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Museum’s new executive director knows the drill

Forrest Rodgers was appointed director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) in 2011.   (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Forrest Rodgers was appointed director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) in 2011. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

He’s got to draw visitors, members and donations

Forrest Rodgers has expertise in two significant areas: getting people to attend museums and getting people to donate to museums.

This means he may have exactly the right qualifications for his new job: executive director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC).

Rodgers, the president and CEO of the High Desert Museum in Bend, Ore., from 2001 to 2007, took over the MAC job Aug. 1 and already knows what his first task must be.

“We need to have a solid plan in place to show people we will be here in the next five to 10 years,” he said.

The MAC’s very existence was in doubt earlier this year after the museum was virtually eliminated from the governor’s proposed budget. Funding was eventually restored, but only for two years and at a lower level.

Rodgers refers to this as “bridge” funding and he is acutely aware that, to make it to the other side of that bridge, the museum needs to accomplish four key goals:

• Move toward more local funding because of “a continued decline – or abandonment – of state funding.”

• Broaden museum membership dramatically. The current membership level – about 2,500 – is the highest it has ever been. But for a city of Spokane’s size, it should be much larger.

• Increase the amount of “patron-level” – that, is high-level – giving.

• Dramatically increase visitorship. “One thing we need to do – and this already has been happening – is to think more about the visitor and less about the artifact,” said Rodgers.

Visitorship is on a positive trend because of the “Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius” exhibit the museum has hosted all summer.

Rodgers said the exhibit has already attracted 38,000 visitors since June 1, and that will climb higher by the final day Sept. 5. That’s close to the museum’s projections and “equal to a whole year’s attendance in other years,” he said.

Yet the MAC can’t count on the star power of Leonardo every year, which is where Rodgers’ experience at the High Desert Museum should come in handy. That museum reversed a visitorship decline during his years there.

One thing that worked in Bend: an emphasis on “living history.”

“Not that we’ll become Jamestown or Williamsburg,” said Rodgers. “We don’t use the terms ‘costumes’ or ‘re-enactors.’

“The living history roles at the High Desert Museum were based on first-person research. We would have volunteer interpreters ‘living’ that person’s life.”

It is, essentially, making history come alive by telling personal stories.

“We have already done that at the Campbell House,” said Rodgers. “The Campbell House is a wonderful stage setting. With the right volunteers we can make that experience even more compelling.”

He said the “living history” concept fits in perfectly with the overall trend of making museums more interactive.

“When people think about ‘interactive,’ they think about computers,” said Rodgers. “But we went low-tech: people.”

He said the MAC is also committed to continuing its mission of visual art. In fact, the museum’s first three exhibits after da Vinci will be art exhibits, including a major Impressionist exhibit including works by Renoir, Degas and Pissarro.

Meanwhile, the future of the MAC hinges on increasing its local funding, through donations and membership.

Rodgers said the museum can make a strong case for at least some state funding, since its facilities and collections are state-owned resources. The museum doubles as the Eastern Washington State Historical Society. With state responsibilities should also come some state money, he said.

Yet Rodgers knows the MAC must seek out wealthy individuals or corporations that are “interested in investing in the cultural life of our region.”

He thinks the museum is in a good position to do that right now, for two reasons. First, the recent threat of closure caused the community to “galvanize around the MAC.”

“Our opportunity is to capitalize on the rallying that occurred around the MAC, and develop a funding model that sustains the museum and its services,” said Rodgers.

Also, the centennial of the Eastern Washington State Historical Society – and thus the museum – is coming up in 2016. This anniversary presents an “opportunity for an ambitious, large-scale campaign,” he said.

Rodgers is a longtime veteran of fundraising campaigns. He presided over the completion of a $23.5 million expansion of the High Desert Museum (which, by the way, is almost entirely privately funded) and was most recently executive director of the Central Washington University Foundation.

Before that, he helped establish a new fundraising foundation at Oregon State University.

“My background is in marketing, development and stakeholder relationships,” said Rodgers.

All three skills should prove useful as he leads Eastern Washington’s biggest museum into an uncertain future.