Gatepost Interview: Debra Petke, Danforth Museum executive director

Donald Halsing / THE GATEPOST

What is your educational and professional background?

My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in art history, specializing in American art. And the Danforth is a museum of American art. I’ve spent most of my career in museums as a deputy director, a chief curator, and an executive director – except for five years when I was the president of a small art college in Connecticut. 

How did you come to Framingham State?

I came to the Danforth museum and school in 2015. And at that time, we were located in downtown Framingham. I was brought in to make a strategic plan to get the museum to a point where we could move and renovate this building, because we owned this building – the Danforth did. About a year after I got there, we were evicted from the building we were in, which we were leasing from the town, because there was a problem with the boiler. They weren’t going to fix it, so we had about four months to relocate the museum. We had to move 3,500 objects, find a place to have art classes, store the collection, exhibitions – the whole thing. And this building, although we owned it, was in no way ready for any of that. It was a mess – it was offices and cubicles and downed wires, largely. So, I raised money and renovated the third floor for the art school – the community art school. That was only closed for about six months. I also raised money to renovate the first floor to store the collection, because you need a space that’s clean enough and secure enough. Then, we had our offices on the second floor, which, actually, the University had been renting from us at that time. But we had no museum still, because it’s really expensive to build a museum. We had to figure out what to do. We were holding our exhibitions offsite, like in different colleges and museums like the Worcester Art Museum. And we started talking with the University about the possibility of merger. The reason for that was because when the Danforth was founded in 1975, the president of the college at the time – Justin McCarthy – was one of the founders of the museum. So, he went around in Framingham and sat with people and asked for money to start a museum because he knew it would be great for the community. He wanted it to be available for students. There was a close relationship between us for decades, but this was a moment where it was very possible the Danforth would close, because … it was too much to happen to any institution right away, to be able to dig yourself out of it. So, President Cevallos and Vice President Dale Hamel began talking about how this would work. We spent about a year – the Danforth and the University – having merger discussions. It turned out that we sold this building to the University and that we didn’t have to do anything to the third floor – that was already done. The University completely renovated the second floor of the museum and renovated the first floor for the University sculpture and ceramics classes.

What future plans do you have for the Danforth?

I’m just happy for the present, because we just opened. It’s been a long haul. So, we have two to three years of exhibitions already planned out. We have one gallery that’s dedicated to the museum’s own collection – the permanent collection. And that’s going to change with the academic year, so students and faculty will know what’s going to be up full-time. It’s going to change in the summer, and there’ll be highlights from the collection. Then, we have galleries across the hallway for changing exhibitions. There’ll be three a year, and they’ll change every few months. There’s one permanent gallery called the Meta Fuller gallery. … We’ll also be having a lot of different group shows.

What works are currently on display in the permanent collection?

This first showing is called “Landed,” and that’s for two reasons: because we’ve finally landed at the University, and secondly, because it’s American landscape and travel. A lot of the works in this show have never been seen before. We wanted to open with things people would never have seen before at the Danforth. There are things in here from the mid-19th century to the present, so there’s a real broad swath.

Do you foresee any opportunities for the FSU student body to get involved, even if they aren’t in the art department?

It’s a given that with the museum, the art and the art history programs would want to use us. But museums can be used by every discipline. Any artwork you’re looking at has something to do with math, science, geography, history, sociology. And I think it’s going to be really important to find ways to connect all the dots. So, I really want nontraditional relationships with the curriculum. I think it would be really fun to find ways to do that. One of the immediate connections we see is with the fashion program. We’re going to have a show in the fall called “Dressed,” and it’s not actual clothing, but it’s different things like sculpture – it’s a lot of different media – to express the human form and how people ornament it. It’s going to be a really unusual one, and I think it’s going to be around when they do their Trashion Show.

How does the museum plan to interact with the Framingham community?

We plan to do a lot of educational programs. It’s going to take a while to get up and running, but in the next few months, we’ll be doing artist talks and just bringing in Lois Tarlow and other contemporary artists that are showing, and trying to do some special things for the students, too. In the fall, we’ll hopefully be able to start tours. Hopefully, we’ll be able to hire students to do the tours. I’d love to have art education majors or theater majors – people who really want to learn how to talk about art and how to talk with a crowd about that sort of thing.

What is some advice you have for FSU students?

Accept adversity with grace and determination, and not only will you overcome it, you will be stronger because of it. 

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