November 22, 2010 | last updated March 25, 2012 5:41 am

Q&A with James A. Welu, Worcester Art Museum

Photo/Christina H. Davis
Photo/Christina H. Davis
James A. Welu, Director, Worcester Art Museum

While James A. Welu plans to step down as director of the Worcester Art Museum, he has no intention of abandoning the institution that he has spent nearly 40 years developing. The museum trustees announced a search for a new director in September, and they hope to have someone in place by next year. Once a new director is selected, Welu will take the new title of director emeritus. At that time he plans to leverage his connections in the community and institutional memory to take on several large projects for WAM, including taking some of the museum's innovative art education programs national. Here, Welu discusses how the museum can grow in the future and how "art makes us human."

>> How do you grow support for the museum beyond Worcester and the immediate communities?

I see three major areas. One is people who grew up in Worcester who have always had a fondness for this museum and they had to go elsewhere to seek their fortunes, but have means to support this museum. Then you have people who are very interested in what I would call our assets — our collections, our conservation program, our education program, our library. And thirdly, this is a new area for us, what I would call our alumni. Those are people who have been educated here at the Worcester Art Museum, particularly through our Art All-State program.

>> The dollars spent on art can seem very shocking. How have you made peace with the fact that art is as much a business as it is about expression?

If art is about money — and I hate to say it — but I guess you would conclude that it's important for society. It's where we put our values. Why does a Monet collect millions and millions of dollars in value? Because society values it. These are unique objects. Money is very involved in the art world. Preserving and presenting art is a very expensive business.

>> You've worked with public schools in your role at the museum. How much have budget pressures impacted art education?

Naturally, we get frustrated like every other museum when it's the bus money that's the road block to getting students here. I don't mean to make light of these, but it's often the buses or the tight schedules or time for testing that prevents children from visiting our museum. My concern with that is that the arts are what make us human. It's often been stated that you are 85 percent of who you will be by the time you're 5 years old. What do you do until 5? You basically do arts and sports. Kids are drawing and creating all the time. And that's what it's all about.

>> How does one go about finding a director of an art museum? I imagine it's challenging.

We're engaging Phillips Oppenheim. They are the biggest head hunter in this field and there are candidates out there. A lot is being discussed in the field about the changing role of the director. The traditional director, such as my generation, pretty much came the route that I came: curator to chief curator to director. Even about 10 years ago that started changing. Only about 50 percent came that route, another quarter came from the education field and another quarter from other fields of management.

>> Given what's changing in your industry, how will the new director's job be different from yours?

We'll continue to add to this collection, but we will not continue to add at the rate we have been adding, just because it costs a lot more money and we want to maintain a level of the very best. I think the role of the next director more than ever is to grow that audience. We've got the goods. Now we have to make sure we have the audience. Not just for support, but to carry out the mission.

>> What's the toughest management lesson you've had to learn?

Having to say, "No." Let's say for whatever reason we can't do something or we have to delay it. To say that to an educator or conservator, it's hard because you know how passionate they are about what they're doing, but you know if you don't say no there will be consequences.

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>> When you first started, you obviously had the art background, but I suspect you didn't have much of the business background. What was that transition from artist to manager like?

I was chief curator at the time and my only real management experience was being chief curator. But the trustees must have seen something in me. They really encouraged me. I look back and think the principals of business you can learn somewhat quickly, it's practicing that takes time. I was mentored by Jack Adam, who was one of our trustees, and he headed up the Hanover Insurance Co. at that time. Every week or two I would go up to his office after 5 and we would meet and I would tell him my problems and he would give me advice. He was very tough. During our second meeting, Jack asked me how it was going and I went through everything that was stressing me out. He looked me straight in the face and said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen right now." I will never forget that. I just said, "Jack I'm going to make this work." He and I became lifelong friends. As he worked on my management skills I developed him as a collector.

>> Do you have a chance to create art anymore?

Not too much. I don't do studio art anymore. Once you're a studio artist, It's hard to be a Sunday painter. I love so much what I'm doing and I know my creativity comes out in many ways, whether it's putting together a PowerPoint presentation or being the artistic director of the Worcester Art Museum. I think being a director of an art museum it pulled a lot of who I am together. I love people. I love art. I believe so much in art. It's been my salvation.

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