A New Chapter

By Kevin Tankersley

Art Center welcomes new CEO and opens new downtown building

Doug McDurham has years of experience in nonprofit management and a lifelong love of the arts. That’s part of what brings him joy in his new role as CEO of Art Center Waco. He began his new job August 9, joining the Art Center after nine years as director of strategy and programs at the Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty at Baylor University. Prior to that, he spent 13 years as CEO of Communities in Schools of the Heart of Texas. He’s married to Robin McDurham, who is CEO of Transformation Waco.

Jill Michaels, the chair of the Art Center board of trustees, said that “in the process of building our new building, we’ve tried to be completely locally sourced, and that’s not an exception in hiring a director.”

Michaels said that as the board’s search committee looked at candidates for the position, “it was fairly clear to us that Doug was going to be a really good fit for Art Center Waco at this time. We were just thrilled that everything came together.”

Art Center Waco was established in 1972 and was housed in the summer house of the William Cameron family, on the campus of McLennan Community College, from 1976 until 2017. The center’s new home, at 701 South Eighth Street, was in its final stages of construction when McDurham and Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley met for coffee and conversation at The Olive Branch downtown.

WACOAN: How are things at the Art Center?

McDurham: Going well. I’ve been there almost a week, and I’m super excited. I was over yesterday, checking out the building; they were putting in the cables for tech stuff and getting the TVs set up in the event space. It is a super space. It’s just a block-and-a-half from the Silos. [MCC] was a great location and served us well for many, many years.

I’m very excited about being downtown. I have worked downtown for almost 20 years now. I don’t think you can call where I live downtown, but I’m close to it, sort of at the edge. I think of myself as a downtown person. I’m excited about being closer to all that’s going on with Waco right now.

I’m really interested to see how we can become a part of the tourist experience to Waco as well. We’re going to have some great exhibits, and I think it’ll be a good way to draw in some families as well.

WACOAN: When is the projected opening?

McDurham: We’re getting pretty close. I talked to the builders yesterday, and it could be as soon as a couple of weeks. We had tentatively been talking about September 9, as ribbon cutting. As is often the case, some things about the process have been a little bit slower, so that’s not carved in stone.

WACOAN: What attracted you to this job?

McDurham: So, two things. I am a social worker by background, and most of my career has been spent in nonprofit management of one kind or another. From one perspective, this is a nonprofit that was in need of strong leadership. As I looked at it and talked to board members, I felt like there were some skills and strengths that I brought to it. I was just very excited about the challenge of it all.

On the flip side of that coin, I have no experience in arts management. Robin, my wife, and I love art. We travel to go see exhibits and plays. We went to Santa Fe, [New Mexico,] last weekend for the opera and to visit a specific gallery we wanted to see. So this just seemed like a great way to be able to [combine] those two aspects of who we are.

I’m 57. I’ve spent a good amount of my career in specific areas that have been very rewarding and that I felt very good about, but it just felt like a good time to do something that was very personally nourishing.

WACOAN: Where are you from?

McDurham: I grew up in Memphis and a small town, Brownsville, just about an hour out of Memphis.

WACOAN: How did you meet your wife?

McDurham: I was working at a summer camp in ’89 as camp photographer, and through the lens of my Canon AE-1, I saw this gorgeous young woman arriving at camp with her suitcases in hand, stepping off the shuttle from the airport, and snapped a photo of her. Camp staff weren’t allowed to date, so we had a secret date about a week and a half later.

We went back to that site on the Pecos River, where we had a picnic, last weekend and had our 30th anniversary back in December. But she’s a Texan, and so that’s how this Tennessee boy became a Texan.

WACOAN: Having grown up in Memphis, are you an Elvis fan?

McDurham: I am an Elvis fan. My dad went to high school with Elvis. They were in ROTC together. They were a couple years apart. Dad knew him and tells a couple stories about him.

[Dad] was away in Okinawa during the Korean War. When he got home, his father took him out for a drink, and his dad, my grandfather, said, ‘Oh, I want to play you a song on the jukebox. It’s a local boy who’s becoming famous.’ And Dad said, ‘Oh, I know him.’

WACOAN: I might have an Elvis shrine in my living room.

McDurham: I’ve got a yearbook that has a tiny little picture [of Elvis] in it. They didn’t do individual pictures. He was a sophomore the year my dad graduated. I have [my dad’s] senior yearbook, and there’s a class picture, not individual pictures, of other classes.

WACOAN: What gallery did you go to in Santa Fe?

McDurham: The LewAllen Galleries, and we went to several others. Site Santa Fe is a museum that was across the street that was fascinating; one exhibit in particular was really cool. But we went to LewAllen, and Jivan Lee. Brad Settles, a local artist and friend of ours, recommended it. And the opera was the highlight of the trip.

We’d been wanting to go to the Santa Fe Opera for decades. One of our first dates was ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the park. We’re big Shakespeare in the Park fans and members of Shakespeare Dallas. And so one of our first dates was ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in a park in Santa Fe, on Museum Hill. So when we saw that the opera was doing ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and it’s an outdoor space, we had to do that.

There’s a Shakespeare company that was doing Shakespeare in the Park at the [Santa Fe] Botanical Gardens on Museum Hill. That was, hands down, the best Shakespeare in the Park we’ve ever seen. As far as the dialogue and the acting, it’s probably the best live Shakespeare we’ve ever seen.

WACOAN: What are your goals for the Art Center?

McDurham: It’s kind of funny. I come at this through a social work lens. I’ve worked in a lot of community centers over my life, and I really think of the Art Center as a community center.

The methodologies and the means for bringing people together, the reasons may look different, but at its core, it is a community center. And it is a place for us as individuals to be able to be introspective and connect with ourselves better and our understandings of who we are as people as we interact with fine art that speaks to us in different ways.

It’s a way for people to interact with each other through classes and activities and programming. It is ideally a way that we connect with the natural world in a different way and we view the environment that we’ve been blessed with. And it’s a way that we encounter our own culture in a new way, but also other cultures.

Ideally, an art center — and my goal for the Art Center — is a place where we are challenged in the ways that we view the world by our encounters with art and by our encounters with culture. So we are allowed opportunities to see the world through not just a different perspective, different eyes, but a whole different cultural way of experiencing the world. And so we come away with a richer experience.

I’m just really excited about having quality, state-of-the-art exhibit space with quality, fine art exhibits.

We’ve got the first one on the books. We’ll have an opening on October 20. It’ll be Kermit Oliver. I’m super excited about his work, him as a person, his life and his history. The opportunity to open the Art Center with him is just humbling.

WACOAN: That’s a pretty strong opening.

McDurham: Yes, I agree. And we’re going to have some amazing and surprising pieces. It’s a great start.

The classroom space is great. I was over there walking through it again yesterday. There’s really sort of two spaces that I want us to be. One is [for] everybody, and you don’t have to be talented. Everybody benefits from just sticking their hands in clay and getting paint on your clothes and just expressing yourself and having an opportunity to learn and to make and to be. That’s really for everybody.

I also want us to be a place where we are specifically identifying who are people in our community, who are children in particular, that really do have a talent, and are we doing our job as a community in nurturing that and helping them become the artists that they can be. In a community with the high levels of poverty that Waco has, there are a lot of students who just don’t have the opportunities that they should. Schools are underfunded, opportunities can be scarce.

So I really want us to be connecting with neighborhoods, with communities, and providing those opportunities for everybody, but also those spaces where, when an art teacher says, ‘This kid really has potential,’ then how are we helping nurture that as a community?

WACOAN: How is the Art Center funded?

McDurham: A mixture of ways. We have grants, local and from other communities. Donations. Sponsorships of events. And then we have event space. At MCC, we had some great space that was much beloved by the community, and our new building also has a space that I think is going to become equally sentimental to folks.

It is a fantastic space. It’s got some big doors that will open to a back area so it can be a combination of indoor-outdoor. Sculptures will be right there. It’s a really spectacular space.

WACOAN: Speaking of which, is the outdoor art you had at MCC being moved over?

McDurham: Much of it will be. Not everything. We’re in conversations with MCC and conversations with artists.

WACOAN: How do you decide which artists will be featured in your exhibits?

McDurham: As someone who is four days and an hour into the job, I’m not sure that’s one I can answer for you. Lance Magid [vice chair of the Art Center board of directors] has been taking the lead on our curating.

We’ve got such a fascinating group of board members. I knew some of them well and some of them by reputation. There was only a small handful that I did not know before I started this process. But I was working on a proposal last night and was having to gather bios on everybody. Just reading [those] and realizing even more fully, how rich lives these folks live — and I don’t mean financially, but just how many of them have been engaged in art in different ways. And so the board has really taken the leadership on a lot of the management of those kinds of things for a little while.

Lance is working right now on planning out the first two years of exhibit space. So the exhibit space when you see it, there’s one big room that you walk into, and then there’s two smaller rooms to the side. It’s structured so that it can all be used for one exhibit, or the two smaller rooms could be a separate exhibit, or the two smaller rooms could be two separate things, and then with the movable panels that would be in the middle of rooms, the event space can also be used as exhibit space.

WACOAN: What kind of art do you like?

McDurham: So outside of visual art, I mentioned we’re huge Shakespeare fans. I hate reading Shakespeare. As an English major in undergrad, I didn’t enjoy studying Shakespeare academically. But we love watching Shakespeare, and we really love watching Shakespeare outside in particular.

Robin and I have a specific backpack designed for packing with wine and cheese. In fact, we were at Dallas Shakespeare not too long ago, and Robin accidentally shot the champagne cork halfway across the crowd. The patrons were not amused, I think is how I worded it on my Instagram post.

