The Columbia Museum of Art’s new executive director seemed almost fated to end up in South Carolina’s capital city.
Della Watkins grew up in a “tiny town on a river” in Virginia, so she has a weird, nostalgic fondness for humidity, cities on the water and the bugs that go with it.
She spent 16 years in Virginia’s capital city of Richmond, and enjoyed being in close proximity of the general assembly.
And her son graduated from the University of South Carolina, so she made several trips to Columbia to visit during his time here.
She liked Columbia.
But she had no inkling she would end up here as the Columbia Museum of Art’s executive director. The announcement was made last week.
“Hiring Della was a stroke of brilliance for the Columbia Museum (of Art),” said Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where Watkins worked for 16 years.
“Della is a strategic thinker, she’s tireless, she’s experienced and she is also one of the most personable people I have ever known.”
Watkins currently serves as the executive director of the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, where she went in 2013 when that museum asked the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to find a director to turn around its struggling venture.
Watkins volunteered, and four years later leaves the Taubman Museum in good shape. Under her leadership, the museum completed build-out of the last remaining gallery space that now hosts major national traveling exhibitions. She also led the museum back to financial stability through steady fundraising, and established new collegial partnerships – something she hopes to do with USC and other colleges in the Columbia area.
Now that she accomplished her goals at the Taubman Museum, friends have asked Watkins, “Why leave?”
“That’s me,” she said. “I want to move somewhere I can help the community and make an impact.”
Unlike her last job, Watkins knows she’s not coming into turmoil and doesn’t have the challenge of turning the museum around. Her impressions so far are very positive.
“The team here is incredible,” Watkins said. “Everyone is professional, able and talented. My job is to get us to row together.”
One challenge for the staff is dealing with renovations for the next year that will create more galleries, more studios and more program space. Construction is scheduled to be completed in fall 2018 and will give the CMA more usable space, including more than 5,000 square feet of new gallery space.
“I’m attracted to the building project,” Watkins said. “I’ve seen what a difference a project like this can make. It gives a community an amazing sense of pride and ownership.”
Watkins is also excited about working with the CMA’s global collection, and about the museum’s potential of being a vibrant learning resource.
“I want to see the Columbia Museum of Art as an arts and cultural resource for everyone,” she said. “We can teach anything here.”
Watkins begins her job at CMA Oct. 1, and can’t wait to immerse herself in the community and make new friends.
That’s one of the reasons Watkins was chosen to lead the CMA, a winner of the prestigious National Medal of Museum and Library Service for its community outreach and programs.
“We heard it consistently from her current board and Mr. Taubman himself, one of Della’s greatest strengths is her engagement in the community,” CMA Search Committee Chair Earl Ellis said in a statement. “That was a very important factor in our consideration set. The Columbia Museum of Art is a community asset, and we were seeking a proven leader who had demonstrated strengths in community engagement.”
Watkins’ path to Columbia started in that tiny Virginia river town, Tappahannock. She discovered a love for art and history there, and at her father’s urging earned degrees in art history and art education at James Madison University.
And when her father asked what she was going to do with those degrees? She taught school for 14 years, at elementary, middle and high school level.
Then one day, a friend suggested she look at the classified ads. There she saw that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was looking for an art history major with a background in teaching.
“And finally I married the two things I love,” Watkins said.
Nearly two decades later, she still wakes up every morning excited to go to work.
“She represents everything you’d want in a great leader, from savvy business acumen to a kind, caring management style,” said Leon Harris, chairman of the board of trustees for Taubman Museum.
Hiring Watkins was the clear choice, CMA Board President R. Scott McClelland said in a statement.
“Her experience and passion allowed the search committee to check every box for leadership attributes essential to achieving the next step in the museum’s vision.”
Q&A with Della Watkins
What do you see as some of the biggest opportunities at CMA?
Watkins: “I’d like to continue to build ‘place’ and offerings so the CMA becomes part of the creative infrastructure that attracts residents, businesses, and visitors to downtown.
“The reinstallation of the permanent collection of art will transform the CMA into a dynamic, proud community fine arts resource and crown jewel in the state!
“I see many possibilities for new collaborations with neighborhood, civic, business, government, academic, arts & cultural and social groups.”
What are some of the challenges?
Watkins: “Other than the many months of renovations in the museum whereby some services and opportunities may be slightly compromised to our visitors, I use challenges as opportunities!”
What do you think of Main Street?
Watkins: “The downtown is teeming with construction, projects, activity, businesses, people, foods. ... I love the good energy and commitment to growth.”
Do you have ideas for more community outreach programs, like the museum has now?
Watkins: “Once the museum’s renovation is complete, the museum will be poised with new spaces and extraordinary art on view to roll out lots of new programming on site. You may very well see enhanced family fun, a college and university student series, lunchtime gallery walks and talks, art history and art making classes, social events centered around art, history and culture, and other programs the community may suggest. Off site, the museum will reach into communities to share our works of art, teach our children, and leverage opportunities to partner.”
Children: Two sons, Alan, 28, and Zach, 25
Where were you born? “Tappahannock, Virginia, an east coast river region, so I just love the hot, humid weather.”
College: James Madison University, degrees in art history and art education
Favorite books? “I read lots for work, so leisure reading is limited to an occasional mystery or bestseller.”
Favorite movies? “Oh, I like action, adventure, or spy-based films.”
Favorite TV show? “I’m addicted to Netflix series. ‘The Crown’ was great!”
Do you drink sweet iced tea? “I hate to admit it, but I prefer my tea half sweet/half unsweet. But I can be trained!”
What are your hobbies? “I enjoy oil painting, travel, walking, gardening, dancing, live music, and meeting new people. I cannot wait to make new South Carolina friends!”
Lezlie Patterson, Special to The State