relations and visibility with stakeholders. In addition, the committee sought out someone who could act as a chief fundraiser with connections with the media, donors and government officials. They wanted someone who could be out in the community as they felt that the area should be more aware of the collection.
Another skill set the team desired was experience in team leadership and museum operations. In addition, this position helps execute the strategic plan and ensures collaboration with board and staff. A third area of expertise needed was financial performance and metrics to ensure short and long-term viability of the Taft Museum.
There was great interest in the role. McGruder said a national search firm received 37 applicants from 17 states. “That speaks to our reputation at the national level,” McGruder said.
“Becky is very enthusiastic,” McGruder said. One challenge is getting people back out after COVID, having a good attendance in special exhibitions and getting revenues back to the level of pre-pandemic.
After the Taft completed the major renovation and capital campaign, McGruder was ready to join Beaulieu as part of a new team.
Former president and current board member Phillip Long said, “I think she brings a new chapter to the storied Taft. I did mention to her now that the facility renovations were finished, we were giving her the cake. Now she must ice it.”
For her tenure Beaulieu wants to broaden the scope of the programs and is focusing on several areas including institutional planning and prioritizing arts collaboration raising the profile of the Taft. It already has a collection of top tier artists. She would like to attract national attention, embrace digitalization and enhance diversity along with the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program. With the latter, she is interested in including not only art, but poets, writers, and performers to showcase a breadth of representation.
One major position she plans to fill is a new chief curator. There is a national search ongoing conducted by Koya Partners of Boston, Massachusetts.
“Exhibits will reflect our strengths,” said Beaulieu. That said, she would like to take a new direction with art other than Eurocentric, which the Taft has. She wants to plant seeds for a broad engagement embracing interdisciplinary approaches. In fall 2023 there is a women’s sportwear exhibition called “Outdoor Girls from 1800 to 1960” drawn from the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Los Angeles. It will feature 65 different ensembles.
Another exhibit is “Modern Women/Modern Vision,” the Bank of America corporate collection which features more than 100 shots by some of the era’s most influential photographers. It will be held from June 3 to Sept. 10. Beaulieu wants to blossom into new areas of inquiry as well as serve an underrepresented audience.
She talks enthusiastically about engagement and relevancy. In addition, she wants people to feel that they are welcome at the Taft as the institution becomes more community focused. “Some people can be intimidated by museums,” Beaulieu said. “We want to be open to all.”
“I want to make the museum more tenable to define ourselves as a partner,” she added. She plans to look beyond the visual arts and include the performing arts.
With over 80 employees on staff, she mentors and coaches many of them as some of her employees want to move up in the museum world. Several people want a seat at the table.
In 2023, she plans on institutional planning which will be an inclusive process.
Yet, she doesn’t have a full calendar years out. “I am here to be a chief executive officer,” she said. “But I don’t dabble in curatorial affairs. I keep the distinction of the roles.”
One area she is exploring is revisiting how people are working with each other. In addition, she is looking at systems structures seeing what makes sense. She wants staff buy-in for employee stability. Several employees are dedicated to the museum and plan to make it their career. “The team works well together,” she said.
She asks staff the question, “What makes your heart skip a beat?” She then explores alignment with them and asks what their goals are. Some people use the Taft as a training ground in a competitive workplace. “I can help support the next generation of leaders,” she said. She wants to elevate team members who are passionate about their work.
“I still benefit from the advice of mentors, even after a long career in arts of 20 years,” she said.
As one of five commissioners for the American Alliance of Museums, she travels to review museums for accreditation. She would also like to do more research.
“These are exciting times,” Beaulieu said. Now, she can put her stamp on the Taft.
She served as the vice president of the New England Museum Association and as the treasurer of the American Association for State and Local History. Her work has received recognition as the author of “Financial Fundamentals for Historic House Museums” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and “Endowment Essentials for Museums” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).
Raised in Milwaukee, Beaulieu holds a PhD from Boston University in American and New England Studies with her dissertation “Historic House Museums and America’s Urban Midwest” offering underrepresented scholarship in the field. She also holds a master’s in Art History and Museum Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a master’s in Arts Administration from Columbia University and a bachelor’s in American Studies from George Washington University. In addition to this role, she has also held positions at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, the Milwaukee County Historical Society in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, Illinois.
Her path to the future began when she was 16. Working at a variety of museums, she knew she wanted to be an executive director eventually. Her background not only consisted of art, but also business and administration.
She is now there.