Some people see appreciation of art as a passive activity that ends at the doors to the institution where it is housed.
To Dan Stetson, the new executive director of the Hunter Museum of American Art, however, creation and appreciation of art are parts of a healthy community.
“People should never forget the value of the art as a societal changer,” Stetson said. “It’s a broad, societal good.
“The arts are not a frill; they’re integral, even if it’s not of your interest. The arts represent vitality.”
Stetson took up his directorship May 1, leaving his 15-year directorship of the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Fla. He replaced Robert Kret, who served as the Hunter’s director for nine years.
Stetson said he was recruited by many institutions but accepted the position at the Hunter based on Chattanooga’s environmental beauty and burgeoning arts community.
Q: How does the Hunter compare to your last institution?
A: They’re both really similar in that they’re really ... organizations respected and used by their communities. One of the reasons I came here was the depth of community involvement in the people I met. A goal for myself and the institution is to broaden the involvement of community.
They are similar institutions, in terms of their missions and purpose. Their collections are subtly different, but the standards they hold are very similar.
Q: What does being an museum’s executive director consist of?
A: We do more now than we used to. You ... have to be very involved in public relations, marketing and development — areas that we have more obligation in, in terms of membership and fundraising growth and attendance growth. That can be a very different skill set from being a scholar about art.
- Age: 55.
- Family: Wife, Cathy Stetson. Daughters Kellee, 29, and Natalie, 25, and son Philip, 21.
- Education: Bachelor of Arts in art history from the State University of New York at Potsdam, Master of Fine Arts in museology from Syracuse University.
- Hometown: Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
- Birthplace: Oneida, N.Y.
Listening to live music, visiting art galleries, reading and biking.
“Chinatown,” “The Misfits” and “Citizen Kane.”
“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon.
Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews, The Beatles, My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists and Arcade Fire.
Delivering a penny-saver newspaper.
Dream celebrity roundtable
Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Bob Dylan.
An electronics-free stay at a lakeside cabin in the Adirondack Mountains.
A tabby cat, Marcel.
Another component is that you have to have a very good sense of business. I have to manage budgets, and I have to understand investments for endowments. I do, and I have learned a great deal about that over the years.
I am also the chief person, in terms of working on vision and plans for the institution, working with the board, which represents a community. The art collection is an asset that I hold very highly. The collection here has genuine masterpieces in it.
Q: How would you like to build the Hunter Museum’s collection?
A: Over time — in a very real, concrete way — with important works. There are artists who both our curators have on their wish lists. We’ll continue to look at that and buy when we can. We also are being offered some contemporary work as donations that we’re working on.
The vast majority of any art collection is through donation. [The collection] is really a representation of the community. It really becomes a reflection of the travel, the interest and the collections of the community you and I live in. I think that’s fascinating.
Q: What drew you to working with art?
A: I was very fortunate to meet the very famous folk artist Grandma Moses when I was about 5. She was discovered in my hometown and passed away up the street. I was encouraged one day to go up with my sister’s Girl Scout troop to visit her. I can’t say that’s why I do what I do, but I do know I was inspired by a great artist early in my youth.
I actually discovered that I wanted to be in community-based museums along the way. I like that, if you come and visit us, we won’t give you a test on the way out. I like self-directed learning. Lifelong learning is something I believe profoundly in. Art museums are an element of that.
I know art changed my life. It inspired me, and I know it can do the same thing to others if it did it to me because I’m not that special. Everyone is as special as I am.
Q: What is Chattanooga doing well, in terms of supporting the arts? What could it be doing better?
A: [The city is] doing a lot of things well, and they should keep doing them and maybe grow them. They need to keep making sure that live/work spaces are possible in terms of zoning, because artists live and work in the same place. Sometimes, you can’t live where you manufacture, and artists are manufacturers. They’re individual cottage industries. This city has invested in that in a way that shows. They shouldn’t forget the value of that, in terms of attraction.
Q: What role do you see the Hunter Museum playing in helping build the cultural momentum of programs like ArtsMove and Public Arts?
A: I’ve been involved in public sculpture and public art for years. For the last 10 years, I ran a national public art competition in Polk County in Florida. I love public art, and I know that the museum and the staff and myself will be involved in those roles.
I also think we’re an inspiration for visitors. I bet almost any Realtor who brings people in town, whether a commercial or domestic Realtor, we’re one of the places they at least do a drive-by of or point out across the river or step in. I don’t want to overstate that, but don’t underestimate the value of that, either, as an inspiration.
Also, we’re a great social place. I think people should never underestimate the role of the museum as a social activity site. The social aspect, where you can meet and mingle — I’m already meeting wonderful people at the Hunter Museum from all walks of life. Anybody can have that.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...