For years, Steven High has kept himself up to date on the doings at the Telfair Museum of Art. He actually began his museum career at the Telfair as a curatorial assistant in 1977.
“I must have been a junior in college,” High says.
“It was while I was an undergraduate at Antioch. We did co-ops and traveled around the country. I was interested in art history and wanted to try working in a museum, so I came to the Telfair.”
Something must have clicked. High will return to Savannah, this time as the Telfair’s director.
The Telfair board met recently to confirm his appointment. “Our search for a new director was national in scope,” says Telfair Board of Trustees President John Kennedy III.
“The search committee reviewed numerous candidates to ensure we met our goal of attracting an outstanding candidate to lead the Telfair’s future growth and programs,” Kennedy says.
“The high level and exceptional quality of the candidates reinforced our belief that we have a unique and extremely attractive museum, city and community.”
High is more than qualified for the job, Kennedy says.
“He brings to the Telfair a great knowledge of art, proven skills in creating exciting exhibits, the ability to reach out to all aspects of the community, a strong interest in developing art programs for the youth of the community, building local and international partnerships and developing an energized staff and membership,” he says.
High remembers his first museum job fondly. “I was here three months,” he says. “It was a great experience. I lived on Tybee. I’ve always kept an eye on the Telfair ever since.”
After earning a master of art degree in Art History from Williams College in 1985, High became the founding director of the Baxter Gallery of the Portland School of Art, now the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art.
At Baxter, he developed a program of exhibitions, publications and lectures, and integrated the museum within the college and the larger community.
High then spent eight years at the Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to developing exhibitions and teaching, he completed his MBA degree.
Currently, High is the director/CEO of the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. He was the Telfair search committee’s unanimous first choice.
The search for a director began last May when Dr. Diane Lesko, the former director, announced she would not continue as executive director of the Telfair after her contract ended in October. During her tenure, Lesko oversaw the construction of the new 64,000 square foot Jepson Center for the Arts, which opened in March.
In the interim, Bill Rousseau, the Telfair’s deputy director of operations, has been the museum’s acting director. High’s appointment goes into effect on Feb. 1.
“When we started this search process, the board and the search committee identified what the ideal candidate would be,” Kennedy says. “Steven meets and exceeds all aspects of what we wanted in a new director.”
In Reno, High has shown he has the experience to direct the Telfair, Kennedy says.
“Since becoming the director of the Nevada Museum of Art in 1996, Steven has established the artistic vision for the institution, has overseen all activities and programs and implemented strategies for financial development, managed a diverse and active staff and acted as a liaison with community and university audiences,” he says.
“It was also critical to the board to identify a director with the expertise to bring interesting and unique art and exhibits to the Telfair,” Kennedy says. “During his career, Steven has curated numerous exhibitions with a focus on contemporary American and international art.
“In addition, Steven has organized and presented major exhibitions representing artists and art movements of the past. His curatorial engagement and diverse artistic interests are all indicators of Steven’s commitment to presenting a wide representation of artistic experiences to our community.”
It was important to hire someone who has a combination of artistic, business and management skills, Kennedy says. “Steven supervised the design, construction and opening of a new 60,000 square foot museum in 2003 designed by Will Bruder,” he says.
“He knows the challenges and opportunities of operating an exciting new building and he was greatly impressed by Telfair’s new Jepson Center for the Arts and feels that it holds wonderful untapped opportunities. Also, Steven holds an MBA degree from Virginia Commonwealth University -- he truly does bring both the elements of art and business management to the Telfair.”
High’s ability to form partnerships makes him an excellent choice for the job, Kennedy says. “During his tenure at the Nevada Museum of Art, Steven partnered with the Reno/Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority to attract new visitors to the Museum,” he says.
“Steven has increased the museum membership to 7,000 households, which is almost twice the Telfair’s,” Kennedy says. “We have made significant gains in our membership in the past year, but what Steven has done in the Reno area, with a population of 190,000 in the City of Reno and 360,000 in the immediate area -- demographics similar to those of the Savannah and Hilton Head area -- is a most impressive accomplishment.”