In terms of visual arts, we’re members at the Kimbell [Art Museum in Fort Worth], and the Kimbell’s sweet spot of European art, impressionists, maybe a little bit before impressionists, are probably some of our favorites. We’ve always loved those shows. For whatever reason, I’m a huge fan of Caravaggio and his school. I had a chance a couple years ago in Rome to track down the churches where Caravaggio paintings [are displayed] that he had done for that space. So they’ve been there 400 years and not moved around, not sold. They’ve been like in that spot.

And then I like Keith Haring. I’m an ’80s kid. I lived in New York for a little while in the ’80s. And [Jean-Michel Basquiat] and Keith Haring and some of those artists I find appealing. I have pretty broad taste.

WACOAN: Is the ‘Imagine’ tattoo on your arm an homage to John Lennon, or does it mean something in a bigger sense?

McDurham: It’s both. I refer to it as my constant meditation to imagine a better world. Its roots are in the song, of course, and it is actually the font from my college typewriter.

The summer that I was 20, it was the first time that I went and spent a few months in New York City. I was working in Neighborhood Center in Harlem. My first week there, my brother wrote a letter, and it began, ‘How are you? I am doing fine.’ From the letters of the ‘I am doing fine,’ about 30 years later, he took the letter and scanned it and then gave me this.

Kegan [Eastham], a tattoo artist who went to MCC and lived here in Waco for a few years and is in Austin now, did both of my tattoos. It was put there on purpose. I’m right-handed, and so it really is intentional there as a constant reminder, constant meditation, imagining a better world.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know about you or the Art Center?

McDurham: I’m super excited. I’m learning a lot. I’ve got a great board that is incredibly knowledgeable. We’ve been without an executive director for a little while. We have some great staff, but without a position like this and we’ve been without space, it just feels like an exciting time to be able to do some new things, do some exciting things.

WACOAN: Coming in without an arts background, how important has the board been to you in your transition?

McDurham: Very much so. I would also want to give a huge shout-out to Fiona [Bond, executive director of Creative Waco]. She is a community treasure. She was actually a part of the interview process. At one stage, the candidates spend some time with Fiona. It was about having an opportunity to talk with someone about the local art scene and kind of give an understanding and just some dialogue.

I said to her during that, one of the exact same things I said to you, but I said it a little more bluntly. I said, there are days where I feel like this is just a natural progression. I have experience in managing nonprofits and working with boards. I consult with a lot of nonprofits. This doesn’t feel like a stretch. On the other hand, there are days where I feel like this is preposterous. There are people who spend their whole careers getting advanced degrees in arts management, and for me just to step in and say, ‘Well, I can do that, too,’ is rude and ridiculous.

Her response was, ‘I hear you. Everything you say makes sense. But if anybody could do this, it would be you.’ And what really came out of that conversation was me saying, ‘So if I get this and this does happen, I know you’re super busy, but can I sign you up officially as my mentor? Like, set a standing meeting where I get to just pick your brain and [ask] how does this work or what’s the normal response to this?’ And she’s like, ‘Absolutely. It’d be an honor.’ So I’m super excited about getting to work with her in this capacity.

WACOAN: Since you came to Waco in 2000, how have you seen the arts scene in Waco change?

McDurham: I would tie it with downtown development. It’s not completely so, but I think just the vitality. We’ve got a long history of artists locally, doing their work and being amazing, but the scene around it, I think, has really blossomed, especially over the last few years.

I think about Katie Croft and when she first opened Croft [Art] Gallery — in the space that [Cultivate 7Twelve] now occupies — and started doing opening night events on First Fridays, the music and hors d’oeuvres and a big hoopla. That just felt like a turning point for me in a lot of ways. And I know that she wasn’t the first to do something like that, but that was also corresponding with interest in downtown. It was also corresponding with the explosion of social media as a force, so people are Instagramming pictures of opening night events, and it just became such a thing. As other places have opened and with other events and entities and activities, it’s just felt like a natural progression.

One of the things that is really important to me is that the Art Center is culturally appropriate to all of our communities and all of our neighborhoods and all of our folks. As a little bit of an outsider from the art world, art and art history, the ways that our history is taught and perceived can be very much from a dominant culture perspective. I really want to make sure that we are exhibiting artists of color, that we are exhibiting art styles and art forms that come from communities of color, come from other cultures.

I want to make sure that our educational programs are super inclusive and done in ways that we’re not elitist, that we’re not something that you have to be well resourced in order to participate.

I’ve had very preliminary conversations with Alfred [Solano, president and CEO of the] Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Peaches [Henry, president of Waco NAACP] about collaborating. I’m going to do some listening groups where I’m just hearing from folks. How do we make sure that we are relevant to your communities? How can we make sure we’re not isolated from where you are?

One of the things that I want to do is really explore how we do professional development for art teachers that is focused on diversity. Those are important issues to me.

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