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November 18, 2002

The Speed of the museum

By Eric Rangus

Prior to interviewing for the job as director of the Carlos Museum, Bonnie Speed had never visited it. That doesn’t mean, however, that she was unfamiliar with it.

“The museum world is actually a very small one,” said Speed, who has more than 10 years’ professional museum management experience. “We tend to know what everyone else is doing, and this museum has always been known for high scholarship and excellent exhibitions. I love the ways it has developed to interpret the different types of collections.”

So when she accepted the position over the summer, Speed knew exactly what she was getting into.

“As a museum director, a person has to not only have a strong passion for the field and a good amount of knowledge,” she said. “One also has to be very savvy—even though there’s not an area of study—of marketing, education, collections management, personnel issues, finance and budget, and working with a board and volunteers. My position is one that has to be aware of and fairly entrenched in all of these things. We have a wonderful staff, but in the grand scheme, I’m the one that has to answer to everything.”

Speed’s first job as a museum curator was at the Mitchell Museum and Cedarhurst Sculpture Park, and it was a rather daunting task. Located in the southern Illinois town of
Mt. Vernon, about an hour from St. Louis, Cedarhurst was hardly on the must-see list for tourists.

“I think I worked three weeks before somebody even came into the museum,” Speed said. Still, she saw a lot of potential and worked very hard to realize her vision for the museum. “We did huge amounts of marketing, but, of course, you have to have something to offer,” she said, and that something was a focus on sculpture.

Speed went to the museum’s board of trustees and gave them her vision of a sculpture garden on the museum’s 90 acres. They liked it and gave her $5,000 to get started. Not exactly a king’s ransom, but by working her contacts, 11 large-scale sculptures were installed the first year. Soon she was traveling to sculpture gardens in the United States and Europe, checking them out for clues on what worked and what didn’t.

Speed spent nine years as Cedarhurst’s director of visual arts, and by the time she left, the garden contained more than 50 works of art. Museum visitation was at more than 55,000 annually; Mt. Vernon has a population of 17,000.

From Cedarhurst, Speed moved to Dallas, where she took over as executive director of the Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art. There, as at Cedarhurst, Speed faced some marketing challenges. “When I started, if we had 10 people in the audience for lectures, we were lucky,” she said.

So Speed began advertising more frequently. She developed partnerships with the botanical gardens, the children’s museum, the Dallas symphony and the Dallas Museum of Art. Soon, the Crow’s lectures and presentations were standing room only.

It is this sort of marketing know-how that Speed wants to bring to the Carlos. While the collection here is well known and the museum enjoys a stellar reputation, Speed said there remains work to be done.

“We’re well established, but I’m still surprised at how many people in community don’t know this institution exists or they think it’s just for Emory,” Speed said. “So we do have a challenge in front of us. But this is such a great staff, and we’re doing a lot of things already.”

Some of Speed’s ideas include more aggressively promoting the museum’s Thursday night activities (when the Carlos is open until 9 p.m.) as well as seeking to strengthen ties with students, an untapped resource in many cases.

A native of Maine, Speed earned a degree in fine arts and art education from the University of Southern Maine. Trained as a printmaker, she soon learned that making art wasn’t necessarily the best career for her. She launched a clothing design business and was moderately successful.

She was living in Portland at the time and saw an ad run by the Portland Museum of Art, which was being renovated and was looking for docents.

“I wasn’t even sure what a docent was,” she laughed. “But I thought it was a great opportunity to learn about art history and be a part of this gorgeous institution that was emerging in downtown Portland.”

Speed spent a year working at the museum. She was so taken by the experience that she decided to make a permanent change. She sold her clothing design business (and most everything else she owned, save her car) and drove to California, where she entered San Diego State’s graduate program in art history.

“It’s very funny how life unfolds,” Speed said. “You think you’re on one path, and then you realize there are many paths to take you to a certain destination”

Knowing she wanted to work in a museum, Speed searched for internships. She had been studying contemporary and modern American art, but the only internship opening was in Asian art. She grabbed it. It was a good match.

“I realized that what I liked about studying modern American as well as Chinese art is that I could focus on what I was truly interested in: the influence,” Speed said. “Not only the Eastern aesthetic on the Western mind-set, but vice versa, and how that manifests in art.”
To fully explore this area, Speed knew she had to go to China. She spent a year studying Chinese language and art in Taiwan, then moved to Hong Kong before venturing to mainland China. The experience was one of the most enjoyable of her life.

Speed’s six months in China were quite Bohemian. She started with $100 but soon learned how to barter and trade for more (China has two types of money; one for natives, the other for visitors—the visitor’s rate of exchange is better, so Speed used that to her advantage). Occasionally, she’d sleep on the side of the road. She saw centuries-old Buddhist temples, Chinese architecture—and all kinds of art.

“It was an amazing journey,” Speed said. Upon returning, Speed finished her graduate work at the University of Kansas, where she earned her master’s in art history. After working at the school’s Spencer Museum of Art, she moved on to Cedarhurst.

Speed has other interests besides art. For instance, she enjoys riding her horse, Phineas (named after the frail king who negotiated Jason and the Argonauts through the straits of the Clashing Rocks). Speed rides dressage, the ordered, balletic equestrian discipline in which the rider leads her horse through a series of specific movements.

Her current schedule doesn’t give Speed a lot of time for riding—she puts in a lot of 12-hour days—but it is important enough that when she moved to Atlanta, Speed chose Snellville so that she could be close to the stable where Phineas is boarded.