Brian Lee Whisenhunt has worked in art education and museums for more than twenty years and more than anything enjoys connecting people with art. He served as the Director of Education at the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas and was the inaugural manager of public programs for the Blanton Museum of Art in Texas when it opened in 2006. He then became the Executive Director of the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana where he oversaw their successful reaccreditation by the American Alliance of Museums, and then the Executive Director of the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, Texas where he led a $5.4M renovation and the celebration of its 50th anniversary.
Whisenhunt joined The Rockwell Museum in Corning in January 2017. Since then, he has been diversifying the collection to reflect the museum’s new focus on art about the American experience while working to increase overall attendance to the museum, its programs, and events. He joined the MANY Board in April 2018 and has served as Program Chair and Vice-President. This April, he will become the MANY Board President. He lives in Painted Post, NY with his husband Mitchell Hurricane Smith and their two dogs, Stella Josephine Parker and Nove Delphine Parker.
We spoke with him to learn more about when he knew he wanted to work in museums, his career path, and what keeps him motivated.
Brian Lee Whisenhunt speaks up for NYS museums at the 2020 American Alliance of Museums Advocacy Day with Corning Museum of Glass President and Executive Director Karol Wight in Washington, DC
MANY: What other jobs have you had in the museum field? Can you tell us about your journey to get to your current role?
Brian Lee Whisenhunt: I began my career in museum education, interpretation, and audience development–with positions as director of education and manager of public programs. There are numerous educators in my family, so I think that’s why it was in many ways a natural fit for me. I do love research, scholarship and writing about art and all the work considered curatorial. But what I’m passionate about, more than all of that, is taking that research, knowledge, and understanding and translating it into a tool empowering people to look more closely, think more deeply, and connect to a work of art. It’s exciting to me and what I truly love about museum work.
I worked in museum education for about ten years, but then became more interested in the inner workings of museums and cultural organizations –how things came together in the bigger picture. So, I began my career as a museum director at the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana. It is a small museum with an amazing collection of American art. From there I went to the Museum of the Southwest, which is a multidisciplinary museum in West Texas including an art museum housed in an historic home, a children’s museum, a planetarium, a science center, and a public sculpture collection.
One of the reasons I went to the Museum of the Southwest was because I enjoy the interplay of the disciplines and I love mixing things up. It makes things more interesting for our audiences because it shows there are innumerable ways to approach a museum experience and connect through different modes of understanding. We did a big renovation of the art museum when I was there. It was three different buildings– one of them an historic mansion –so spaces from three eras cobbled together in this weird way. We were able to rethink and refresh the spaces, bring unity and cohesion, and create a more contemporary experience for our visitors.
From there I went to The Rockwell Museum. I looked at the job when it was first posted, and I wasn’t sure if it was for me. After talking to the recruiter and learning a lot more about The Rockwell’s history and mission, it felt like the perfect fit. Education, community engagement, and collaboration have been at the core of The Rockwell’s work for decades. At the other organizations that I’ve worked, it was necessary to spend a lot of time convincing the leadership and some of the people I worked with that those values were going to help us connect with our audience and propel the organizations forward. Those organizations embraced those ideas, understood and believed them, and eventually benefited from that shift. But it took a lot of convincing. There are so many expectations around what “blockbuster” exhibitions can do for an organization, but that’s not the whole picture–that’s not always what really helps people create a deeper connection with an institution. Looking at The Rockwell, I knew I wasn’t going to have to advocate for that sort of shift–it was already here. I wasn’t going to have to convince anyone how important education was because they all believed it and we could just keep building on that great work to expand how we serve our communities in the Chemung Valley and the people who visit Corning from all over the world.
Brian Lee Whisenhunt in the gallery at Alfred Ceramic Art Museum at Alfred University with Wayne Higby, Director of the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum examining “Temple’s Gate Pass” by Wayne Higby.
What other experiences in your career have you found most helpful for your role now?
