An artist with an MFA in painting and drawing, Scott Stulen is leading Philbrook Museum of Art through accessible immersive experiences, community engagement and openness. The forward-thinking institution puts an emphasis on connection: connecting with art; connecting with communities.
Previously the first Curator of Audience Experiences and Performance at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Director of the McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photographers, Project Director of mnartists.org at the Walker Art Center and Associate Curator at the Rochester Art Center, Scott Stulen has created and curated a diverse range of innovative exhibitions and programming.
Credits include the ARTx program at the IMA, the first Internet Cat Video Festival (#catvidfest), Community Supported Art (CSA), Artist-Designed Mini Golf, and the Walker Art Center’s Open Field initiative.
A dynamic and boundary-pushing leader, he took out a full-page newspaper advert praising national unity and offering teachers free museum membership in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, and the failure of a referendum to raise sales taxes by one cent to give teachers a pay rise.
Scott Stulen spoke to Blooloop about his unconventional approach to leadership, the Philbrook Museum of Art as a model for the museum of the future, and the strategies – long and short term – he has implemented in the face of the current crises shaking the sector, and the world.
Scott Stulen and the museum sector
As an artist, Stulen is a rarity in a museum leadership position. He explains the route that brought him to the role at Philbrook Museum of Art:
“It is unusual. I fell into this, in some ways. I have my master’s in fine art, painting and drawing. Plus I have a sculpture undergrad degree. Initially, I wanted to teach. I fell into my first museum job by teaching a summer camp right out of grad school. That was in a small regional contemporary arts centre in Rochester, Minnesota.”
“I was basically teaching contemporary art to elementary school kids over a summer. They got funding that they weren’t expecting, and were looking for somebody to come in and do their programming. I had never thought about working in museums before. But, as I was looking for teaching jobs, this seemed like a good thing for the time being.”
It turned out to be a perfect fit for him.
“I realised that the things that interested me, reaching people and connecting them to art, were far more suited towards the museum environment than the teaching environment. I felt much freer to explore ideas.
“Throughout my work, even up till now, I have always been concerned with finding different ways of connecting people that haven’t been connected to art before.”
Learning the ropes
Scott Stulen views that first museum both as a continuation of his education, and a great introduction into what museums can be:
“Because it was so small, we all did everything. I wrote grants, built our website, hung drywall and ran electrical cables. It was a great education, and gave an insight into everything that goes into making a museum operate.”
He was there for four years, before moving on to the Walker Art Centre. Here he was recruited to do a program focusing on online and offline programming for local artists.
“It became my path into the museum field. I was moving to a much larger institution with an international reputation, but also really thinking about how I could change how the museum is operating. Even with an institution of that scale.
“I’ve had a lot of friends over the years that have wanted to change the field in some ways. Many of them have gone off and started little artists’ collectives that live a short life, then, unfortunately, die. I’ve chosen to do that from inside the institution itself.”
Working with local artists
At the Walker, he worked with local artists and communities to create innovative – and disruptive – programming. This includes connecting with new, diverse audiences, working on the Open Field project and coming up with the Internet Cat Video Festival.
There was a point at which he realised he was focusing increasingly on programming that challenged the museum preconceptions:
“One thing of note is that in terms of things that challenge museums to the outside world, people see it as nothing; inside the museum, it’s a huge deal. It’s just the nature of those institutions.”
“But there was a point at which I put my artistic career a bit to the side, and dedicated myself to working within the museum. At that point, I moved on to become a curator in Indianapolis, and then, eventually, here.”
At Indianapolis, he moved away from a programmer role, becoming the first Curator of Audience Experience and Performance.
Arriving at Philbrook Museum of Art
Before he arrived at Philbrook Museum, the institution had benefited from the strategies of several innovative directors who had begun its transformation into a community-aware museum. Scott Stulen was appointed to continue that work, building revenue streams, engaging a more diverse demographic, and revitalising both collections and ethos.
“It’s interesting,” he says. “When I took the job in Indianapolis to become a curator, I was lucky enough to be able to create a new division and write my own job title. They wanted to do something completely different. You so rarely get that opportunity, and I assumed it would be the pinnacle.
