Anne-Imelda Radice: Buffalo’s own museum maven
By Jana Eisenberg; photo by kc kratt.

Native Buffalonian Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice is now the president-appointed director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), located in Washington, D.C. She was in town recently for an IMLS co-sponsored conference. The two-day meeting, attended by 300 museum and library professionals from forty-six states, explored the ideas of institutions working together to improve collections care and to inspire support within communities for collection conservation.

The conference took place at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, and the Art Conservation Department of Buffalo State College. Radice stopped at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (BECHS) as well, and took time out from a hectic schedule to sit with Spree over a Coke.

What did the institutions here mean to you growing up? How do you perceive them now?

Growing up in Buffalo provided a lot of opportunities. My parents come from science backgrounds—although they wanted to experience other cultural things, and they didn’t feel they’d had the opportunity or the expertise.

Because of that, they felt an essential part of my upbringing was to experience every possible, imaginable thing that had anything to do with culture. And truly, every Saturday morning we would go to one of the museums—the three most active when I was growing up were the Albright-Knox, BECHS, and the Science Museum—or we’d go to Fort Niagara and all different kinds of places. Then we’d have a great lunch, then I would go to the Crane Library on Elmwood Avenue. We’d top off the day with ice cream or something like that. This was a Saturday ritual … It opened up the world to me.

I was also lucky enough to go to Nardin, a great school, and there was always something going on. My family belonged to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which I think is an extremely important Buffalo presence. All of those things provided some background.

Being here now, especially for this particular event, I’m so pleased to see [Buffalo State’s] Conservation Center growing, museums thriving, more community centers open, greater interest in the area’s African-American heritage—all of these are great steps forward. It makes me very proud to see that things [have not been] stagnant.

How should museums handle certain public expectations of continuity in terms of exhibits? I’m thinking of nostalgia for the Albright’s mirror room or the Science Museum’s animal hall.

Nostalgia can be dangerous sometimes; we can be overly sentimental. It’s encouraging to come back and see all the fantastic changes. Of course I grew up loving the stuffed buffalo at the Science Museum, but I would have been a little scared to see the same thing still there.

I learned the importance of always looking ahead from my parents. Experiences like the mirror room, and the dioramas: those were steps in the development of those institutions. Coming back today, I don’t feel that I want everything to be the same, but I do want to keep my memories of it. So the saying wouldn’t so much be “you can’t go home again,” but “you can always keep home with you.”

How does “taking it with you” manifest itself?

All the positive experiences of these institutions, the warmth of a wonderful family and friends … they almost become part of our DNA.

You just visited BECHS, to call attention to the need for preserving and conserving its collections. In the current climate, with more attention being paid to basic concerns like work, food, rent, etc., smaller institutions like these may be falling further from people’s focus. How do you think some of them are going to fare?

We’ve done a lot of research on this, and what we’ve seen across the country is that attendance is actually up. And I think this is due to a couple of important facts.

First, people aren’t traveling as far as they maybe did in the past. Also, there are many more requests for services—for example, the libraries have almost become community centers as people go there to use computers. These are things that were never considered as the libraries’ function. The strain is tremendous; we have to help the institutions in every way we can. The public understands this, too.

Unfortunately, small institutions know tough times as a daily reality … but these are actually times to plan and to prioritize, and to know what your battle plan is. There is funding out there, but how do you find it? Maybe you partner with somebody. Are there going to be certain institutions that don’t make it? Probably, but the important thing is to make sure that the people who are involved with them, and the collections, get attached to some other organization.

Where does the money come from for these conservation efforts? Is there a pre-step? Does the public need to be convinced of the importance of conservation?

The public often knows more than we give them credit for. When I first started out with the IMLS program called “Connecting the Collections,” someone said to me, “What would be your ideal audience to immediately get your message out there?” I said, “I’d like to go on QVC!” I haven’t been able to do it yet, but I’m still hoping.

How do Buffalo’s museums stack up nationally?

They are super, and they’ve always been. I think it goes back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Buffalo had a greater presence in the industrial arena. Just as in every other part of the country—whether you go to Frankfort, Indiana, or Boise, Idaho—there have always been families who care so much about the community that they support or even create its institutions. Buffalo is very fortunate to have some real leadership families and some excellent schools. Also, I think being close to Canada doesn’t hurt. When you have the ability to share cultures, that’s important.

BECHS recently sent out a survey asking, “What can we do to improve our image?” What do you think that an institution should do—if it perhaps has a bit of a fusty reputation—to make itself more exciting, more compelling?

The fact that an institution has a survey, is willing to listen to criticism, is a huge first step. They are willing to own the fact that maybe the Buffalo history exhibit needs to be updated; that’s very, very important. Although change can take time, this sort of thing bodes well. Sometimes you even have to retool people who have worked for your institution.

In leadership jobs that I’ve had, if I hear someone who works with me say, “Well, we’ve never done it that way before,” that is like death. You do have people who are old school, but you also have all this changing culture and technology now.
You have to bring people along, and sometimes they won’t come. Sometimes they leave. If you want to really deal with change, you’ve got to be willing to make some tough decisions. But I think that Buffalo institutions are very capable of doing it; I’ve got great hope for them.

Jana Eisenberg writes frequently for Buffalo Spree and Forever Young on a wide variety of topics. She would like to thank the Albright-Knox Art Gallery for its hospitality in accommodating her interview with Dr. Radice.


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