When Stephan Jost left the museum March 11 to head up the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, deputy director Allison Wong stepped up to the plate as interim director. Wong previously served as interim director and ultimately actual director of Spalding House (then called The Contemporary Museum) and, when she joined HoMA as deputy director in 2010, worked closely with the staff and board before Jost was hired, so she is no stranger to the position. Still, taking on the responsibilities of a museum director is no small task. Somehow, we managed to sneak in an interview with Wong in between her mountain of “to dos.”
This is your fourth week as interim director—what are your priorities right now? Are you able to hand some of your duties as deputy director of administration and operations to other staff?
Wow, already? That was fast! My main priority is keeping open communication and working with the museum’s great staff to keep our planned exhibitions and programming moving forward during this time of transition. At the heart of any art museum are its exhibitions and events, so its important to get the programming right. This is something that I am excited to see ramped up. It’s a careful balance and we should play on our strengths while also trying to attract new audiences.
Another priority is making sure our finances stay on track and we take care of that great staff—I have been working closely with Hathaway Jakobsen, deputy director of advancement; Wei Robertson, director of finance; and Sharon Stillman, human resources director, on year-end goals, fiscal year 2017 budgets, and staff evaluations. In addition to my senior management team I am excited to work closely with the curators and educators and our collections, this is an area that I am looking forward to overseeing as we firm up our exhibition calendars.
Luckily I am able to share some of my administration and operations duties, primarily to our very capable operations and facilities manager Eric Walden, who has taken the lead on several of my building and maintenance projects.
It’s an exciting time and I’m confident we can continue to deliver quality, mission-aligned exhibitions and programming that our community will find engaging and transformative. I look forward to seeing our public’s continued support and hope to see visitors and members at our next event either at the main museum, Spalding House, the Art School or our gallery at First Hawaiian Center.
After working with Stephan for almost five years, what would you say is the most valuable thing you learned from him?
I learned many things from Stephan, but I think my biggest takeaway was that he always pushed me to think bigger and further out. He always acknowledged that I was the one to get the job done and it’s certainly in my nature to create lists and check things off—I am very Type A.
I think Stephan and I made a great team. He was a great leader and knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish during his tenure at the museum, whether is was creating our new mission and values, making our new membership level affordable to all, or prioritizing our commitment to access and education. All of these elements help us align where we are going and created a solid foundation for the museum.
In a meeting we had the week before he left he said, “If you are incremental in what you do you will only get incremental change, not the big ‘wow’ that you are looking for.” He also expressed that I had a great eye for contemporary art, and he saw the enthusiasm I had when I spoke about art, so he encouraged me to continue that type of enthusiasm and drive in everything that I do. I understand exactly what he means by this and I don’t worry about all the steps that it takes to make or do something. I trust that the big idea will happen.
We’ve talked a lot about how Stephan is leaving the museum in better shape than he arrived, with finances in order, a mission-aligned internal culture, membership at an all-time high. How do you think the museum can or should capitalize on that?
After the merger we took on many projects including the debt reduction, re-organizing the finance team, investing in a new staff model under advancement, changing our exhibition programs, pushing education to the front of our mission, a new membership structure where membership begins at $25, and making the museum free for visitors who are 17 years old and younger. All of these areas really shore up the museum’s foundation and I am excited that we have an upward momentum to make sure that we are looking at our new audiences, and making sure that our exhibitions and programs are in line with our mission and values.
What will you be looking for in a new director as the board executive search committee begins its hunt?
For me, an effective leader will need to be open to our diverse community, know how to team build, collaborate, and have a strong sense for curating and educational programming. The knowledge of how the museum operates in a fiscally responsible manner that promotes its long-term sustainability are also key to a successful director. The search committee is co-chaired by trustees Mark Burak and Josh Feldman and I am confident that they will do a great job in finding the best fit for us.