Museums Director Presents a Positive Frame of Mind
The Big Picture
Kay Simpson started working at the Springfield Museums as an intern from Smith College more than 30 years ago, and has subsequently spent her career at the Quadrangle. She’s had many titles on her business card in that time, most recently ‘president,’ after the Museums board dropped the adjective ‘interim’ earlier this month. Simpson arrives at that position at a critical time in the history of the museum complex, one where it will work to use the global popularity of Dr. Seuss to gain recognition and get to the proverbial next level.
Kay Simpson says she was in her office the last Saturday in February, working energetically to clear some paperwork off her desk, when she was told she had a call.
On the other end was a member of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff. He informed Simpson, president of Springfield Museums, that the Democratic frontrunner wanted to stage a rally in Springfield on the eve of the March 1 primary, and that team Hillary would like to place the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History in the mix as a possible site.
Upon hearing from Simpson that such an event was doable, the caller informed her that there was still some scouting work to be done, and that someone would get back to her.
Someone did, thus setting in motion a wild 48 hours that would culminate in more than 600 people jamming their way into the museum’s SIS Center to hear from the candidate and then vie to be one of the lucky ones to press some flesh.
For Simpson and the staff at the Museums, the visit provided a rare and “fascinating” — a word she used early and often to describe the process — look at campaign machinations and how such a detail-laden event comes together quickly and seamlessly.
More importantly, though, it became an effective — although how effective can be debated — and completely unexpected component of a broad and ongoing effort to raise the profile of the four-museum (and soon to be five) complex and take it to the proverbial next level.
Indeed, Matt Longhi, director of public relations & marketing for the Museums, who tracks such things, said the list of news outlets that mentioned the institution by name in their reporting of Clinton’s visit was lengthy. It includes the New York Times, the Globe & Mail of Toronto, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe (although the front-page story in that publication mentioned only a “Springfield history museum”), the Boston Herald, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the International Business Times, in addition to all the local outlets.
What do all those mentions mean? Simpson said it’s difficult to measure it all and quantify how much it helps provide visibility, but she stated the obvious by noting, “it certainly doesn’t hurt.”
And, as mentioned, the Clinton visit is only one out-of-the-blue element of the profile-raising effort, the largest component of which involves a name with much more star power in Springfield than Clinton — Ted Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. The museum that will bear his name and house many of his works — not to mention some of his famous bowties — is now under construction and expected to open in roughly 15 months. (That timetable for opening, one that has been pushed back from the original plan, will coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden).
The Seuss museum is expected to increase visitorship by a full 25%, to more than a half-million annually, Simpson noted, and attract fans of the children’s author from across the country and around the world.
The Seuss museum represents a key opportunity to introduce, or reintroduce, the Quadrangle to generations of people, she added, and thus she and her staff are ultimately charged with making the very most of that opportunity, a challenge she doesn’t take lightly.
“Marketing is just a constant effort for us,” she noted. “But of all the things you can pull out of your toolbox, Dr. Seuss is something you have to take advantage of, something you need to exploit. This is a really exciting opportunity for us.”
The Seuss museum is obviously the top line on the to-do list for Simpson, who has spent her entire career at the Quadrangle, was named interim president last summer, and was recently told by her board to drop the adjective from her business card, which she has.
She told BusinessWest that her ascendency to president — the latest in a series of career opportunities that have kept her at the Springfield landmark for more than 30 years — coincides with a pivotal moment in the institution’s history.
For this issue, she talked about how that moment is likely to unfold, and what it means for the Museums — and the city of Springfield.
Art and Soul
While it was large in scope and logistically challenging in some ways, Clinton’s visit to the Quadrangle was hardly disruptive, said Simpson.
The rally came on a Monday — the Museums are closed to the public that day — and that meant there were no interruptions to schedules or inconveniences for visitors. And although the Museums’ security staff was quite involved with that aspect of the production, Clinton’s staff brought all its own equipment and handled all aspects of the set-up for the event.
“Everything just came together — it was incredible; once they understood our facility, they really took care of things,” said Simpson, adding that this was fortuitous, because she has enough on her plate already.
At the top of that list would be a $7 million capital campaign, now in the so-called ‘quiet phase,’ that will fund not only the Seuss museum (a roughly $3.5 million endeavor) but also improvements to the other museums, especially the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the welcome center, which must be expanded to accommodate the projected rise in visitorship.
As for the Seuss museum, it has a number of moving parts, everything from the finalizing of exhibits to the construction of an elevator in the historic, but not handicap-accessible, William Pynchon Memorial Building, to finding a home for those bowties, which were purchased by Dr. Seuss Enterprises and donated to the Museums.
Overseeing all this, on top of a host of other responsibilities, represents a quantum leap from Simpson’s first job description at the Museums, the very informal one handed to her as an unpaid intern from Smith College, where she was majoring in Art History.
