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Desire for more diverse, edgy programming expressed at museum meeting

Session kicks off development of new strategic plan

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Senior consultant Sarah Hill of Lord Cultural Resources keeps track of audience feedback while vice president Brad King poses a question during a public meeting at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park on Dec. 11, 2019.
  • The city has contracted with Lord Cultural Resources to facilitate the development of the plan.
  • The process of developing the plan is expected to last well into the spring.
  • Meeting facilitators sought input from audience members on their priorities for the museum.

FARMINGTON — Members of the public who attended a Dec. 11 meeting at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park to help develop the facility's new strategic plan voiced a lot of appreciation for the museum. But they also expressed a desire to see the facility take a more diversified and daring approach to its programming.

The meeting was one of the first steps in the creation of a new strategic plan designed to guide the museum for the next several years. The city has contracted with Lord Cultural Resources — a global consulting practice that offers specialized planning services in the museum, cultural and heritage sector — to facilitate the development of the plan. The company has offices in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, London, Mumbai and Beijing, and has completed 2,500 projects in 57 countries.

Two representatives of the firm's Toronto office — vice president Brad King and senior consultant Sarah Hill — were at the museum to lead the meeting, which was designed to solicit public input, and help King and Hill develop a better understanding of how residents view the facility.

Approximately two dozen people, including most members of the Farmington Museum Foundation board, attended the meeting, and they didn't hesitate to offer their input. Virtually every person in the audience had something to contribute over the course of the one-hour meeting, a degree of engagement that King found encouraging.

"You are not a shy group, which is fantastic," he said.

The feedback audience members offered mirrored much of what he has heard in other communities, he said afterward.

"What I heard tonight is actually in line with trends for museums across the continent," King said.

Giving the people what they want

The comments covered an array of subjects, but most of those who spoke conveyed a positive assessment of the museum, citing its family-oriented programming, its extensive photo archives, its commitment to cataloging and showcasing local history, its convenience and affordability and its role as a community gathering point.

Brad King, vice president of the Toronto office of Lord Cultural Resources, solicits audience feedback during a public meeting on the new strategic plan for the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park on Dec. 11, 2019, at the museum.

But when the time came to discuss improvements they'd like to see at the museum, audience members had plenty of suggestions. Much of that feedback centered on an appetite for more varied and cutting-edge programming.

One speaker expressed a desire to see more exhibitions that examine or present history from different perspectives. She noted that 1920 will mark the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a measure that granted women the right to vote. She said she was aware of several exhibitions celebrating that anniversary that are being presented at museums across the country and said she wished one of them were coming to Farmington.

She also said she would like to see more art exhibitions that don't fall into the traditional realm.

"There's a lot of contemporary art, but if you want to see it, you have to go to Santa Fe or Albuquerque," she said.

Farmington resident Gordon Glass echoed those thoughts.

"I'd like to see the museum take some chances," he said. "Make it a little edgier. There's a lot of Native American history that's being re-examined. We ought to reflect that here. It's controversial, but it's also healthy."

Glass described Farmington as a "company town" in many ways, given its reliance on the fossil fuels industry and the many energy companies that operate here. But he said climate change is real, and the museum has role to play in terms of educating people about the impact of that.

"I would vote for an edgier future on those topics," he said.

Farmington Museum director Bart Wilsey responded to that suggestion afterward by saying most museums don't shy away from controversy.

Farmington Museum Director Bart Wilsey listens during a public meeting about the facility's new strategic plan Dec. 11, 2019, at the museum.

"When people say that, maybe they don't know the full story of we've done," he said, explaining the museum has presented a climate change exhibition, although he acknowledged it was perhaps as long as six years ago.

One speaker said the museum needs to diversify not just its programming, but its staff, explaining that would help bring fresh thinking to the facility.

"A lot of museums could probably do a better job at that," King said.

Another speaker cited Farmington's status as the retail center for the Four Corners and wondered why the museum hasn't assumed the role of the cultural center for the region, attracting museum-goers the way big box stores do shoppers.

City officials juggling several projects

There was also considerable discussion about the Farmington Growers Market, which is held on a vacant lot adjacent to the museum during the growing season. Several people at the meeting cited the need for shade structures, bench seating and other amenities that would enhance that experience, and they were curious about whether the city had any plans to add those features.

More:Progress on creation of new Farmington park stalls, but action could resume soon

Assistant City Manager Julie Baird responded by saying conceptual designs for an "iconic park" on land adjacent to the museum have been developed and include an improved growers market space. But with the city developing a new master plan of its own and work on several other major projects proceeding — including the Complete Streets renovation of downtown and the effort to keep the San Juan Generating Station operating beyond its planned closure in 2022 through the use of an experimental carbon sequestration process — that idea is competing with many others for the attention of city officials, she said.

Nevertheless, she assured those at the meeting that the project is not being ignored.

"It's not just sitting on a shelf somewhere," she said. "It is in active discussion."

Lord Cultural Resources senior consultant Sarah Hill prepares to chronicle audience feedback during a public meeting Dec. 11, 2019, at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

The park project is just one idea associated with the museum that has been floated recently. City officials are seeking commercial development ideas for a vacant plot of city-owned land west of the museum along the Animas River that would take advantage of the recreational and scenic possibilities of the space.

More:Development proposals sought for site next to Farmington Museum

They also commissioned a conceptual plan examining the feasibility of adding an auditorium and traveling exhibition hall to the museum after the Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation offered the city nearly $1 million to aid in the construction of the project. Arts foundation officials ultimately struck a deal with San Juan College to use the money to renovate the school's Little Theatre, so Baird said the rest of the study, as it pertains to the exhibition hall, has been put on hold until the museum's strategic plan is completed and the facility's expansion priorities are established.

More:Arts group donates $500k to San Juan College for Little Theatre renovation

In the meantime, the museum has three staff positions open — curator, an education position and a collections position — and those vacancies weren't lost on one audience member at the meeting, who emphasized the importance of filling them. The departure of curator Jeffrey Richardson last summer seems to have left a particularly large void, as the quantity of the museum's programming has declined precipitously since then, presumably impacting its attendance, as well.

More:Farmington Museum curator leaving for job at history institution in Georgia

Baird said decisions about if or when those positions would be filled would be part of the city's budgeting process in the new year.

A handful of speakers also voiced support for the use of alternative energy devices at the museum and expressed support for the idea of the museum leading the way in educating citizens about their use.

"The museum has the potential to show what other forms of energy are available," one speaker said. "That's probably not going to please everybody."

Baird dismissed the notion that that idea conflicts with the city's priorities as it seeks to keep the generating station open.

"Absolutely not," she said.

King said museums typically go through the process of developing a strategic plan every three to five years. The Farmington Museum has engaged in that process several times since moving into its current home in 1999, Baird said, although she acknowledged those assessments were done internally, not by an outside firm.

King said he and Hill would synthesize the information and input they gathered during their trip here over the next several weeks and begin to identify which ideas have the most support. Baird said they'll put together a report and return to Farmington, most likely in April, to deliver their findings during a planning session with the city staff and key members of the community. She expects a final version of the report to be delivered to the City Council in May.

"Then, it is our responsibility to implement it," she said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.