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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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.