“I was a volunteer, and it was a great experience — I loved what I was doing,” she said. “And I never left; I kept getting opportunities that kept me here.”
Elaborating, she said there were times over the years when she was presented with opportunities at other, sometimes larger and more prestigious institutions, but circumstances kept her feet planted in the complex off Edwards Street.
“Every time I had entered into a discussion or was asked if I would be interested in applying for a position at another museum, something happened here,” she went on. “So it was really serendipity, and I never thought I’d stay as long as I have. But I really love these museums.”
While her business address has never changed, the title on the business card has, many times, and those positions have enabled her to be a part of almost every aspect of museum management, from education initiatives, which is where she started, to outreach programming; from grant writing to fund-raising. The list of titles she has held over the years speaks to the depth of her experience. It includes education assistant, assistant curator of education, curator of education, public programs administrator, director of museum education, director of education and institutional advancement, and vice president.
It was in that last position, which she assumed in 2010, that she played a key role in setting institutional priorities and strategic planning, and also coordinating the organization’s successful application for accreditation by the American Alliance for Museums in 2013, a designation bestowed on only 6% of the nation’s museums.
Following the departure of Holly Smith-Bove last June, Simpson was named interim president, and soon thereafter was asked by the board to prepare a 90-day plan, with the goal of initiating a search in the fall.
However, when the calendar turned to September, board members instead asked for another 90-day plan, she went on, and in December, they called off plans for a search altogether and unofficially dropped ‘interim’ from her title. It was formally removed last week.
Simpson said she has seen a great deal of change at the Quadrangle over the past three and half decades, including the opening of the Wood museum and the sculpture garden, the launching of the Seuss museum, the centralization of the Quadrangle museums, and a great deal of progress in that historic area of Springfield. And she’s excited about the prospects of helping to write the next chapter.
Display of Optimism
As she used that term ‘next level’ and described efforts to reach it, Simpson said this was not necessarily something quantitative, such as a list of top museums nationally, or even qualitative.
Rather, it represents simply marked, and continuous, progress in efforts to make the Quadrangle a true destination and a big part of efforts to revitalize the City of Homes.
“The obvious goal is more national recognition,” she said in defining ‘next level.’ “The more that we are known on a national level, the more we’ll be appreciated — not only here, in our own backyard, but across the region and the country.
“Our collections are extraordinary, and we’re definitely first-class in terms of our exhibitions and our facilities,” she went on. “For us, the challenge is to become better-known in terms of marketing, in terms of people knowing that we’re here.”
And the Seuss museum, which will be the only one of its kind in the world, is at the very heart of those efforts.
Simpson said many of those who have come to the sculpture garden over the years have done so with expectations of visiting a Seuss museum, and some voice both surprise and disappointment when they find out there isn’t one.
This anecdotal evidence, coupled with the truly global reach and popularity of the children’s author — an estimated 60 million of his books have been sold worldwide — lead to those projections of a 25% increase in visitorship, said Simpson, who believes those numbers are realistic.
And they’re impactful as well, she said, adding that the additional visitors attracted by the Seuss museum will hopefully find not only some or all of the other museums at the site, but other attractions in Greater Springfield as well.
“Many who come to the sculpture garden will express surprise and say, ‘I didn’t know you had four museums here,’” she told BusinessWest, adding that a good number will explore those facilities and the city that surrounds it.
Another 100,000 or more visitors to the Museums would increase that already-significant impact, she went on, adding that the Quadrangle is thus positioned to be a significant role player in a city-wide resurgence she says is unfolding, exciting to watch, and rewarding to be part of.
“I think the Museums are already a destination, but we can’t be an island; we need to be part of the fabric of the city,” she said, adding that ongoing efforts to create a stronger, more cohesive fabric are very encouraging.
“It’s been very exciting to see the culturally related organizations and other businesses come together and establish the cultural district and get state designation for it,” she went on, in a reference to what’s known officially as the Springfield Central Cultural District, or SCCD, as it’s known to some. “And also all the work that the city of Springfield is doing, including Union Station, the innovation district, the work of the Business Improvement District, and more.
“This collective energy is what will really transform Springfield,” she said in conclusion. “And it’s exciting to think that the Springfield Museums are a big part of that, and that Springfield is on the verge of being able to revitalize and re-energize the city as a destination.”
Brush with Fame
As she walked with BusinessWest and posed for a few photographs in the history museum, Simpson marveled at how quickly and completely all traces of Clinton’s visit had vanished.
The only remaining evidence was a Channel 40 news crew getting some footage for the upcoming 5 o’clock news near the front entrance — yet another bit of exposure for the Springfield Museums.
Future steps to raise the profile of the institution will be more elaborate, detailed, and, hopefully, far-reaching, she said, adding that her focus is on the big picture, in every sense of that phrase.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]