“I always wanted to be a curator, never aspiring to be a director. But it was interesting that even in the position of writing my own role, it was still possible to run into all the roadblocks of leadership.
“So by the time the opportunity came to move into a director role, I had decided that if it ever happened, I’d be interested in doing that just for the sake of being able to really make change happen. Knowing that it’s really hard to do from the middle. Hierarchies and institutions are what they are, so until that changes, that’s the way it is.”
Coming from an art background
Scott Stulen is, nevertheless, a rarity:
“I’m one of the only people, at least in the US, in a director position of a larger museum that has a studio art degree and is coming from a maker side. When the opportunity came, and Philbrook was so well aligned to my skill set, and they wanted somebody like me, I knew I could never turn this down.
“I may never get this chance again – until they wake up and realize maybe this is a bad idea.”
The Board and the hiring committee at Philbrook Museum were interested in Stulen’s creative and unconventional approach. Their only concern was to do with the fact he had no previous experience of being in a director position, or of finance.
“ I was fortunate to be able to come in and fundraise successfully almost right away and dispel those fears. For me, one of the things that makes Philbrook ideal is that it’s a medium-sized museum. So, it’s not so big that it’s hard to move quickly, and it’s not so small that you don’t have any resources. It’s in that nice-in between.
“It’s also right in the middle of the United States, in a place not viewed as being the art centre. I think there’s a big freedom in that. That means that if we do something interesting, we do something that is impactful, we can get anybody’s attention. Whereas if we do something that fails, nobody’s watching.
“I see some of my colleagues in New York or LA or overseas, and there’s so much scrutiny on every move they make that it really prevents them from doing anything very radical.”
Reaching new audiences
Exploring the issues around engaging and reaching new audiences, he says:
“If people are being honest, they have to realise that the audience for cultural institutions has been dwindling. It goes across the board. Part of it is knowing who the audience is. For a long time, museums have had this elitist attitude that either you get it, or you don’t. If you don’t get it, they’re not going to bother with you.
“And rather than focusing on educating their audience, they start making artwork that is so self-referential that if you’re not part of the club, you’re never going to get it.”
He also points to the way arts programmes have been disappearing from the educational curriculum in the United States:
“A lot of your baseline audience coming in now has had almost no visual art background. They don’t know basic art history.
“You then have an even bigger challenge: of people coming in where you’re having to educate them from scratch, while at the same time talking to your highly educated audience that knows all this stuff. There are a lot of these challenges that have been happening that I think, for the most part, museums have ignored.
“If you’re going to break through that, you’ve got to figure out different ways to bring people in. And you’ve got to realise that you’re just one of many options. People can stay home and have things like Hamilton streamed straight to them.”
Creating a welcoming environment at Philbrook Museum of Art
Competing with other options, Scott Stulen explains, means acknowledging the environment you inhabit:
“I feel very strongly that as a museum, maybe we’re in the role of educating. But we’re essentially an entertainment option, and we need to view ourselves as such. Hopefully, we can aspire to be a little more than that, but we truly are in that space.
“If you are boring, off-putting, unwelcoming, difficult; if people can’t bring their kids or if they can’t touch anything, you’re going to be a very unattractive option for people with their limited free time. So my approach has been, first and foremost, to ensure the museum is a place that is welcoming and inviting.
“Somewhere that has things that you actually want to come and do with your friends, with your family. A place that feels like you can come and socialise; where you can come and hang out; a place that you can come and learn a little bit. But also a place, and this is where the Philbrook Museum fits so well into this, that you can come for different types of experience multiple times.
“You could come and just walk the gardens and recharge by yourself. You can come and bring your kids to a movie on a Friday night. Or you can come and meet your friends and have a drink and socialise and go through the gallery on a different night.
“You can come a different day and do something really intense and heavy on one of the topics that we’re doing, in one of the galleries, but all that can happen under the same umbrella. It’s not one-size-fits-all. But in order to do that, you have to really start to understand your audience and what they want.”