I can think of three experiences from before I started working in museums. At one point, I was teaching art appreciation at two high schools. That work was fundamental to my understanding of how to talk to people about art in a different way. Prior to that, I’d been in an academic setting. I’d been in a department of art historians and artists who all wanted to talk about museum experiences and art history in a scholarly way. When I went into the high school to teach teenagers, they were really interested in what we were looking at, but I had to use a different lens than what I’d done before. It was formative for me and my perspective on how to connect people with art in the museum experience and what inspired them.
Also, my time at the Getty Leadership Institute (GLI), now the Museum Leadership Institute (MLI), was incredibly important to me and I was part of the cohort in 2014 when they rebooted the program. I’m a collaborative leader and bring a non-hierarchical approach to working with other people and that is not always reflected in the educational materials around leadership style. I felt unsure about my mode of leadership because it did not feel affirmed–which has, of course, changed in the past few years. So, I went to MLI with a question of “am I following the right path and am I going the right way in how I’m thinking about myself as a leader? Is this a way that I can be successful and true to my own personal values?” The program affirmed that because it teaches to look at your strengths as a leader and how to play to and build on those strengths. It helped me see the path I was on more clearly and that my approach to leadership was going to be a strong, authentic way for me to be a museum director.
Lastly, the thing that’s been so important to me for many years is serving on the boards of other nonprofits, museums and membership organizations. In addition to MANY, I’ve served on the board of the Mountain-Plains Museums Association, an HIV/AIDS service organization and am on the Museum Advisory Council of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. And I’ve also served on various committees for other associations throughout the years. It's important for me because I believe it is essential for us to give back to our field in whatever way we can, but it also helped me understand working with my own board in a more holistic way. Having the experiences of being on other boards helped me think about the people who were serving on my own museum board differently.
Can you tell us a little more about your experience with the Getty Leadership–now Museum Leadership–Institute?
It’s a competitive application process and the reboot in 2014 really expanded the program to an international cohort. I had colleagues from around the world–China, Europe, South America, Mexico, Canada. It was really an amazing group of people. The experience and connections to those people are essential to me– we were and still are incredibly close. Even seven years later, during the pandemic, we were gathering virtually trying to support one another and assist some who were going through transitions in their careers. We gathered as a group to listen, console and offer direction. One of the best things for me is to connect people in our field to support one another and the work that is happening.
What is one of your biggest motivations to do what you do? What do you get excited about in your role as the Executive Director of The Rockwell?
I think my motivation starts with the visitor experience and the primary goals of a museum educator. Even though I now serve as the Executive Director, I still see my work through the lens of museum education and visitor engagement. I want to inspire people when they come into the museum. I want them to think about their own lives. I want to give them a way to consider the lives of the people around them through the lens of the work in the collection. Building that engagement with our audiences is what will strengthen our organizations because it allows people to see the museum experience as essential to their lives and not just something that they do on holiday.
A visit to a museum can both fortify a person’s understanding of themselves and allow them to consider the world around them in a more meaningful way. I think there’s been a real shift in the last few years in how the museum experience is perceived. At The Rockwell, it’s how we further ideas around engagement, and how we promote a better understanding of ourselves and the people around us, particularly as it relates to the American experience. With much of the rhetoric we have in our country right now, there is this idea there is one way or two ways to be an American and that’s so untrue. There are as many ways as there are people to be American and we all bring our own experiences, backgrounds, heritage, and complicated histories to what it means to be American. What we’re trying to do at The Rockwell is to generate more empathy and understanding towards one another and an appreciation for the fact that we are a multiplicity, not a monolith.
Brian Lee Whisenhunt leads a tour at The Rockwell Museum for the MANY Board in September 2020.
What are some of your goals?
2026 is a very important year for The Rockwell Museum because it’s our 50th anniversary. We are working on celebrating five decades of service. The Museum was a bicentennial gift to the community and we’re trying to position ourselves for the next fifty years of service as well as celebrate all that we’ve accomplished.
