Sheila Hughes can talk leaps.
Scampery leaps by aerialists at Teatro ZinZanni, the circus-dinner theatre she helped found; her conquering leap from publicist to COO at One Reel, the proud (adoptive) papa of Bumbershoot; circadian leaps from Seattle to this picturesque island, which was only her home turf, the place where she slept and ate two meals if she was lucky, up until June, when a lateral leap — from one arts organization to another — deposited her at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.
Like 78 words squeezed into a solitary sentence, the new executive director packs a punch.
Greg Robinson, who steered the museum through its inception as its founding director, will focus his efforts full-time on curation as Hughes takes over on the business end.
“Since I’ve been here, just those two exhibits — Heaven on Fire and Native Hands — plus the amazing downstairs shows he’s had, make clear his passion and talent,” said Hughes.
Robinson’s curatorial brilliance
“Greg is exceptional at finding these treasures and sort of cultivating them over time and working with the artist really closely to make sure the vision of the final show is something that’s really a stretch in a great way. I’ve just been blown away by the quality.”
In his six-year tenure, Robinson defined how the museum would express its artistic vision and grew the nonprofit in both numbers of visitors and regional stature, with BIMA on point to welcome its 250,000th patron in early 2017.
“His broad knowledge of contemporary art and craft and focus on creating distinctive, original exhibitions, is going to be a huge asset to the museum,” BIMA’s founder Cynthia Sears said.
Hughes looks to bring in the money
Hughes, for her part, says her first focus as executive director will be financial sustainability.
“We’re moving from a founding organization to a more working organization, and that’s a tricky moment for any arts organization,” she explained.
BIMA relies on a “huge mosaic” of revenue streams to maintain free admission. Hughes’ task, then, will be to figure out the right mix.
“It’s not just major donors; it’s not just end-of-year gifts; it’s membership and how we create value for membership, how to do fundraising events like the auction or other smaller events that can be sustained and grown over time, cultivating sponsorships and grant cycles.
“There’s so many ways that each of those things has to be tended to,” she added.
Luckily, Hughes has Melinda Lucas’ Bistro nearby to provide brain food — the salmon tartine, but only twice a month; the woman is disciplined — and scores of cultural artifacts on her desk to provide inspiration. The wackiest would be a chewed up drumstick given to her by Ray Charles, but Hughes also sports a snapshot of her fiercely lacing Kevin Kent into a corset (kudos to Teatro) and a valentine post-it from Al Hendrix.
By the way, she doesn’t lead with any of that. Hughes might be in with the cool kids, but she’s all business, mellow and discreet, especially if you ask about her favorite artists.
“There’s so many, but I won’t even go there,” she said. “I was so privileged to work with so many great artists at Bumbershoot and One Reel over the years. And, you know, I was the person who selected the artwork for the poster every year, so I feel like I have some great relationships and also personal favorites, but I’ll leave my tastes to what I put in my own house, at this point.”
Skepticism confessed and conquered
In many ways, Hughes is still a newcomer to her own museum. When it was the subject of cocktail parties, glasses clinking to a possible future, she admits she was skeptical of the whole idea. “I wasn’t against the museum, but I really didn’t see how it could be sustained and I really didn’t understand what the purpose would be,” Hughes said.
She’d gladly eat those words or wash them away, like the bottle of Bacardi she once sneaked on the Wild Mouse with Joey Ramone and company.
“I have never been so happy to be so wrong because now I see BIMA as this huge focal point for the island in terms of conversations and culture,” she said. “I just absolutely love the fact that it’s turned into something much bigger and broader and more relevant than I had ever pictured.”