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Brady Roberts set to define new era for Museum of Art

Photo: The Museum’s new executive director and CEO, Brady Roberts

The halls of the Vero Beach Museum of Art may seem as serene as ever. But inside the administrative offices, Brady Roberts is keeping a frenetic schedule. The museum’s new executive director and CEO is filling in as curator at the same time as he learns the ropes of his own position.

Former curator Jay Williams retired almost simultaneously with longtime executive director Lucinda Gedeon, leaving a double void.

On the plus side, the twin departures allow Roberts to hire a curator of his choosing.  But in the meantime he is stretched thin. Not that it shows – Roberts seems to be drawing from a bottomless well of enthusiasm.

Last week, he was wrapping up individual meetings with some 25 members of the Board of Trustees – the same board that unanimously voted to hire him over a dozen other candidates considered in a six-month search.

Handling curatorial duties comes naturally to Roberts: He was chief curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum before coming to Vero, named to that post in 2009. That museum is best known for its post-war collection of art, specifically German expressionism and abstract expressionism; Roberts wrote his master’s thesis on Willem de Kooning.

Prior to that job, he was curator of the Evo gallery in Santa Fe that specializes in global contemporary art. In the late 1990s, he was executive director of the Dubuque Museum of Art, and for eight years before that was curator of collections and exhibitions at the Davenport Museum, now known as the Figge Art Museum.

Unlike Gedeon, who before she came to Vero had never even visited a southern state, Roberts already had a first-hand impression of just where he was applying: He once gave a lecture here.

It was during his tenure at the Davenport that he got a call from a young museum in the small town of Vero Beach, Florida inviting him to speak. It was February in Iowa; he didn’t hesitate. Still, his hosts gave him the pep talk: “They told me, listen, this isn’t what you think it is, just a small coastal town. And they were right. I stayed a few days and wherever I went I kept meeting interesting people,” says Roberts. “This is an intellectually engaged community.”

That engagement continues today of course, with the museum welcoming close to 80,000 visitors a year as the flagship of Vero’s cultural and intellectual pursuits. Roberts follows in the footsteps of a champion of those pursuits: Gedeon.

The face of the museum for more than 12 years, she arrived just before the 2004 hurricanes tore through town, testing the physical mettle of a museum she was charged with “bringing to the next level,” the mantra of then-chairman of the board Rick McDermott.

Today Roberts takes over a museum that not only reached that level, but did it in a period of time that spanned a severe economic downturn. In the last financial report – 2015 – the museum took in nearly $7 million in revenue. In the five years following the launch of a capital campaign in 2010, it raised more than $9 million in donations. And an endowment campaign begun in January 2015 now stands at $26 million.

The museum reaches out not only with exhibits but also with an extensive art education program, two lecture series, collaborations with other arts organizations including Ballet Vero Beach (with a performance there this Friday), on-going study series in film and opera, and programs designed for a dozen cohorts from pre-school children to Alzheimer patients.

Now it is Roberts who is setting the bar for the institution. “We’re going to start a strategic planning process working with staff, board and community to see what the next level looks like for the museum,” Roberts says.

At the much larger Milwaukee Art Museum, there were 30 people just on the curatorial staff he led. That is one more than the entire full-time staff of the Vero museum.

There, his team developed the master plan to re-install the museum’s collection throughout the building as part of a $34 million capital campaign. It was one of four major building projects in his career, including at the Phoenix Art Museum where he oversaw construction of a new contemporary wing.

Not that he’s stepping into another construction site; the Vero museum is taking a breather after a recent expansion added a 20,000-square-foot collections and exhibitions wing that stores its 850-piece collection.

As Brady familiarizes himself with the works in that collection, he is busy pulling together exhibitions from other sources. Among the many shows he has organized are “Constructing New Berlin” in 2006 and “Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed,” both of which were touring exhibitions. In 2014, he co-organized a major Kandinsky retrospective with the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Roberts’ obvious passion for museums – his face brightens just speaking on the subject – began in college at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He was struck when the genres of art he studied in his art history classes – projected images on an auditorium wall “and all the same size” suddenly came to life when he visited museums. He made frequent forays to Milwaukee to visit the same museum he would one day help lead.

Later in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the art history department was within the small art museum on campus. In both venues, he discovered the compelling sense of aura that a work of art exudes.

Initially a literature major, Roberts signed up for an art history class his freshman year. “The professor was brilliant,” he recalls. “He was talking about how renaissance paintings related to history, literature, philosophy – it was like decoding a special language. It just opened up a new world for me.”

Roberts’ impact as director and that of his as-yet unknown teammate, the new hire for the post of curator, could shape an era at the museum, particularly if they have the kind of longevity of Gedeon and Williams had.

“I think the best curators are passionate and full of ideas,” he says. “Like that art history professor who was so passionate about art – they want to share their insights into works of art and let people from kids in our education department to the intellectually curious members of our museum know why we’re presenting them.”

As for expanding the museum’s collection, Roberts hints that his legacy may be in expanding its works of fine art photography and video art. “Video art installations are made for museums and institutions, so there are lots of opportunities there,” he says. “In today’s market you have to look at what niches you have to build a collection. We can’t buy a lot of old masters or blue-chip contemporary art – it’s too expensive. So we have to be intelligent about how we collect. Photography is a great field where you can do a lot of collecting at not extravagant prices.”

He adds that most works in museum collections come through donations. “The museums that get the most donations have the most active curatorial staff,” he says. “Good energy brings more good things in.”

He will have ample opportunity to share his own “good energy” when he takes members of the museum’s Athena Society donor group to Venice in September. “Venice is such a fabulous place and we’ll be there for the Biennale, where you can see for the first time some of the best contemporary art in the world.”