At the same time, we will also be going through the American Alliance of Museums’ reaccreditation process. Accreditation is about the organization’s internal work, but also how the museum serves the community. The process looks at our finances, our collections care, our policies, and other things like that, while the celebration of our 50th anniversary will be very public and outward. Both are significant milestones!
Would your 18-year-old self imagine that you would be where you are today?
I did know that I wanted to work at a museum. I was trying to figure out what I needed to do and what education I needed to pursue. When I was seventeen, I went to the University of Oklahoma for a college tour and as part of that experience, I went to the campus museum connected to the art school and art history program. I met with the curator of education and talked about her work and the museum and what I needed to pursue to follow that path. It was at seventeen and even before, that I was thinking about a museum career. The person I spoke with was Susan Baley who is now the Executive Director of the Grinnell College Museum of Art–we’ve known each other since I was seventeen and she’s been a longtime mentor to me as well as a dear friend.
Can you tell us about where you grew up? What was it like growing up there?
I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma which is a large, beautiful city that most people have probably never had occasion to visit. However, with the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre in 2021, more people became familiar with the community and that horrible history. The racist past of the city wasn’t something I was taught much about as a young person, so I also received a lot of reeducation last year about my hometown and the horrors of white supremacy that were enacted in that time. I also came to understand how those events formed the basis of and continued to impact the community where I grew up. Oklahoma is also home to one of the largest numbers of Native American Tribes or Nations who were forced to relocate there and then subsequently had the lands they were give taken away or diminished. As a result of these terrible histories, the state, and Tulsa in particular, had incredible wealth that allowed it to establish numerous cultural organizations in the early 20th century. In Tulsa alone, there is an opera, a ballet company, a philharmonic and two major museums, the Gilcrease Museum of Art and the Philbrook Museum of Art. Museum origin stories are important and of interest to me. But it’s essential we look at not just the communities or people who established them, but also the cultural context, exclusion and oppression that might also have made them possible.
Both Gilcrease and Philbrook were a part of my early museum experiences. My parents worked in education and so they valued my interest in the arts. They took me to museums so that I had opportunities that were reflective of my interests. Gilcrease is interesting because it’s a collection that is American and predominantly Western. In the 1970s they regularly held a family program called “Rendezvous” with an outdoors component where you could fire a musket on the museum property. True story! My dad would take me and my brother because I think it captured both of our interests—my brother got to fire guns and I got to explore the galleries and art. And when traveled, we would go to museums and exhibitions. Often it was ‘divide and conquer’ with me and my brother –my mom would take me to museums and my dad would take my brothers to do something else. So, it was very much part of how I grew up.
The defining museum experience for me was when I was about twelve years old and the Armand Hammer Collection was touring the country. It was a major exhibition. It’s a collection that has Leonardo and Rembrandt –a true, classic blockbuster exhibition! There was a connection to Tulsa through the family, so the Philbrook Museum of Art was one of the venues for this exhibition. This was major and I don’t think that this happens the same way anymore but there were people standing in lines all over the country to see this exhibition. Philbrook was doing a lot of programs around this exhibition and because my father was an administrator for the schools, he was invited to an evening opening reception and took me rather than my mom. It was an eye-opening experience because I had been to museums and museum programs and art camps, stuff like that, but I’d never been to an opening. I’d never been to an exhibition program like that, and I thought “wow people work here? It’s not just the art on the walls!” but there seemed to be all these things happening that I didn’t know about.
That’s when I first had the idea that this was what I wanted to do, work in a museum and be a part of that experience. It felt special. We had an amazing evening looking at this collection and it’s a clear memory for me. These museum experiences that I had as a kid are still a touchstone for me and they’re still a reason for why I do what I do.
Can you describe a favorite day on the job?
