BENNINGTON -- Robert Wolterstorff, the new executive director of the Bennington Museum, could easily be called a Modern Renaissance Man -- he has an undergraduate degree in biology, a masters and doctorate in art history; he is deeply studied in 18th Century Neoclassical architecture and the nuances of art prints; he has managed historic mansions and is a financial consultant for non-profit cultural organizations.
Oh, and yes, given the invitation, he will talk your ear off on the subject of the divergence and convergence of art and history in the context of the museum's current exhibition of "Rockwell Kent's ‘Egypt': Shadow and Light in Vermont."
"My gut feeling is that you cannot separate art from its context (its history); it is impossible," Wolterstorff said last week, surrounded by the Kent works hanging in one of the galleries of the museum he now leads. "It is not that art cannot stand alone in an esthetic sense. ... But if you can explain an artwork in words it is not an artwork anymore, it is an essay.
"Rockwell Kent is one of the four or five most important artists painting during this period in America. These are masterpieces of American painting. That is the history part of it, but it is also the art part of it. ..."
Clearly Dr. Wolterstorff knows his art; he also knows his job is much more than simply the art and the history contained within the architectural jewel that is the Bennington Museum.
His career history, his experiences, his education, his interests, all seem to have converged at this place and this time -- "I would have to agree," he said. "All those things have come together here."
Wolterstorff brings an 20-year career in the arts and museum leadership to his new position. He most recently was an independent curator and non-profit consultant based in Portland, Maine. He previously served as director of Victoria Mansion in Portland and of Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in Philadelphia, and has held positions in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, the Williams College Museum of Art, and the college's Chapin Rare Book Library.
As executive director of Victoria Mansion, from 1998 to 2010, he forged "strong relationships with major donors, private foundations, and state and federal agencies, he completed the $1.5 million Campaign for Victoria Mansion ..., spearheaded the $1.4 million Tower Campaign, and increased annual fund giving and membership," according to a Bennington Museum press release at the time of his appointment.
He is known as a highly successful grant writer and grants manager, and won the first Save America's Treasures Grant for architectural preservation in Maine and one of only 80 Getty Architectural Conservation Grants awarded world-wide in 2003.
And fundraising and grant writing is no small portion of this new job.
"It is often said today that the lead job of a director is fundraising -- you are the lead fundraiser as well as the director of the people and organization and programs," Wolterstorff said. "I like to say that fundraising begins with programs. I would never presume to go out to the public with hat in hand and say ‘Support this organization,' if I did not believe that we were doing a great job ... offering great experiences to people and offering great programs and serving the community well.
"Fundraising begins with what we do inside these walls. And it begins with how you reach out to the public. Money is the life blood of an organization; we can say ‘sadly,' but it is just the way it is. But people give money where they think it is important, where they think it is well used."
If history is any indication, Wolterstorff will know how to use the museum's money well.
Wolterstorff earned an MFA and PhD in art history from Princeton University, in 1991 and 2010, respectively, where he wrote his dissertation on the 18th Century Neoclassical architect Robert Adam. In 1985, he gained an MA in art history from Williams College, after he graduated with a BA in biology from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Since 2006, he has served as a trustee for the New England Museum Association and currently is the first vice president of that professional organization.
As a curator and researcher, he has organized numerous exhibitions on subjects ranging from old master prints to contemporary art, and from works on paper to furniture, stained glass, upholstery, and architecture and is currently guest curator for an exhibition on contemporary architecture that will take place at the Portland Museum of Art in 2013.
Wolterstorff also has strong connections to nearby Williamstown, Mass., which is really where the "art" part of his education began to color his life's canvas.
"I applied to graduate school in architecture and art history and ended up going to Williams for art history and I loved it.... I remember being in the Clark Art Institute and looking around and just loving it. I also remember doing a great deal of catching up, on art history, with a little bit of terror.
"The other thing is that I got started in museums there, that was sort of unexpected. Particularly working with the Clark, working with their drawings. That was only one summer, but that was the beginning of my working with paper, which continues to this day."
So his returning to the area is not only a job but is also a return to a familiar landscape, one he wants to bring his family to. (He and his wife, Mari Jones, have two children, a son and a daughter, ages 13 and 10.)
"I loved the landscape. I still love the landscape. It amazes me to see this landscape ...," he said, pointing to a Kent painting on display. "Also the fact that this an amazingly deep and rich cultural community, the Berkshires and Southern Vermont, that had a lot to do with my coming here."
And he has plans to make sure the community, and visitors to the community, discover that artistic and historic landscape he sees here.
"I certainly thing there is a convergence, or art and history, of different avenues to creativity," he said. "When I think of a museum, I think of a number of things. First of all, it about physical objects. It is what is unique about a museum. You put people in contact with physical objects; the Internet can't do that. By doing that we can create very unique experiences. ... That is where this museum has such an opportunity ... Having these diverse collections, we can reach out to a very diverse community."
Contact K.D. Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Bennington Museum is located at 75 Main St. For information call 802-447-1571 or visit benningtonmuseum.org.