heard museum’s letitia chambers
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Heard Museum’s Letitia Chambers
December, 2010, Page 41
Photo by Brandon Sullivan
“I thought I could use all the things I have done in the course of my career to make a difference.”— Letitia Chambers, Heard Museum Director
The Heard Museum opened in 1929 and has struggled with
modernity. Savvy CEO Letitia Chambers hit the reboot button.
Signs of change are everywhere at the Heard Museum – even in the signage. When Letitia Chambers took over as director of the world-renowned American Indian museum in January 2010, that was one of the first things she improved.
Now, visitors can easily find everything from the stunning glass art of Preston Singletary (on view through February 6) to one of the museum’s latest exhibitions, Pop! Popular Culture in American Indian Art, which features work by pop artist Andy Warhol, on view through March 20 in the Crossroads Gallery.
Chambers, the museum’s first director of American Indian descent, is a fan of contemporary American Indian art and helped curate the show, calling on Lisa Scholder to secure the priceless piece Warhol created of her late husband, American Indian artist Fritz Scholder. The exhibit reflects Chambers’ commitment to showcasing contemporary American Indian art and her understanding of the influences that flow between American Indian and non-Indian artists.
Chambers’ other accomplishments at the Heard Museum include:
• A new coffee bar and bookstore, being paid for in part with a $150,000 grant from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust.
• The sale of prints, which adds a new revenue stream to the nonprofit.
• A new financial strategy that has made the museum profitable for the first time in five years.
Chambers, 67, an Oklahoma-born educator turned public policy consultant, took over as director a year ago, replacing Frank Goodyear, who retired after 10 years. She initially faced resistance to her action-oriented overhaul of the 81-year-old museum.
“There were people on the staff and the board that were uncomfortable with the changes,” Chambers says. “But by and large they are excited and see the value of what we are doing.”
The 30-foot-long display “Indigenous Evolution,” by Santa Clara Tewa Indian artist Rosemary Lonewolf and Isleta Indian artist Tony Jojola, marks the entrance of the Heard’s exhibition HOME: Native People in the Southwest.
Part of her vision includes educating people about the Heard’s treasures and expanding the idea of what a 21st-century museum can be – a community resource and gathering place. “One thing I saw was this desire to be satisfied with whoever found the Heard rather than be more proactive in getting tourists and locals to know more about the Heard,” she explains.
Bob Bulla, chairman of the museum’s board, admits Chambers has shaken up the business systems, gleaning input from nearly 1,000 people in strategic planning sessions. “We had to make a lot of changes,” Bulla says. “It is not easy for people to make changes, but they had to be done.”
According to Bulla, Chambers snagged the coveted position due to her varied experience in fundraising, strategic planning, and public- and private-sector work. Being of Cherokee descent didn’t hurt either.
“She tackled lots of issues to meet the new economic environment we were in,” Bulla says. “She has stabilized things, and now we are poised for greater things in the future – not only for the Heard, but for the entire Phoenix area.”
Jan Denton, who worked for Chambers’ public policy consulting firm in Washington, D.C., describes her as intelligent, strategic and unafraid to fight for her clients. “I’ve always been amazed at her ability to take on multiple tasks and then deliver on them,” she says.
But unlike many type-A CEOs, Chambers’ path was never meticulously mapped out in her mind. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a doctorate in educational research and curriculum development, she went from educator to public policy maker to United Nations General Assembly ambassador to Beltway consultant before heading New Mexico’s higher education system and becoming the founding director of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, based in Vancouver, Washington.
“I have always been the kind of person that is open to where life takes me. If I had been bound by the desires I had as a child, I would never have had the career I had,” says Chambers, who lives in Paradise Valley. “Each thing I’ve done has grown out of what I did before.”
Coming to the Heard was a homecoming of sorts for Chambers, who visited the museum as a girl and was in awe of its collection of katsina dolls. “I thought I could use all the things I have done in the course of my career to make a difference,” she says. “I have a strong business background, and museums need to run like a business in order to survive. And I have a great interest in Native American culture and arts.”
At the Heard Museum, Chambers oversees 138 employees, 700 guild members and a $10.6 million annual budget. She has begun remodeling the Steele Auditorium and creating a space for artist demonstrations while building an endowment fund to assure a stable future for the museum.
Chambers is the second female director of the museum, which was founded in June 1929 by Maie and Dwight Heard. What began as a 16,600-square-foot museum is now a 133,000-square-foot institute with a grass outdoor amphitheater and five courtyards. A satellite museum was built in north Scottsdale in 1996.
The Heard draws about 250,000 people annually and is internationally recognized for its quality collections, artistic collaborations, educational and interactive programming, and festivals, which include the Indian Fair and Market every March.
More than 32,000 works of art and objects are housed within the Spanish Colonial buildings, including its signature exhibit, HOME: Native People in the Southwest. Chambers says she loves being surrounded by the richness of the museum’s art.
“The museum is educating the public about American Indian traditions and the living, dynamic Indian community today and the works that come from that community,” Chambers says. “What I am always trying to do is emphasize the balance. The contemporary art flows from the traditional. We have to honor the traditional as well as love the new and contemporary.”
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