The Norton’s new director is ready to launch the museum into a post-pandemic boom
The Norton Museum of Art had yet to fully reopen on the late spring afternoon when its new director, Ghislain d’Humières, sat down with Boca magazine in the museum’s Great Hall. Only the occasional staffer wandered about the capacious, light-filled atrium. But d’Humières, a gregarious Frenchman with a personality big enough to fill that space, managed, for a short time, to bring back the echoes of its past, and foretell its future, as a community hive.
In contrast to the Norton’s more reticent previous director, Elliot Bostwick Davis, who left the post after just 15 months, this man exalts in talking, filling the conversation with observations both grand and mundane: the way he sees the “music” in an abstract Miro painting just outside the Great Hall, on a caterpillar that had sneaked into the museum, on the on-site Restaurant at the Norton’s attempts to make a perfect caffè macchiato just for him.
More substantively, he has big ideas planned for the Norton in the months and years ahead, from expanded use of the museum’s outdoor spaces for movies, concerts and yoga (an initiative that began this past summer) to free vouchers for underprivileged communities to visit the museum, to blockbuster exhibitions that will bring the Norton out of the pandemic with much fanfare. He discusses these and more.
What are some of your earliest memories of art?
My grandmother took me to my first opera; I was 5 years old. My first museum, I was 5 years old. My first auction, I was 6 years old. For me, very importantly, it was a mix of visual art and performing art. You’ll hear me talking about the museum as a place [where] visual art and performing art can merge; I’m talking about music and dance and opera. I’m talking about poetry, improvisation, creative writing—all the different aspects of making your mind work, connected with the visual aspect.
You held top positions at museums in Kentucky and Oklahoma before taking this position in January. Did those experiences inform your plans for the Norton?
Every job snowballs to the next one. There’s not a single day I’m not thinking, I had that situation before, this is a different context, how do I answer the question? I try with my staff to not say, “in my previous job…” But if you’re intelligent, you will use your experience and your wisdom to avoid making the same mistakes.
Is this a job where you need both sides of the brain—the creative as well as the analytical/numbers side of things?
Absolutely, a director is like a CEO, an entrepreneur. You have to understand the product we’re selling is creativity, art, beauty, education, outreach … but all of that is managed like a business. You have a budget, you have deficits, you have fundraising, you have HR. I manage a business, and I’m selling culture.
How far ahead do you think about exhibitions?
Usually in the world of museums, it’s three to five years in advance. We have a fabulous exhibition in October on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. And we’re going to do a lot of programming around it, including getting high school kids to be trained as bilingual docents to be able to give tours to the public. We have five categories in the museum: contemporary art, photography, European art, American art and Chinese art. We try always to balance the different aspects of the collection on the programming. We’re going to have something on Mark Rothko, on Ed Ruscha, on fashion photography and street fashion.
How do you see the Norton evolving on the other side of the pandemic?
Two things. First of all, I’m an admirer of Mr. Norton himself. He was a visionary—someone who came from an industrial background, no art, no creativity, and really built the collection. He decided to have the Norton Museum with a school of art next door where people, whatever their social background, were able to learn art-making for free. And I really believe our mission is the same; it’s just on steroids of the 21st century.
It’s no point to collect art if it’s not used as a medium for the community at large. The point is to be relevant. For me a museum is a hub of creativity, where you have a dialogue between generations about art from around the world. This generation of children is global, and not necessarily with the right tools. … If we don’t give them the responsibility to understand beauty, art, differences in people through performing and visual arts, we are missing a way to help the younger generation understand how to move forward into the future. … We have a big role there.