What museum director learned the hard way she'll now teach

Danielle Rice at the Delaware Museum of Art, where she arrived just in time for its reopening after a three-year expansion and renovation. The project finished a year late, and patrons didn't like it.
Danielle Rice at the Delaware Museum of Art, where she arrived just in time for its reopening after a three-year expansion and renovation. The project finished a year late, and patrons didn't like it. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 30, 2013

WILMINGTON, Del. - When Danielle Rice was appointed executive director of the Delaware Art Museum in 2005, she says she embraced the job because of "the challenge."

After 19 years as head of educational programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the last eight years as associate director of programs under museum director Anne d'Harnoncourt, Rice was eager to strike out on her own.

"I thought I had a pretty good idea about what a museum director did," Rice recalled as she sat in her office Tuesday.

That was optimistic, to put it mildly.

"Every time I'd run into Anne at openings or whatever, I'd go up to her and say, 'Anne, I had no idea. I had no idea. I'm sorry. I had no idea at all.' "

After eight years running the Delaware museum, however, Rice, 62, has just about seen it all, and she's leaving her position to take what she's learned to help launch a Drexel University graduate-degree program in museum leadership.

While Drexel and other area institutions have programs in museum studies and arts administration, none focuses on the specific challenges facing museum leaders.

Challenges? What could possibly go wrong at a smallish art museum in Wilmington?

"This museum is in some ways a classic example," Rice said. She arrived just as it was poised to reopen after a three-year expansion and renovation program.

Like many other museums, the Delaware Art Museum began planning the expansion in the 1990s, and settled on a structure that would nearly double its size to 100,000 square feet.

"They broke ground on the eve of 9/11, and everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong - everything," Rice recalled.

A University of Chicago study of cultural-sector capital construction projects from 1998 to 2008 found that "something like 60 percent were way over budget, which is what happened to this project as well," she said. (The building, planned to cost $21 million, came in at $32 million, according to reports.)

Completion was almost a year behind schedule, she said.

"I came as a sort of clean-up crew. I came in a month before the museum was supposed to finally open. There were 900 items still on the punch list. I'm an art historian. What's a punch list?" (It's is a contractual document listing tasks to be completed by the end of a construction project.)

"The building wasn't stabilizing," she continued, gathering momentum. "The HVAC wasn't working properly. We couldn't bring the art in. My registrars were going around taking light readings. The UV readings were way high."

That was only the beginning.

People in Wilmington were fascinated by the building but hated it, finding its copper siding and concrete floors "very un-Wilmington," she said. Fascination brought 5,000 to the grand opening. After that, nobody came.

"Nobody," Rice said. "They had to make so many sacrifices before I came. They cut 12 staff members. They cut out all programs, all exhibitions, everything. There was nothing. It was a new building, and there was nothing. We had to build community confidence. We had to build programming. We had to do all that from the ground up. It was pretty wacky."

Rice worked her way through it all, and public sentiment about the museum building has since changed.

But the errors of judgment, financial planning, and execution are still weighing, as they are on many of the large structures born of the expansive thinking of the 1990s, from the Kimmel Center to the National Constitution Center to the Please Touch Museum.

Most are unable to earn enough from programs, sales, and private space rentals to cover basic operating costs.

"The big thing in the 1990s was earned revenue," Rice said. "Build these big buildings so that they have these big spaces that can be rented for weddings and corporate parties and events and that will bring in the earned revenue that will help support the institution. It was a sustainability model based on slightly incorrect assumptions. And then the recession hit. The corporate event model . . . just doesn't bring in vast amounts of revenue."

So now, Rice, who spent most of the early portion of her career working as a museum educator, is taking what she has learned back to education, seeking to pass it along to the next generation of museum leaders.

"My hope is that, eventually, the student body will be made up largely of working professionals," she said. "The real target demographic for this [Drexel] program is already involved in a fairly challenging environment. One of the things this program can do is give that professional the tools and the reflective space with which to see the large picture."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter

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