A hands-on approach
His appointment at Philbrook Museum was characterised by impactful, decisive action from the very beginning:
“My artist background comes into it, in that I’m a maker and very hands-on. I can just jump in and experiment. We’d adjust on the fly and then do the next thing. It’s taken the staff a little while to catch up to the speed I like working on things. My risk tolerance is a lot higher than most people in museum roles.
“It’s partly [an attitude of] ‘if that one doesn’t work, we do the next one.’ Coming in as a programmer with a reputation in terms of some of the things that I’ve done in the past helped me to hit the ground running. We were able to do some things that weren’t costly but had an impact to them.”
One of his very first initiatives concerned the rules in the Philbrook’s formal gardens, and it sent a strong message:
“You couldn’t eat food there; you couldn’t walk on the grass. All these things are so off-putting, so we just got rid of all those restrictions and rules. We went and bought a bunch of picnic tables, painted the top of them with chalkboard paint, put them out in the garden, on the front lawn, and welcomed people to come in with picnics.
“Philbrook has this kind of mansion to it. So, having the casualness of picnic tables out front immediately sends a signal that we’re doing things differently now. People really responded.”
A wedding with a difference at Philbrook Museum of Art
Scott Stulen also altered Philbrook Museum’s film programme:
“We changed it from just showing a movie outside, to an experience. We show a lot of films that people have seen a million times. But this time, for instance, we showed The Princess Bride.
“Our weddings are very expensive, at the museum. So, we put out that we were going to give a free wedding away to a couple. They could bring 30 guests and we would pay for everything, but they had to do it in character from the film.”
“We found a priest that would do it in character. We did a real wedding with this couple. 1400 people were there; Fred Savage also Skyped and did the intro for them. It became this thing, and it was awesome. And they come back every year and celebrate their anniversary with us.
“Again, it was about changing the perception of that museum and making it a place where people thought, ‘I would never have expected this happening here.’”
Behind the scenes
“We’ve done simple things like create a big slip and slide with plastic sheeting down one of the Hills in the garden,” he says. “This is something that, in the past, would have been so irreverent that you never could have done it.
“It was about as simple as it can be, but it changed the idea of how people interact with the space. It gets rid of the preciousness and it starts to become a space where people feel ownership, and that’s been good. Right now we have swings up throughout the gardens; again, simple. The gardens, of course, have been a bit of a blessing, going into COVID.”
Scott Stulen’s initial innovations were not confined to the gardens at Philbrook Museum of Art. He says:
“A couple of years ago we wanted to take a re-look at our collection. It was a way for me to force the curators to think a little bit differently, too. So we did an exhibition called Museum Confidential, where we took artwork that had never been shown; art that had just been in the basement. And we talked about why.
“A lot of it just isn’t very good, or it has condition issues, or it is an oddity in our collection that doesn’t fit into anything. But in the process, we talked about exactly how museums work, from conservation work to how people curate, to how collections come into the museum, to how artists use collections.
“We did it in this really open and transparent way. And people loved it because we weren’t hiding behind all this stuff that museums do. People respond to that. They want you to be authentic.”
Authenticity and social media
This authenticity and mystique-free presentation is something he aims for with Philbrook Museum of Art’s social media channels:
“We’re a little more irreverent on there; a lot more light-hearted than maybe some, and we take a few more risks. But it has also created a brand for us. One that we try to match when people come and have the experience on-site.
“Sometimes that fails. It doesn’t always work. But the idea is that we want the consistency, that this is what the Philbrook is about.”
The fact that Philbrook Museum had an existing online platform and following was beneficial when the COVID-19 lockdown came in March.
“It helped tremendously; we could shift everything over. Our mission of the museum is to connect people with art and nature. When you shut down, that mission doesn’t go away. We just moved it online. And then when we come back- we’re back now – it comes back.”
Philbrook Museum of Art’s #PhilTheGaps initiative continued to connect people, inviting its community to join it through daily online content. The museum was able to do 200 programmes online during the lockdown, Stulen says, and to give a voice to many of the staff:
“We had lessons from our horticulture team about how to do a backyard garden. We had staff members doing DJ sets from their home. And we also had people doing art lessons for families from their home. If the mission is solid, you should be able to shift no matter what, and find a different platform.”
