By Paula C. Squires
Della S. Watkins, chief educator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, has been selected as the new executive director of the struggling Taubman Museum of Art in downtown Roanoke. The announcement came Monday during a noon press conference when Nicholas Taubman, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees and its biggest financial supporter, introduced Watkins, calling her a “proven leader.”
Her last day at the VMFA is Jan. 25, and she assumes her new position on Feb. 4. Watkins replaces David Mickenburg, who resigned in October when the museum ushered in a new board of trustees, including Taubman. At that time, he and other community leaders put up $1.5 million to help the museum cover its operating costs through the end of the year.
Watkins brings extensive experience in museum management, public programming and development. “We are delighted to introduce to the Roanoke Valley a statewide leader in the arts from a renowned institution to lead the Taubman Museum of Art to a new level of accessibility,” Taubman said in a statement. “In searching for a new executive director, trustees were seeking a proven leader who believes in engaging the community through art and creating programming that resonates with our diverse audiences.”
Watkins has been with the VMFA in Richmond for more than 15 years, taking on increasingly responsible positions in education and management. Since 2010, she has worked as the museum’s chief educator. In this job, she has been responsible for all educational projects, long-range planning and departmental objectives for the museum’s educational division. The position requires managing a staff of 18 employees, 190 contract teachers and 250 volunteers and interns.
“Della has consistently been a solution oriented, knowledgeable and resourceful professional throughout her tenure at VMFA, “ Suzanne Hall, chief communications officer for the VMFA, told Virginia Business. “Her insights into education, particularly Virginia’s SOLs (Standards of Learning) have enabled VMFA to fine-tune its educational programs to meet the needs of Virginia’s school children.“
The VMFA’s art education programs serve a full range of students, Hall added, from “babies in strollers to teens and adults ... If anybody can do it,“ she said, referring to Watkin’s new job at The Taubman,“it’s Della. She has the respect and admiration of the board and the community.“
At VMFA, Watkins also has served as acting director of education and statewide partnerships and as manager of school and family programs. She began her career as an art educator in public schools in Richmond, Virginia Beach and Charlottesville. “I look forward to working with this community, outstanding staff, and committed board to take The Taubman Museum of Art to new and lively levels, applying the skills and knowledge I gained over the years while serving at one of the nation’s leading art museums,“ Watkins said in a statement.
Oringally from Tappahannock, she earned a degree in art history and art education at James Madison University and a master’s degree in art education from Virginia Commonwealth University. Watkins also has completed leadership programs at Georgetown University, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the Getty Leadership Institute, among others.
She is a member of the American and Virginia Associations of Museums, Virginia and National Art Education Associations and the VCU Art Education Alumni Advisory Board.
VMFA is a state-supported, privately endowed educational institution created for the citizens of Virginia. Its permanent collection encompasses more than 33,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years of world history and includes collections of Art Nouveau and Art Deco and Fabergé. Additionally, it has holdings in American, British, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist and modern and contemporary art.
“Della’s experience on the management team of one of the foremost institutions in the nation will be an asset to the Taubman Museum as we continue to set a course for the future,” Heywood Fralin, vice chair of the board and chairman of Medical Facilities of America, said in a statement.
In October, the new board announced a plan to offer free general admission with a $150,000 contribution from Advance Auto Parts, a Fortune 500 company originally founded by Taubman’s family that has its corporate headquarters in Roanoke. Through Dec. 31, 13,608 people have taken advantage of the offer, according to the museum, increasing attendance by about 30 percent.
The Taubman Museum of Art opened with much acclaim in a new $66 million building in November 2008. Since then, it has laid off employees and struggled to cover the costs of its annual $3.4 million budget. Taubman has pledged that he and the museum’s new board of directors will not let the institution fail. It has been repositioning itself as a regional art center, and the new board agrees with that direction.
“The Taubman Museum of Art is a vital part of the fabric of the Roanoke Valley. Every day it touches the lives of children, college students, art lovers, visitors, fellow cultural institutions and non-profit organizations throughout the Roanoke Valley and beyond,” Fralin said. “We are confident that Della can contribute on the path we’ve created to expand our programming, introduce new exhibitions, grow our membership, offer more classes and build partnerships and relationships while enhancing Roanoke’s vibrant cultural scene.”
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