Florence Griswold Museum's new director looks toward the future
Old Lyme — It’s not about filling shoes. Rather, it’s about laying down new footprints.
At least that’s been Rebekah "Becky" Beaulieu's mindset as she has transitioned into her position as Florence Griswold Museum’s new director over the past 10 months.
Having taken over the position from longtime Director Jeffrey Andersen, who in his 40 years with the museum was credited with transforming the Flo Gris from a historic house into a major regional art museum, Beaulieu said she knows the community has its eye on her.
“It’s been a daunting but exciting transition,” Beaulieu said while sitting in her hot pink desk chair for a recent interview with The Day. “This is a whole new chapter in the museum’s life, and Jeff did so many amazing things here that are incomprehensible to describe in 40 years of leadership.”
“This was not an institution that needed a Band-Aid on it. It did not need someone coming in and throwing their weight around or speaking loudly just to have their voice heard,” Beaulieu continued. “I walked into a dynamic, fully functioning, well-resourced, well-staffed organization with a lot of community support. So for me, this first year was not about rocking the boat.”
Instead, Beaulieu said her beginning months have simply been about listening to museum staff and the surrounding community — a careful, yet enthusiastic, approach to what Beaulieu said she knew could have been a very delicate transition.
“I really wanted to build relationships before embarking on campaigns and asking for support,” she said. “I wanted the opportunity to take the pulse, both here within our walls in terms of our staff members and volunteers, and with our community members so I could really understand what makes everyone so passionate about this place.”
Beaulieu, a 36-year-old native of Milwaukee, Wis., previously served as the associate director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, where she worked the last four years. She has earned two master's degrees — one in art history and museum studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and one in arts administration from Columbia University — as well as a Ph.D. in American and New England studies from Boston University.
Besides sitting as a board member of the New England Museum Association, she is working as an editor on a book about that association’s centennial. She was recently named as an accreditation commissioner for the American Alliance of Museums and has worked as managing editor for "Modern Intellectual History," an academic journal published by Cambridge University Press. She wrote “Financial Fundamentals for Historic House Museums,” which outlines the basic tenets of organization and financial management for small museums.
‘Bridges between the past and present’
Looking into the new year, Beaulieu said 2019 will be a pivotal one, especially as she introduces a robust and exciting exhibition schedule, featuring local and national contemporary artists — a focus she said she would like to take as the museum moves forward.
“I know we are going out of the gate strong with contemporary in 2019, and that will balance with 2018, which focused so much on the permanent collection,” she said. “But this is not taking another contemporary show and plopping it at the Flo Gris. It’s really looking at how to honor this site, this community, bringing the past into the present and finding different avenues for engagement with the work.”
And while Beaulieu said she has been making a concerted effort to learn about Connecticut’s art history as well as its present scene, she said she hopes to highlight contemporary artists in Old Lyme, a town that, much as at the turn of the 20th century, still attracts artists.
“A lot of people here don’t recognize that Old Lyme is still somewhat of a haven for artists,” she said. “We are trying to find ways to create a conversation about those artists’ experience here on the site, their artistic output and what is happening today. We are trying to find those bridges between the past and present.”
As part of that, “The Great Americans: Portraits by Jac Lahav” will be kicking off the year. Lahav is a contemporary artist living in Old Lyme whose "larger-than-life portraits depict American icons in unexpected ways." That will be followed in June by “Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art,” the follow-up exhibition to “Flora/Fauna: The Naturalist Impulse in American Art” displayed at the museum in 2017. That show, besides highlighting environmentally focused art, will bring in contemporary artists from around the country and tie their work in throughout the Florence Griswold House and landscape.
A third exhibition will feature the recent work of Matthew Leifheit, whose photographs accompanied Dave Eggers’ August story in the New Yorker detailing the immigrant family taking sanctuary in Old Lyme’s First Congregational Church. Those photographs will be on display alongside additional photographs commissioned by the museum. The idea, Beaulieu said, is to tie Leifheit’s representations of the church with those in the museum’s permanent collection.
When asked if her vision toward contemporary could deter more traditionally inclined supporters of the museum, Beaulieu said, “I would ask people to be accessible and open to some of the new ideas we are bringing in, but to also to recognize that I am coming in with a total respect for our permanent collection.”
Museum ‘busting at its seams’
What was once a site that attracted fewer than 1,000 visitors annually now draws almost 80,000. The museum boasts more than 15 staff, almost 3,000 members, 225 volunteers and, as of November, an $18.2 million endowment that covers 30 percent of the museum’s $2.6 million operating costs.
The Florence Griswold House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
Because of the museum’s influential role in Old Lyme, Beaulieu said she has made sure to establish open lines of communication with First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder. The two, she said, have discussed common goals between the museum and town. Of those, Beaulieu mentioned an interest in erecting pedestrian pathways connecting the Flo Gris to the town’s art district, as well as implementing added safety measures during public events such as the town’s annual Midsummer Festival.
When asked her opinion about the town’s unfolding Halls Road Improvements, Bealieau said, it was “too early to speak to any specifics.”
Some of those proposed designs, as have been recently discussed by town officials, include a pedestrian bridge over the Lieutenant River and walking paths within riverside marshes nearby museum grounds.
“I think there will be a lot of evolution with the plan, but I am happy to see that what we are doing here is being considered,” Beaulieu said. “For us, that means recognizing our landscape, protecting our landscape when appropriate. Those are the areas we are interested in.”
Besides her own visions for the future, Beaulieu is also managing and planning several unfolding long-term plans already in place when she started the job last winter. Those include possibly expanding the museum’s gallery space; updating the Marshfield House to provide more gathering space for events; making the research center, library and archives more publicly accessible; and completing a landscape plan, known as the artists’ trail, that will connect various parcels of the original Florence Griswold property that the museum recently acquired. That trail is already under construction.
“Jeff grew the museum and its resources. ... Now it’s very clear that the museum is busting at its seams in many ways,” Beaulieu said. “I walked into a favorable situation, now it’s maintaining all of that while continuing to move the museum in a forward direction.”