In Nevada, High has worked to collaborate with local institutions of higher learning. “Steven has been instrumental in working closely with the university and community college in Reno and has created various joint art classes held at the Nevada Museum of Art,” Kennedy says.
“In addition, he developed several international partnerships including a current project with the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao, Spain,” he says. “These international partnerships are something we think Steven can bring to the Telfair.”
High has received considerable acclaim for his accomplishments. In 1999, the Nevada Museum of Art was awarded the prestigious National Award for Museum Service. In 2003, High himself was recognized by the Western Museum Association for outstanding contributions to the museum field.
“In April 2006, Steven was elected to serve on the board of the American Association of Museums and currently serves on several important art committees,” Kennedy says.
“He also is on the board of the Western Museum Association and is a board member of the Nevada Museum Association and the Nevada Citizens for the Arts. Steven has been an important and vital contributor to the Nevada Museum of Art, but he is also a contributor to the art and museum world.”
In some ways, High was disappointed to learn that the Jepson Center for the Arts had already been completed. “I like to be a builder,” he says. “In my present job, I supervised the building of a museum and managed the transition into the new building.”
It was the construction of the Jepson Center that first caught High’s interest. “I observed they were in the process of building, and when this position came open, I thought it might be a good fit,” he says.
After 10 years in Reno, High was ready for a change. He regularly checked the American Association of Museums web site for potential jobs. “I saw there was an opening for a director at the Telfair and thought it might be the right fit for me,” he says.
Almost immediately, High got a call from a recruiter with an executive search team that had been hired by the Telfair board.
“We started talking,” he says. “I soon realized the job fit my interests.”
The Telfair comprises three separate museums -- the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Owens-Thomas House and the Jepson Center of the Arts. High was particularly interested in the Jepson Center.
“The most difficult and challenging part of building is the time you transfer into a new building, as you learn how to use it and make economic decisions,” he says.
But High also is excited about the opportunity to learn more about managing historic properties. The Telfair is the oldest art museum in the South, having opened in 1886.
It is a regional and national resource of the arts, culture, and history. The Telfair actually encompasses three diverse museums; the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Owens-Thomas House, and the Jepson Center for the Arts.
High plans to take a closer look at the Telfair Academy. “I want to try to bring the facility up as far as maintenance and restoration,” he says. “Historic properties need a lot of care. It’s time to put some attention on that building.”
Thinking the Telfair job was the one for him, High passed on other potential jobs. “Two others had opportunities at the same time,” he says.
“When I went and talked to them, Savannah stood out. That’s primarily because of the people I met. They were really dedicated, and very passionate about the Telfair. I want to work where people really care about what they are doing.”
High wants to make the museum more open to the community, as he has done in Reno. “Starting off, I want to focus on learning both the institution and the Savannah community,” he says.
“My passion is in building partnerships. I want to really get the museum out into the community as much as I can.”
That includes facing accusations of elitism that have been aimed at the Telfair and working for change. “It will take years to build a really strong relationship with the African-American community and others in the community who have felt ostracized,” he says.
High dealt with a similar perception in Reno, where Latinos felt excluded from the Nevada Museum of Art. “We are working on taking every step to make the museum even more open and accepting,” High says.
For now, High has returned to Reno to begin preparing for the move to Savannah. He and his wife, Lisa, have two sons, one of whom is a graduate student in Boston.
“It’s been a really fun four days,” High says of his most recent trip to Savannah. “I’ve been very busy. I’ve met an incredible group of people. I came away impressed with their enthusiasm, talent and passion about what they are doing.”
High left an impression on those he met in Savannah.
“We were looking for someone with exceptional museum leadership, business management skills, the ability to bring great art and exhibits to the Telfair and make the three museum facilities an important destination for the citizens of the area and our many tourists,” Kennedy said.
“We feel we have achieved that in hiring Steven.” ç
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