Marcelle Polednik is packing her bagsand leaving town in mid-July to take over as director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. She will be missed. In her five years as director of Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Jacksonville, the museum has flourished: Attendance is up 70 percent, the budget has increased 57 percent, and contributions are up 71 percent. Most impressive is an endowment hike of more than 600 percent, from $656,510 to $5.25 million currently, thanks largely Preston Haskell’s $5 million donation to MOCA in January 2015. Folio Weekly Magazine talked with Polednik about the long strides MOCA has made under her leadership.
FWM: You inherited a museum in 2011 that was reeling financially from the recession, which is now — five years later — more stable than ever. How did you do it?
Marcelle Polednik: Museums are very special, in that they are nonprofit organizations and they’re about uplifting communities and so that’s where I always start when I think about museums as businesses.
My philosophy is excellence first, always in everything, and that’s what very much has worked for MOCA in the last several years. We knew we had to build something for people to gather around, we had to have big hairy ideas and then strategies to make sure we could support them over time.
One of the things that we did early on when I arrived at the museum is project-based budgeting, which had never been done before. The idea was that, when you have an exhibition, there aren’t just hard costs that go with the territorial work that goes on, but you’re also expending marketing dollars, educational dollars; there are staff resources that you are allocating to those projects, and in order to know how much funding you require to support that particular initiative, you have to understand the total cost to the museum.
Is that the big hairy idea you mentioned?
For us, it’s been about ideas, plural. The mission of the organization has changed, the vision behind the territorial [range of the artistic] program has changed, the philosophy behind education at MOCA has changed. We’ve gone from being a lot of things to a lot of people to being fewer things, in a more meaningful way and a richer way, with audiences that we’ve chosen to serve.
Give an example of a change in focus and how your audience has responded.
I think that the digital sphere is a critical aspect of the work that we’ve done as an organization …For example, we have a Google AdWords grant which is about to grow exponentially next year which allowed us to refine our search processing in a way that also builds a digital sphere of influence for the museum.
The rebrand that we launched in January also as its crown jewel had a new website … not just a new website, but a completely different approach to our digital audiences with an approach that focuses on brand journalism and creating content for the web that makes it a very complete presence. It’s not just about getting people to the museum, but serving audiences that are halfway around the world that will never come to Jacksonville but are seeking us out as an arbiter of taste on the web, and that’s a role we have to take seriously as we move forward.
And the better you use the web, the younger the audience you will attract.
No question; it’s the next challenge for museums worldwide to understand not only how to contend with an increasingly digitally savvy audience, but how to deal with an audience … interested in the work that you’re doing without [setting] foot in your organizations. What do you do with that audience, how do you engage it, how do you build educational outreach to that audience, how do you count that audience as part of your admissions structure, how do you create an enterprise around that? It’s really the next frontier and MOCA’s ahead of the curve in figuring that out.
You said earlier that a museum’s role is to uplift the community. How do you think MOCA has done that in your time here?
I could point to any number of instances, but I will say that the role of a contemporary art museum is to engage in the conversations that are happening in our time. Our mission statement had changed, and it’s now about the art, artists and ideas of our time. I think we have led the charge on a number of important conversations for our community, and I may point to our First Amendment challenge of a year-and-a-half ago where I think MOCA played a pivotal role in lifting the discourse around the integrity of the arts in our community …
You’re speaking of then-City Council President Clay Yarborough’s criticism of an exhibit containing a photograph that he called pornography?
Exactly. I think it raised awareness of the work that the cultural sector is doing, and raised awareness of the fact that the community itself has grown exponentially and is now more open to having challenging conversations in a way that ultimately promotes our community’s vitality.
I feel proud of the work we did in that moment as an organization. The fact that even under duress we could elevate the conversation instead of being mired down in the accusations … before us [is] one pivotal example of how we really moved the needle as an organization for the kinds of conversations that we can have in Jacksonville.
If you were going to stay, what would you tackle next?
I think the next sphere for the museum is to dip its toe, or more than dip its toe, maybe dip both feet, into exploring the arts beyond visual arts, and drawing connections between the visual art program and performing arts — music, film, theater — that seems like an arena ripe for opportunity for MOCA. I know it’s on the minds of the staff even as I make my transition.
I think there are also some key opportunities for growing the team in the next couple of years and that would be be no doubt on the mind of the next director, and continuing to grow the endowment and the financial success of the organization is key. Obviously the digital platform and the opportunities it provides — I think we’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg.