Gretchen Dietrich: UMFA and the magic of helping people discover art

Gretchen Dietrich

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Gretchen Dietrich is the executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Art and in this episode of U Rising she shares how the museum and its staff are working to stay connected with patrons, what reopening the museum may look like and the extraordinary work of the museum’s staff to send out 1,500 art kits. Recorded on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to learn about the people who are helping the U achieve new heights. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the U, and my guest today is Gretchen Dietrich. Gretchen is the executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. The UMFA, as we call it, is an important part of the state and of the University of Utah campus. Gretchen, warmest welcome to you!

Gretchen Dietrich: Thank you so much, President Watkins. I'm so pleased to be here.

President Watkins: Well, I think our listeners would like to hear a little bit about you, how long you've been at the U and been the director, and your background, where you were before.

Gretchen Dietrich: Sure. So, I was made interim director of the UMFA in 2009 and I was named director by former President Young in the summer of 2010. So, I can't quite believe it, but I've been director of our beautiful art museum for 11 years now. And I've been in the field for 30 years as of this year.

My first paying gig in an art museum was in 1990 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was so lucky to get that job. I still remember the day when I got that job. I have held positions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut—all really wonderful American art museums.

And I came to Utah in 2003 as a trailing spouse. My husband is an associate professor of art history here at the University of Utah. So, I followed him. He followed me around for a while, but then I followed him here, and I have just fallen in love with Utah, become a Westerner and I'm so proud to be part of the U.

President Watkins: Well, I think a lot of our listeners would wonder how one comes to be a director of an art museum—especially one so very special as ours. What academic path and preparation for the role did you have?

Gretchen Dietrich: Well, it all began with the magic of higher education for me. When I went to college in 1985, I didn't know what art history was. And it was this amazing woman, Suzanne Conway, a professor who just retired this semester from Chestnut Hill College, where I went as an undergrad, so a shout out to Suzanne, who opened my eyes, literally. I was sitting in the dark and learning about Italian Renaissance painting and thought, I want to do this! This is awesome. And so that's what happened.

I had many unpaid internships and learned my way and learned what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do. And then I was very lucky in finding a path forward, which included a master's degree in art history from Temple University. And I went back into the field of museums to become a museum educator. So for me, the magic of the museum is not just the art that sits there, but it's the interaction with the art and the people who come to see these objects and to learn about them. That for me is really what gets me out of bed still to this day, all these 30 years later, that's what it's all about.

President Watkins: Well, I think your passion, commitment and really success as our executive director have opened doors on a national scale. I know you're engaged with several initiatives nationally, and I bet listeners would like to hear about that.

Gretchen Dietrich: Absolutely. I've been involved with the Association of Art Museum Directors for many years now. I looked it up before our conversation today because I knew it was old, this organization. It's been around since 1916 and it is comprised of about 220 art museum directors in the US, Canada and Mexico. And it's such an amazing thing to think about. It was founded during World War I. And then they all live together, more or less, through the Spanish Flu and what a trying time that must have been for the world. And then World War II and many other conflicts and challenging moments.

So, AMD, I've been on the board. I ran the education and community issues committee for them for a number of years, It is a really wonderful professional organization and I derive so much knowledge and help and assistance and love from my colleagues all around Canada and Mexico and in the U.S.

And then recently, I was very pleased and so proud to be appointed by Alice Walton to be on the board of the Art Bridges Foundation. Alice Walton is the daughter of Sam Walton, the guy who thought up Walmart, and Alice is a passionate collector of American art. She herself has an incredible collection, which has now become a museum in Arkansas. But the Art Bridges Foundation is about funding, essentially making it possible for museums mostly on the East Coast and on the West Coast, with very deep collections of American art, making it possible for them to share their collections with places like Salt Lake City and the University of Utah. I'm very proud to serve as a member of that board, helping to guide them as this new foundation gets itself organized and moving forward. It really is a game changer to bring incredible works of art all around the United States.

And as you well know, we currently, sitting in the dark in our museum, have three masterpiece works of art on view because of a collaboration we're involved in, funded by Art Bridges, with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. So, a master work by Georgia O'Keeffe is sitting in the dark in the new UMFA right now, as well as terrific paintings by Thomas Moran and Alma Thomas. I feel really grateful to have these connections around the United States, which helps us to bring great art home here for us, in Utah.

President Watkins: Your national reputation and recognition is such a benefit to us here at the U and in the state of Utah. Thank you for that effort. I'm guessing that the COVID-19 pandemic has made things pretty difficult for our arts and culture venues. And I would guess that UMFA has also had to make adjustments. Tell how you're engaging with your staff and keeping people with you during this time. And then maybe talk a little bit about how you're keeping patrons connected and with you during this time.

Gretchen Dietrich: Well, it is heartbreaking because I already told you how much for me the magic is helping people to find art and to be moved and transformed by it. So, this has been really hard for me and for my staff to be separated from the works ourselves and to know that our publics are separated from the work as well.

And I just can't even explain how proud I am of the staff of the UMFA. We had an all-staff meeting just this morning and I could see their faces across the screen. They're all working so hard. They're all so deeply committed to the mission of the museum and of the university to bring people to art and to bring people to thinking and finding new ways to live their lives. I couldn't be more proud of the work that we're doing.

I would say the biggest thing I've been doing is really communicating and staying in touch. And I think in this COVID moment, it's not just checking up on workflow and is your printer working? It's really checking in personally with people to see how they are. Our staff are home with small children, in some cases, doing homeschool and running tech for their kids while they're in school. I'm doing that. And we're all really struggling through this challenging time. But luckily, we're all healthy and safe and working away and looking forward to finding our way back together to the museum.

Similar conversations with our amazing board of advisors and our volunteers and our donors, just checking in with people on a human level and finding out how they're doing and what we can do for them and staying connected.

I think COVID, though, has offered us some new opportunities. Change is always painful and always hard, but it has pushed us to really think, for example, about online content and virtual connections. And I've just been so gratified and amazed and happy to see how quickly our staff has pivoted, just like the faculty did when they had a week to learn how to teach online, we've done it too. And it is working, and people are reaching back, and it feels really good.

President Watkins: Well, one of your important communities is school-aged kids in Utah. I have, as a member of your board in my past role, had the chance to read notes and letters that you've received from fourth graders and seventh graders and third graders from whom their first exposure to a fine arts museum was UMFA, and the impact that had on them.

I'm guessing parents, now as teachers, and in their new role as educators, could really use your help in terms of helping their children learn about art and understand something about UMFA. Have you found any ways to keep that part of your mission alive?

Gretchen Dietrich: You know the answer to that question, President Watkins! Of course we have! Because that's just who we are and that's just what we do. And our incredible learning and engagement team is just pivoting to working on Zoom and working on the phone and being connected to teachers, educators, administrators and children.

In fact, one of our educators Zoomed off our all-staff meeting to work with a class of fourth graders. So, we're doing face-to-face talks with kids. We've created lots of terrific materials. We already had them, but we're making sure that full art curricula connects to the Utah standards, ways in which we know we can support educators in this challenging time, that we're really pushing that content out to them in a way that's useful and helpful to them.

One of my most proud moments I had recently happened when the education staff reached out to me and said, ‘We want to create some art kits. We have art supplies in the museum right now that are not being used because of where we are right now, and we want to put together art kits for high school students in the Granite and the Salt Lake districts to give these materials for free to the arts administrators, who will give them to the teachers, who will get them to these students. Because the transition has been really hard for our students and our kids. And we all know that.’

So, listening to those folks we know in the community about what the needs in our community are at this time and listening and finding ways to be of service to our community, to teachers and students, that just felt so good to all of us. My staff put together 1,500 art kits. And it still amazes me. And we even sent a couple hundred of them down to the southeast corner of Utah, where COVID-19 has really hit the community hard in and around Bluff, Utah, the Navajo Nation. So, it feels good to have those relationships, to call up and say, how can we help you during this time? That was just a wonderful highlight in all of this for us.

President Watkins:

Well, you and your team are the university for Utah in action. Thank you for that. It's wonderful. Now, I know you plan far in advance to arrange for special exhibits and how you want to look at the future. Are you able to do that in this environment?

Gretchen Dietrich: Absolutely. In fact, it feels so good to get on a work call to talk about a future exhibition. And while we imagine they will feel a little different in the way our visitors experience the museum, we have to do this work now. It takes three to five years to develop a special exhibition. So, it's a lot of work and we've got a lot of things already that we're cooking.

One thing I was really happy about was we had planned to open in August of this year a fantastic collection of art from the Studio Museum in Harlem. And that exhibition is called Black Refractions. We were pleased to be selected as one of just six venues nationwide to host that important show. We moved the opening to January, and I feel really happy about that, because I do hope that will mean that more people, more students, more faculty will be able to see and enjoy this really important, wonderful exhibition. So, fingers crossed that we might have some kind of a community opening in early February and really bring people to the museum in a safe way to look at these incredible works of art.

And then I was just on a call earlier today with curators from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, because phase two of our wonderful collaboration with SAAM is to create a collaborative exhibition that's really going to look at and ask very good questions about Western art and looking especially at the voices of Native American artists, Latinx artists, as well as Asian American and African American artists. So, broadening our scope and understanding of who makes art in the West, both historically and in the contemporary moment. And I'm really excited about that. That won't be here until the spring of 2023, but it's supposed to open at another museum next year. So, we have a lot of work to do in a short period of time.

President Watkins: That's impressive and really great for our listeners to hear what is on the horizon. Also on the horizon, I hope, is some time to begin to think about reopening. That's probably quite a bit of work for your staff, because safe reopening will mean doing some things a little bit differently. How are you thinking about that?

Gretchen Dietrich: Well, I first want to just give credit to all of my amazing colleagues, both at the university and in our community, and other folks I'm talking to nationally as well. I want to give a shout out to Jason Cryan, the new director at the Natural History Museum of Utah. He's wonderful. And we're the universities museums, and though we are different and work different and have different spaces, we've been working very collaboratively on this, and we're so grateful for the support that we're getting from you and from the administration on how we can bring our staff back, as well as our visitors back, in a safe way that will work for everyone.

I mentioned to you earlier that museums are already beginning to reopen in parts of Asia and in Europe and all of that information and these new best practices are being shared. So, we're looking to our colleagues for information about how we might do this—imagining bringing back small groups of people, maybe admitting a certain number of family groups, asking people to wear masks and to keep socially distant, not only from the art, which is what we're used to asking people to stay away from, but also to stay away from other people to keep everybody safe during the experience.

We're thinking, of course, and talking a lot about new procedures for cleaning the facility, making sure that we're wiping high-touch areas down and doing all that we can to make people feel safe, but there are still so many questions. When might this happen, and might we have special times for older people or people with compromised immune systems? We're seeing our colleagues doing that in other communities. So, we're looking out and thinking carefully. As you might imagine with an art museum, you can't have an aerosol spray. There are funny things that we need to think about and pay attention to make sure that we keep our collections safe as well.

President Watkins: Our guest today, Gretchen Dietrich, executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Gretchen, you play a remarkable role in our state. You bring art to our communities and our communities to art. Thank you for your leadership.

Gretchen Dietrich: Thank you so much, President Watkins, for your leadership. I'm so pleased and proud to be a part of the University of Utah. Take good care.

President Watkins: And listeners, thank you for joining us today for the U Rising podcast and I hope you'll listen to the next episode.