When Telfair Museums' Board of Trustees selected Robin Nicholson as the new executive director in December, board chair Ted Kleisner said Nicholson's experience and skills “are perfectly aligned with the needs of Telfair Museums,” adding that Nicholson distinguished himself due to “his deep knowledge, passion, and clear vision of Telfair's future.”
Nicholson started March 1, replacing Executive Director and CEO Lisa Grove, who left in May to become deputy director at the Obama Foundation in Chicago.
Nicholson is a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and brings an exceptional art pedigree with him to the Hostess City.
He received his education at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, then earned a bachelor of art and master of art in art history from University of Cambridge. Nicholson then began working with the Fine Art Society in Edinburgh — the United Kingdom’s leading dealer of 18th, 19th, and 20th century British fine and decorative arts — where he managed the exhibition programs and day-to-day operations of the gallery. He took a position as curator of collections and exhibitions for The Drambuie Collection, a corporate art collection based in Edinburgh, London and Miami, where he directed curatorial, acquisitions and exhibition programs.
Nicholson stayed with Drambuie until 2006 when he moved to Richmond, Va., where he was appointed deputy director for the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. He spent the next near-decade facilitating art acquisitions, developing expansive educational programs, and engaging in detailed strategic planning.
“I loved the idea of coming to America,” says Nicholson. “So I began that process and, ultimately, in 2006, I was appointed the first head of exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.
“Being a corporate curator is great fun,” he says. “But you're kind of isolated and you're the first to go when the economy tanks. Ultimately, it's a very tenuous position, so I was always thinking about what was my next step.”
As fate would have it, in 2014, Nicholson moved to western Pennsylvania to be the executive director at the highly esteemed Frick Pittsburgh. One of the most respected museums in the country, The Frick is not unlike Telfair in its size and scope. Nicholson made his mark over the following four years by bringing fresh ideas and new approaches to the Gilded Age institution.
Also at The Frick, Nicholson initiated an ambitious program of fashion-based exhibitions and programming that broke records for both attendance and fundraising. It was over those four years that Nicholson realized he enjoyed the idea of running a mid-sized institution as opposed to something like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I really enjoy working in a mid-sized museum and doing creative, imaginative things that really push that museum forward in great ways, which I think I did with The Frick,” says Nicholson. “So the idea that I can come to the Telfair and do the same thing is something that's incredibly exciting. It's a similarly sized institution, obviously in a beautiful city, but with a very different audience because it's so tourist driven.
"I cherish those sorts of challenges of engaging with a new institution with a great collection and talking about exhibitions, talking about audience, talking about the future. Because one of the things I bring to the table as a director is long-term planning. I maintain that any of us who work here [at Telfair], be it board or staff or supporters or donors, we are not doing ourselves any justice if we're not thinking at least 25 years into the future, if not more — 50 years, 100 years.”
Telfair in motion
Though the two museums may share some commonalities, they both present very different challenges and opportunities.
When the position opened up at Telfair, Nicholson says he felt the pull back down south. He guest-curated an exhibition at Telfair Academy in 2003, when he was working with Drambuie. At the time, he thought about what a great place Savannah would be to live, so the transition to Telfair seemed like a natural progression, though he has no intention of simply resting on his laurels.
“What I bring to the table is a kind of change-agent philosophy,” says Nicholson. “We can't just say we're going to do the same old, same old because we've always done it... It's a very different environment, but I love that challenge. I'm kind of slowly immersing myself and getting to know it.”
Nicholson hopes to develop exhibitions at Telfair's three locations that bring a mix of broadly popular programming like the recent Monet exhibit along with contemporary art that explores themes like the environment and historical connectivity. Nicholson is also committed to leveraging his vast international connections for Telfair's benefit, which could prove to be a substantial cultural boon for Savannah.
“[Telfair is] doing a lot of interesting, creative things,” says Nicholson. “We've got a great curatorial team. But I think we need to get that mix together.”
Fabric of the city
Nicholson speaks highly of the expansion of the historical story of the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters and hopes to build on that idea going forward. He's also enamored of the Jepson Center, built by famed architect Moshe Safdie, but he also aims to “shake things up a bit” when it comes to programming and operations. Among other things, Nicholson mentions extending the hours of the Jepson and reinstating the cafe space.
“One of the biggest challenges art museums face is, there's a huge audience out there — and I'm sure it's the same in Savannah — who not only feel uncomfortable setting foot in a museum, but feel it's not part of their lives,” says Nicholson. “And there's a big debate as to whether we should be trying to engage with those people or whether it's just not worth it.”
Nicholson wants to make Telfair Museums a social space and an integral part of the fabric of the city, to engage both locals and tourists on many different levels. That includes making sure buildings like the Telfair Academy don't become old, dusty repositories that languish in the past. Nicholson isn't trying to completely reinvent Telfair; he wants to develop dynamic and creative ways of engaging with a diverse population while being both forward looking and mindful of institutional history.
“I'm thrilled to be here and have this challenge,” says Nicholson. “This museum is the oldest museum in the southeast, so we have an obligation to make sure that 200 years from now, it's still operating and is relevant and sustainable. And at the very least, 25 years from now... the people who follow us can look back and say, 'They did a great job of setting things up for the future.'”
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter @savartscene.