A conversation with Ann Kraybill, the new executive director of the Art Bridges Foundation – cialisdfr
A conversation with Ann Kraybill, the new executive director of the Art Bridges Foundation
A conversation with Ann Kraybill, the new executive director of the Art Bridges Foundation

In January, Ann Kraybill became the new head of the Art Bridges Foundation, which was established in 2017 by Alice Walton, perhaps the nation’s foremost art philanthropist, to expand access to American art.

Seven years, a pandemic and a national loneliness epidemic later, Walton’s core goal of helping people “feel connected, that they belong, that they are valued and cared for as a whole person” is becoming more relevant with each passing day in the ecosystem of the arts and the philanthropy in general.

In her new role, Kraybill leads Access for All, a three-year, $40 million initiative to cover access costs at 64 partner museums across the country, as well as the Art Bridges cohort program, in which museums collaborate to create exhibitions that deepening engagement with local audiences. “Art Bridges takes the collections of institutions that have deep holdings and takes them to small to mid-sized institutions that don’t have the resources to acquire art,” Kraybill told me. “Then we activate the arts by providing funding for training and innovative programming.”

Kraybill spent part of his childhood in New Delhi, India before putting down roots in Baltimore. After earning a graduate degree in museum education, she worked in educational roles at organizations in Florida and North Carolina before joining Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for its 2011 opening, which she called “a professional privilege of my career’.

Prior to joining Art Bridges, Kraybill was CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, PA, as well as CEO of the Wichita Museum of Art. In both roles, she partners with the Art Bridges Foundation to expand community access to a diverse range of artworks and programs.

I recently spoke with Kraybill about her working relationship with Alice Walton, why “fear of the threshold” keeps people away from museums, and the benefits of getting career advice from a stranger on a plane. Here are some excerpts from the conversation that have been edited for length and clarity.

You worked at Crystal Bridges from 2011 to 2018. How did the museum cross your radar?

After leaving my role in Florida, I moved to Durham, North Carolina and worked for the Durham Arts Council. Part of it was to be closer to family—my mom had moved from Baltimore to North Carolina, and I had just given birth to my first son.

The Council was a great organisation, but it had more of an administrative role and I realized I was a museum person. I started doing research on open opportunities and that’s when I discovered the Crystal Bridges Museum. It embodied everything I valued. He wanted to put visitors first. Art begins with great works of art, but none of that matters if you don’t value the audience and the attraction of people.

Is there a particular piece of advice you received at some point that has guided you throughout your career?

I spent almost eight years with Crystal Bridges and loved what we were doing. But I also wanted to take the philosophy of Crystal Bridges and apply it as an executive director or CEO of a museum.

I was applying for two different roles at the museum and I was on a flight and a guy sitting next to me said, “So where are you going?” I said, “I’m applying to be the director of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and the search firm told me I should to tone down my personality because their advice is a little more restrained.” And he said, using a very colorful term, “Empty that – you have to be yourself, because if you’re trying to sell them something that’s not true to you, you’re going to be exhausted.

He was absolutely right. I went into the interview as the most authentic version of myself that I could be, and that’s the advice I give to anyone in their career – be the most authentic version of yourself. Otherwise, this “fake it ’til you make it” advice encourages imposter syndrome and can backfire psychologically.

How often do you communicate with Alice Walton?

I contact her weekly and sometimes daily. It could just be very quick texts or a more formal meeting. Art Bridges is just one of the many entities she creates that connect art with wellness, and it’s great to get a deeper understanding of what motivates her. She is one of the most committed founders in everything she does.

It goes without saying that she has been instrumental in making Northwest Arkansas an international art destination.

And it’s not just art, but everything that comes with it – investment in the community, tourism, business. When I first moved here, there were two restaurants on the square. It now has a thriving culinary and entertainment scene. It was transformative.

Her concept of accessibility is based on the idea that entrance fees can be a financial barrier to entry, but if the visitor doesn’t engage with the work, you’re only halfway there.

Exactly. Entrance fees are a barrier, but you also have what we call “threshold fear,” which is when some people think, “Museums aren’t the place for me,” or “Maybe I’m just not that into art.” That’s why programming is so important because it makes an invitation that reducing or eliminating a fee cannot do on its own.

We want to create spaces where everyone feels represented and expand people’s perspectives on the American experience. Many of the museums we work with were founded in a different era and simply don’t have the acquisition budget to diversify their collection. Art Bridges is an important tool for them to expand their collections and have these conversations.

Can you name a museum partnership that embodies this ethos?

Our Art Bridges cohort program encourages museums to collaborate and share their collections. Our New England cohort is led by MFA Boston, and one of the smaller museums in their network is the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. Working with its partners, the museum created an amazing exhibition called A Face Like Mine, and the impact of its programming was enormous. It was a great example of museums breaking down barriers to be able to collaborate more and support each other.

I understand you’ve only been on the job for five weeks, but has anything surprised you so far?

What surprised me was diving deep into all the cohorts and learning how different they were. We have a leading institution whose director wants to build a cohort to support new museum directors. How cool is that? We have another museum putting together a cohort proposal to address climate change. I think this program has some real potential to address the issues that communities are facing, instead of us as a foundation being too prescriptive.

So it was exciting for me to learn a little more about these efforts in addition to increasing the amount of great artwork we can offer through our partners.

Any upcoming initiatives we should know about?

After five weeks, I can’t say I’m ready to announce another big initiative. We’re excited to hear from our partners about how access for all has impacted their work, and we’re thinking about how we can continue to roll out programs like this.

As a team we are preparing to enter our strategic planning process. From there we will have our road map. And then certainly, I can say, you’re going to start seeing initiatives at the intersection of how the arts can just fundamentally improve people’s mental and physical health.

You moved from Arkansas after leaving Crystal Bridges, and now you’re back. Apart from the amazing food scene, what else did you miss in your absence?

Well, first of all, I wish I never sold my house (laughs). I missed the art and nature here. The topography is magical—not just in Bentonville, but across the state. The state park system here is phenomenal. And then only personally I still have close friends here. So it’s great for me to be able to reconnect with them and for my kids to reconnect with their friends from almost six years ago.

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