Philbrook Museum of Art and COVID-19
COVID-19 will, says Scott Stulen, drive a number of long-term changes:
“I think this is going to go a lot longer than people realise. We have adapted to partnering with a local drive-in movie theatre, and are doing a number of films out there. We’re doing Harry Potter, and have a thousand people already signed up for that.
“The Philbrook is finding ways to adapt a bit. But we’re also exploring doing some private sessions through the gardens. We’ve been limiting the number of people in various areas. We’re going to see a lot of touch screens go away, maybe forever.”
“All of us are going to need to find this in-between for a few years. The longer it goes on, the more it will cause lasting changes in how people interact. We lean so much on gatherings that bring a lot of people together, which puts challenges in place.
“But we are also concerned with thinking about how we create more socially distanced environments within the museum; how we think about food service differently; how we think about gallery design differently.
“Perhaps the biggest lasting thing is that a lot of museums have been living up to the edge of their means for a very long time. Pushing for more and more; more space, more collection, at times more staff, and the funding has just barely caught up with all of that. You should not have a system where three months of shutting down causes everything to collapse, and that’s what has happened.”
This, Scott Stulen says, is because these institutions haven’t been built with sustainability in mind:
“Even for Philbrook, we’re using it as a moment to reset internal processes, slightly downsize the museum so that we know the funding will be in place to weather these storms better into the future; to serve our community, and not feel like we’re one missed grant away from trouble.”
This is true, he points out, of many places. Philbrook Museum of Art is in a more fortunate position than most.
“We are, also having the confluence of so many different issues happening at once. We’re reckoning with systematic racism on top of labour movement, on top of COVID, on top of some of the issues that museums have been having.
“And museums are one of the places – not the only one – where all these things are coming together at once. It’s one fulcrum; you can’t deal with one and not the other, they’re all interconnected. If you can’t solve some of your financial issues, it is hard to solve some of the labour and even some of the race issues. They all need to be dealt with at the same time, not independently.”
Black Lives Matter
How does an organisation like Philbrook Museum engage with and reflect something as topical and urgent as the racist issues?
“In Tulsa, it’s even more unique, because the largest race massacre in United States history happened here 99 years ago,” says Stulen.
Racial violence erupted on 31 May 1921 in Greenwood, one of the most prosperous predominately black areas in America. By the morning of 1 June, an estimated 300 black people had been killed, and the Greenwood district was devastated by fire:
“We’ve been directly engaged with that, doing programming. We have a big exhibition for next year. But it involves creating a lot of partnerships and relationships. We need to have ways to give our platform over to other voices.”
“We are working hard. Right after this call, I’m going into a call with a local firm. With them, we’re doing a whole diversity inclusion and equity audit on the board and the staff and making that public.
“There is a lot more that we mean to do. Most of the museum field has a predominantly white staff; we are finding ways we can make efforts to improve that. Our board is more diverse in the last few years since I’ve been here; we’ve been able to make some bigger moves.
“There still is a long way to go. It’s on multiple fronts.”
The museum put out a statement in support of Black Lives Matter on 6 June.
“What was really important is that in that we had measurables,” Scott Stulen says. “Things that we could actually be held accountable to.”
An extract from Philbrook Museum of Art’s statement makes a number of undertakings:
“Today we share three projects representative of the work we will do to translate these words into enduring action:
- We commit to acquiring and commissioning the majority of new works for the museum from Black artists for the next three years, with a continuing commitment to acquisitions of works by Black artists into the future.
- We commit to an externally-guided Diversity Assessment of the staff, leadership, and Board of Trustees this year to surface and begin to correct inequities and to explore ways to better reflect the diversity of the communities we seek to serve. The findings will be used to develop an Advisory Council on Diversity made up of external stakeholders to hold us accountable to continued progress.
