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How a Curator from Brooklyn Is Winning Texan Hearts

How a Curator from Brooklyn Is Winning Texan Hearts
Vistage member Richard Aste, director of the McNay Art Museum

When Brooklyn-based curator Richard Aste accepted the directorship of the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, he took on a museum with a 22,000-piece collection that rivaled any he’d seen in NYC, but with financial challenges and opportunity for greater attendance.

The museum had a noble mission: Engage a diverse community in the discovery and enjoyment of the visual arts. However, Aste, a naturalized U.S. citizen whose family emigrated from Peru, felt that more could be done to make all city residents feel welcome. This was particularly true of Hispanics, who constitute 63% of San Antonio’s population. “It was an opportunity to make a difference,” he says.

During Aste’s first six months as director, he simply listened. He listened to board members, who opened their homes and networks to him. He listened to the museum’s staff and volunteers, who told him about “the McNay Way,” the unwritten rules they had come to know at the museum. He also listened to San Antonio residents, speaking with more than 600 during his first six months as director. He heard that the McNay was a hidden gem, a source of pride for the city.

Research showed people had started to visit museums for “fun” more than for “cultural appreciation.” Aste responded with a successful exhibit that paired classic cars with paintings of the same era. Photo credit: McNay Art Museum

He continued to listen, but he began telling the board, staff and volunteers about his vision for the McNay — make it less of a hidden gem and more of a place that welcomed San Antonians by personalizing their museum experience. “Our goal was to have the demographics of our visitors equal the demographics of our city,” he says. “The broader our product becomes, the broader our visitors will become.”

Aste’s vision was inspired by his time as curator at the Brooklyn Museum, where the directors stressed a dual commitment to artistic excellence and community impact. In Brooklyn, he saw firsthand how important art and community were to creating an inclusive museum experience.

Photo credit: McNay Art Museum

“When explaining my vision, I talked about access to beauty as a right, not a privilege, for every member of our community,” he says. “I talked about never compromising our commitment to artistic excellence but expanding the table to include everyone in the McNay experience.”

Although Aste had a vision, he lacked business experience, and at times he was unsure that he’d be able to fulfill his vision. His doctorate and his experience were in art, not management. He’d taken an executive education program at Columbia Business School, but he felt he still had a lot to learn, so he joined Vistage to gather outside perspectives.

“There were many moments early in Aste’s tenure when he was tested,” says his Vistage Chair, Charles Marino. Some staff questioned whether new pieces of art on display at the McNay were too political, while others resisted his changes altogether — “That’s not my job,” was a typical refrain from some employees, Aste says.

Photo credit: McNay Art Museum

Aste’s Vistage peers helped him strike a balance between his leadership style and a deeply ingrained museum culture. A key strategy was transparency. He started running all-staff meetings to focus on revenue, and he flattened the organizational chart. Aste held a town hall meeting with 200 museum docents, people who volunteered as guides and educators for the McNay, and spent hours responding to their questions and feedback. Getting them on board with his vision was important, he says, as visitors would be coming to the museum who had never been to the McNay or any other museum before. The docents needed to ensure that visitors felt welcome.

Photo credit: Josh Huskin

By consulting with staff, from volunteers to full-time employees to his board, Aste achieved buy-in. “I shared with them exactly why we’d made the changes that we had. They needed to know what was coming because nobody likes surprises,” he says. “I learned from that moment to always get ahead of changes and share what’s coming, even months before.”

To further solidify his expectations with staff, he adopted three new core values for the McNay: integrity, excellence and innovation. He wanted staff to do the right thing, deliver excellent results and dare to think differently.

Photo credit: McNay Art Museum

One way Aste could differentiate himself as a nonprofit leader was by being mindful that even nonprofits need to make money, his Vistage Chair told him. “No margin, no mission” became Marino’s refrain in their one-to-ones. After months, the advice sunk in and paid off. By 2018, the McNay’s revenue was up 22% and it was averaging 200,000 visitors per year, up about 15% from when Aste started. The McNay pulled in new big-name funding, including New York’s Ford Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation. In recognition of these successes, Aste received the San Antonio Vistage Impact Award.

Now he can stand inside the McNay awestruck by the art, the architecture, the diversity of visitors and the diverse cultures reflected in the installations. “There is a moment when you step back at the McNay today and you feel like the entire city is on your campus, that you’re in a truly international city,” he says. “It’s my greatest joy.”

Aste held community town halls and responded to survey data to understand what San Antonio wanted from its museum.

Be transparent
To achieve buy-in from staff set in their “McNay Way,” Aste included all staff in his vision and strategic planning.

Aste broke the “rules” of fine art to create exhibits with mass appeal and started camps, tours and other programs to generate much-needed revenue.

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