“It’s going from the desert to the jungle,” quips Michael Tomor, the new executive director of the Tampa Museum of Art, in reference to his 1,700-mile move from El Paso to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Along with the dry heat and desert scrub of West Texas, Tomor bid adieu to his childhood home: He grew up in El Paso, visiting the city’s art museum on school field trips and returning decades later to become its director.
Tomor, 52, brings a rare depth of experience to TMA. His first stint as a museum director began when he was 36 years old, overseeing the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Pennsylvania; he landed there as a curator after completing his PhD in 17th century Spanish painting at Penn State.
During nine years in El Paso, Tomor built a reputation for nurturing community partnerships and expanding access to the museum for underserved audiences, including individuals with Alzheimer’s and PTSD. Though his own background is Jewish and Eastern European, he excelled at engaging El Paso’s predominantly Mexican-American population and enlisted local music and theater groups to flesh out cultural contexts, in sound and performance, for works by Marc Chagall and Kandinsky. He combines an art historian’s expertise with an open mind about how to go about making art accessible and relevant to the general public.
When Tomor ventured out onto the job market last year, TMA’s board of directors courted him quickly as a replacement for former director Todd Smith. Among the factors that attracted him, Tomor says, were Tampa’s diversity and the possibility of increasing the museum’s involvement in the life of the city.
“I like this kind of mid-sized museum and really making a difference in a community,” he says.
Tomor recently settled in South Tampa with his partner of 28 years (and husband for two) and began work at TMA in late April. CL Editor-in-Chief David Warner and I sat down to talk with him at the museum, just a few days after his official arrival on the job.
Creative Loafing: It’s interesting the strains that are similar between El Paso and here. There is a Hispanic presence… and there’s also a big military base. How are such elements here going to be involved in your community outreach?
Michael Tomor: I think the board really saw some of those connections also, because we talked about them in the interview process. Community engagement can happen in a lot of ways and not necessarily outreach, which I would consider to be off-site. Philosophically, I believe you bring people in to engage in your institution so they understand it’s their museum. What we really tried to accomplish [at El Paso] was to take a look at who wasn’t being served for a variety of reasons: disenfranchised for health reasons, left behind because of socio-economic levels. We did a literacy program to try and get students reading-ready by the age of 5, by the first grade. This was about visual thinking standards being incorporated into their literacy and improvement through discussions [about art]. Your illiteracy rate here is not as high as El Paso’s, which was 36 percent, twice the national average. You have an illiteracy rate that’s about 24-25 percent here in this region.
Did you look into all this before you took the job?
I did. One of the things that I love is community outreach, so I thought to myself: What are some of the things I could do that I already have in place and that aren’t happening here?
How do you get something like that started?
It’s about partnerships. You can call it what you want — I call it sharing your poverty. When you can’t launch a program by yourself because you don’t have the funding to do it and you need a partner in the process because you’re not a content specialist. There’s no museum educator that’s a specialist, really, in literacy. They can do art programming that enhances literacy opportunities, but you need a partner.
You have a very limited staff here. How will you implement some of these programs?
Well, we had the same issue in El Paso, but we had a much more solvent and mature docent program. My understanding is that here the docent program was very strong at one point and then it collapsed a bit, and that it’s been reinvigorated and it’s growing again. One way is to engage with your volunteer docent corps and teach them how to do VTS [Visual Thinking Strategies, a method of facilitating discussions of art images]. Our art educator Joie [Johnson] is very interested in this.
The education division here really needs to be much more engaged with the public in a much more dynamic way. I don’t think this has to do with anything other than growing pains. My understanding is that in the process of the shutdown for the institution [during TMA’s move to its new building in 2010], the education department was largely shut down as well. So you can basically say that this education division is only five years old, and within that five-year time there has been a large turnover in staff. We’ve got two really great educators right now that have done a good job in the past year-and-a-half building a fundamental foundation to move forward, and I’m really excited about working with them to make that stronger.
What do you envision curatorially for the museum going forward? Seth [Pevnick] is your only full-time curator.
My understanding is that when Seth was hired, Todd [Smith] was intimately involved in curatorial process. I’m less so, although I can be — I was a curator for many years. But I don’t believe that they’ve felt the need for me to be engaged in curating, and at this point in my career I’m not overly interested.
There have been some discussions that haven’t been finalized about another curator who would deal primarily with the contemporary and modern end of the mission because Seth was really hired to take care of the antiquities collection. In the meantime, [the museum has] managed by bringing in exhibitions. So, I don’t have an answer for you, specifically what the vision is, except that we’ll continue to reach the mission of contemporary and modern one way or another. There are different ways you can engage with that, and one is subcontracting curators to do special projects. There are other things we may take a look at that I think are interesting. One is artist as curator, which has become a very common thing to do, and also community as curator, which was introduced about a decade ago at the Brooklyn Museum.
Those are fun, interesting, new ways to engage with the public, demystifying the process. Because it really isn’t some big secret.
You see things, you choose them, and you put them up …
Exactly. So to that end, maybe more of a mix of juried, invitational [exhibitions] as well as professionally curated. That’s something we can take a look at in the future, but not tomorrow.
Meet Michael Tomor at Pride & Passion, the TMA fundraiser Saturday night May 16, 8 p.m.-midnight. For more info, go to p. 7 or to tampamuseum.org/museum-events/pride-passion.