- We commit to the presentation of From the Limitations of Now, an exhibition in spring 2021 featuring the work of many Black artists who reflect on the tragedy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the long legacy of systemic racism in this country. While addressing violence, they also point to important ways art allows us to more deeply examine the past and to imagine the world otherwise. Programming will be crafted in partnership with Tri-City Collective.
“We have much work to do. It will not only require constant listening to you, our friends, members, partners, supporters, and critics, but also constant action and change in response to what we learn along the way. We are committed to that change and we will be measured by our actions.
“Black lives matter.”
“Part of this,” Stulen says, “Is we want to make sure that this action is something that continues on for decades. Not just something for this moment in time.”
The museum of the future
This brings us to the question of the museum of the future: what is it?
“I think this is the crossroads that we’re at, whether some museums realise that right now or not,” says Scott Stulen. “There are two paths right now, the question is, how are you going to be relevant?
“There is a handful of museums with incredible collections. They have the history of the world; they have those items that people are always going to come and see. But most museums aren’t that.
“The most important thing for the rest is about how you are going to connect to your community. How are we going to be meaningful to the people coming to the museum, the people that live around it, people that are inside of that geographic area?
“A lot of museums have always talked to this international audience, to this museum audience, while jumping right over the people in their own backyard. I think that’s the shift. Museums that are going to be successful going forward are going to understand the community piece, understand it’s not one-size-fits-all.
“You need to listen to who your audience is, to who you want your audience to be. And then be able to do things that fit that. This means having to be nimbler and more responsive.”
A good example, says Scott Stulen, is dealing with the racism issues now.
“Under normal museum practices, we’d do an exhibition three years from now about this. In reality, you’ve got to do something in three days. You’ve got to be able to speed everything up to the speed of the world.
“Museums have struggled with that, to be honest. Those that understand how they can operate in that space are going to do much better. And it’s about finding ways that you can do things that help your community. Rather than the museum being ‘an island entire of itself’.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, he says, Philbrook Museum of Art made a commitment:
“We were in financial peril along with everybody around us. We also had to furlough staff and go through a lot of these really difficult decisions.
“But even in that, we wanted to be able to give back to our community in a time of need. So we set up to give 10% of all of our membership dues that came into the Tulsa Area COVID-19 Response Fund.”
The Victory Garden at Philbrook Museum of Art
Another positive action was to increase the size of the edible garden and to seed a Philbrook Victory Garden. This focuses on produce with a high nutritional value. The idea is to increase the amount of fresh whole food to donate to community food banks
“We’re now producing hundreds of pounds of food every week,” says Scott Stulen. “That is going directly to the food shelf and helping people here in town.”
“Those actions are small, but they are ways of thinking about being more conscientious of the community around us, what those community needs are, and what resources as a museum we can offer to help that.
“Philbrook Museum is not a social service organization. I’m not saying we’re going to come in and solve education or solve homelessness or anything like that. But where we can, we will contribute, and think about what are the resources that we can offer.
“We’re not a frontline worker. We’re not out in a hospital helping those that have COVID. But there is an equally large need right now, and that’s people’s mental health. As this continues and it keeps going on and on, people are cracking. They need places to take their kids. They need places to just get away and they also need places that are not online.
“So the longer that we can be safe, and have people come and be able to go through the gardens, and go through parts of the galleries, and provide some mental health relief, we’re providing a really important service.”
Cats and mental health
A further mental health initiative involves Philbrook Museum of Art’s garden cats, as Scott Stulen explains:
“We have two cats; we had a third that retired recently. He’s living with a staff member in luxury now. We may also be adding a kitten, soon. The cats live in the garden and are probably the most cared-for cats in the world. They are fixtures with their own little plaque up in the garden. People come to visit them. They add to the whole environment.
“A big part of our mission is connecting people. Thinking about how people need someone to talk to, one thing we did during COVID is we did a pen-pal program with our cats. We put out a call on social media that if people wanted to write a letter to our garden cats, the cats would write back.
“Our staff, obviously, are writing those letters back. We’ve gotten thousands of letters from all over the world, even from people in prison. It has just been this amazing thing – about having an outlet.
“It’s all about connection.”