Q & A: New Albany Institute head says art reflects style of times
David Carroll moved to Albany only six weeks ago, but he’s feeling right at home.
He lives in downtown Albany and walks to his job at the Albany Institute of History & Art. And when he’s not working, you might see the 46-year-old Colorado native and his big dog, Ella, out for a walk in the neighborhood.
Carroll is the new executive director of the Albany Institute, following in the footsteps of Christine Miles, who retired earlier this year after 25 years at the museum.
As the new boss, Carroll is in charge of a museum that has 27 employees and counted more than 23,000 visitors in 2010. The latest figures show that 1,113 people are members of AIHA, which was founded in 1791 when George Washington was president, making it one of the oldest museums in America.
Carroll comes to the Capital Region from Colorado Springs, where for six years he was executive director of the Western Museum of Mining & Industry, where he was credited with increasing membership and attendance, improving donor relationships and expanding educational programming.
His earlier résumé lists jobs as director of membership at the Art Institute of Chicago; director of development at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago; and associate director of administration at the Indiana University Art Museum.
Carroll got a bachelor of science degree in management information systems from Colorado State University in 1988, then switched careers and four years later graduated with a master’s degree in arts administration from Indiana University.
Q: What are your first impressions of the Capital Region?
A: The town of Albany has been really welcoming to me. And I’ve been loving walking around, looking at the architecture. . . . I came from Colorado Springs, where we were always talking about 1890. . . . The history here is much older and deeper. One of the books I’m reading right now is “The New York State Capitol and the Great Fire of 1911,” which talks about the development of the Capitol building. You begin to realize that a work of art or an object is never completed in a vacuum. That it is social and political, that it is the style of the times that makes something what it is. And it’s that story around that object or work of art that I find fascinating.
Q: What is your biggest challenge coming into this job?
A: One of the challenges that all arts organizations is facing is increasing our audience. One of the approaches that has been successful with me in the past is to understand that there is not one museum audience. If you look at the broad pie chart of people, to make one sliver the museum audience doesn’t serve the institution very well.
Q: How do you tell the story behind an object or artwork?
A: At the Western Museum of Mining & Industry, we spoke to a very small audience, people that were interested in mining. But as we brainstormed, we realized that the history of mining was really the history of the West. It’s really the history of Colorado. That allowed us to bring in more stories and to bring in more audience. That’s the big challenge here. The collection here is fantastic. How do we take what we have and broaden our reach within this Capital Region? I really believe that what binds everyone together is that it’s not just the object itself that brings the community in, but the story behind that object. I think the thing we have to work hardest on is making the objects richer and deeper. Once we do that, I think we’ll make a real strong connection with the Capital Region community. [At the Western Museum of Mining & Industry] We saw almost an 80 percent increase in attendance over six years by focusing on those things.
Q: What’s your favorite object in the museum’s current “Kid Stuff” show?
A: Lincoln Logs, because one of my earliest memories is of sitting on the floor and creating imaginary towns with my Lincoln Log set.
Q: Are you planning to make any big changes?
A: I’m not. I’m much more of a listener. That’s what I’ve been doing for the first four weeks, trying to understand. I think we have a great staff, so they will help guide me as I move forward. I have a board that seems very enthusiastic as well. Right now, I feel that my role is to spend these next 90 days trying to learn as much as I can. My style is more inclusive of taking the staff’s ideas and moving together.
Q: What’s the role of technology at a museum like AIHA?
A: I really believe that technology needs to serve a purpose. So, as it is appropriate for the things that we do, I think it can help us reach out to audiences. I have seen technology become the master of parts of an institution, which didn’t allow them to serve its purpose. And it begins to suck resources that way.
Q: There are 14 podcasts on the website for the Western Museum of Mining & Industry. How did those work?
A: Those podcasts did serve a particular audience of younger visitors, and older visitors that were out of state. About 40 percent of our individual members came from outside of the state. I know we were an innovator at the time, because there were only three podcasts on ITunes related to mining. There are now probably 85. People would become subscribers to our podcasts. We had subscribers from Russia, from Japan. At one time, we had 800 subscribers to our podcasts. It really expanded our reach.
Q: Should we expect podcasts on the AIHA website?
A: I think it surely is an opportunity and something I embrace. We are moving forward on a new web site. In the future, you’ll see some exciting things.
Q: Why are museums important to communities?
A: They help us understand our place in the world. It helps us empathize with other peoples and other cultures. The other thing it helps us understand is change, and the idea that there is social change. And how we’ve come to be. And maybe to understand that in the moment that we are changing, this is not a unique moment.
Q: What’s your hometown? Do you have deep roots in the West?
A: I grew up in Denver. My mother and father live in Denver. Irish on both sides. . . . Three generations in the West.
Q: Is this your first time living in the East?
A: I lived in Washington, D.C., for a couple of years when I was moving from one career to the next. I feel more comfortable in this part of the country.
Q: Was your family involved in the arts?
A: My parents considered themselves engineers and scientists. They were both in the early stages of what we would call “computer science software development.” They encouraged me to follow their path. . . . After spending about five years in that profession, I realized that that was not my passion, and that my real passion was arts and culture.
Q: Do you ski?
A: I am a snowboarder.
Q: Will you be snowboarding around here this winter?
A: I hope so. I brought my snowboard. I’m hoping to check out areas in Vermont.
Q: What else do you like to do when you aren’t working?
A: I love to read a lot. And walk my dog. I have a somewhat large dog that’s a great Dane mix.