My favorite days are the ones where I can be in the galleries with other people. Whether that’s with one other person on a tour, a docent training or a program. That to me is the absolute best experience and workday. During the pandemic when everything became virtual and I didn’t get to have that experience, it was truly challenging. Doing virtual programs was great and I had a lot of fun with it, and still am, but when we got back to the museums and back into the galleries with people talking about art, it was such an amazing moment. My heart was overwhelmed. And I just love talking to anyone about art in the galleries–it doesn’t matter if you know anything about art for me to enjoy looking at a painting with you. It’s almost better when you don’t! Recently, I was working on preparation for a program and was looking at a work of art that was part of the research that I was doing and Sherry Kirk, who’s the museum’s executive liaison and finance manager, made the mistake of walking by and I called her over to talk to me about this print. I honestly needed other eyes on it and to understand what others think about it and how I should approach my presentation. To me, that’s the point of appreciating the different perspectives that we all have. Someone else and what they think about a concept or how they see a work of art through the lens of their experience, or their education, or their life, can help me understand it in a way that I never would from just reading about it or looking on my own. It’s definitely the best workday for me when I can talk to other people in the gallery about works of art and what interests them.
MANY Executive Director Erika Sanger with Brian Lee Whisenhunt at the Museum of Art and Design’s Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann exhibition in 2019.
Earlier, you briefly mentioned Susan Baley and identified her as one of your mentors. Can you tell us more about how she influenced you and is there any advice that she gave you that you’ve held onto?
She was, and is, a great museum educator and a great example of what I could do in that role and the impact that I could have. She’s a very thoughtful person and a great leader; she influenced me just through her example. Also by just encouraging me to do things like present at a conference and be part of an organizational board. She served on the Mountain-Plains Museums Association board and encouraged me to be on the education committee and eventually take over the role of scholarship chair from her. Her service to the field is one of the things that inspired me to also give back to my professional community in that same way.
I have another friend Stephanie Jung who is a now drawing professor but was working in museums at the start of my career. The advice that she gave me and that I’ve shared with many other people was “when you see a good idea, steal with both hands.” Whenever you see something inspiring to you, take in all of it that you can and internalize it and make it something that works for your perspective and for your organization. I never want to steal something in a literal way, but I do want to steal the inspiration, the impact, and the idea and I think that’s something that we don't always do. As a field, there’s often a lot of repetition or replication of programming but the truly successful iterations take an idea and dig into it, considering how it will influence and impact your own work and the visitors to your organization.
We think about mentors and people who have influenced us and its often people who are older than we are, who preceded us in our careers and that’s the case with Stephanie and with Susan. But I’ve also been thinking about the people that I’ve worked with that have been part of my team, especially early in my career and how their careers and the work they’ve gone on to do has really influenced me. I take a lot of inspiration from everyone that I work with regardless of where they are in their careers. I’m so proud to see the people that I’ve had the opportunity to be on a team with go on and do amazing things, like Amanda Thomas Blake who is Director of Education and Library Services at The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, TX and Emily Lew Fry, who is the Director of Interpretation at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
For fun, you have an entire museum/collection to yourself. What do you do?
If I’m somehow able to sneak into The Met, the first thing I’m going to do is call all my friends because I wouldn’t want it all to myself! Yes, there’s this enticing idea of having a space all to yourself, but again, the most exciting thing for me is looking at, experiencing, and talking about art with other people. So, if I was by myself the first thing I would do would be text everybody I know to drop everything and meet me at the side door. I’m also a wanderer. I usually have a two-fold mission when I visit museums. There are things that I want to see, but at the same time I enjoy serendipity and appreciate chance. Especially if you’re at someplace like The Met because you never know what experience you’re going to get or what you’re going to notice that you hadn’t before or see what’s changed. I really love meandering and finding things that are interesting, investigating them with people that I’m with, and learning what they think about them, or why they appreciate them, or why they don’t, or what’s challenging about it, or what’s easy about it, or what’s familiar or strange. That’s always my approach and that would definitely be my approach. I would also probably get them to help me move some things around because I like mixing things up.