by Lindsay Olsen
When you’ve already been a cyclist, a bartender, and a graphic designer, where do you find your next challenge? For Douglas Perkins, it was at his alma mater, Middlebury College, an historic liberals arts school nestled in the scenic hills of west-central Vermont. “As tends to happen in small-town communities,” he says, the opportunity to serve as coordinator for the campus art museum came unexpectedly, when a friend asked him to fill in during her maternity leave. Perkins stuck around, and eventually the role expanded until he was involved in most aspects of the museum’s day-to-day functions as Associate Director of Operations and Finance.
Having graduated in 1994 with a B.A. in Economics, overseeing the contracts, salaries, budgets, endowments, and acquisitions of an institution didn’t seem like much of a stretch. However, it was Perkins’s personal passion for brand management and advertising that led to his taking responsibility for the museum’s outreach efforts. Over the years, he noticed that the museum had fallen slightly on the list of the college’s priorities – somewhat understandably, he concedes, as running an active collecting museum is expensive when factoring in the costs of acquisitions, insurance, security, climate control…not to mention staff. As a result, Perkins would have to work extra hard to justify their continuing fight for resources.
To do this, he would need to bolster the museum’s connection with its core audience: the students. Despite the promise of the booming social media landscape circa 2010, Perkins found that his attempt to single-handedly build a digital presence wasn’t working as well as he had hoped without the time and staff resources necessary to carefully plan an online marketing strategy. So he hired three student workers to oversee peer outreach and event coordination, which included the development of a Thursday evening activities series called “Nights at the Museum,” designed to extend their hours and get more people into the building. With the elimination of the $15 student membership fee, all 2,600 Middlebury students became automatic members of the museum who receive museum outreach communications.
For the 250-300 art-lovers who pay dues to be involved in museum events (known as Friends of the Museum), Perkins felt it was important to uphold a unique and rather special tradition. Each November, Friends are invited to a purchase party, where they get the chance to view the art and vote on which pieces their annual contributions will buy. “But,” as Perkins reminds me, “the museum is a teaching collection, first and foremost. We never buy anything or accept any gifts unless we can say ‘this is something with which we’ll teach.’” As if to reinforce this, students in the arts disciplines have begun making presentations on the potential purchases. Some go on to serve as paid Museum Ambassadors, or docents, who work closely with local schoolteachers to provide material that is relevant to their curriculum. The immediacy of the process has forged a definite bond between the school and community, which Perkins hopes will continue. The area is rural, but the college “plays a significant part in the cultural goings-on of the region.” With the programs that have been developed over Perkins’s eighteen-year tenure, it seems unlikely that residents or college administrators will forget they are there.
For a listing of upcoming Nights at the Museum and an archive of past events, click here.