November 13, 2017
Executive Profile

Kim wants to raise profile of N. Britain art museum

HBJ Photo | John Stearns
HBJ Photo | John Stearns
Min Jung Kim sits inside a New Britain Museum of American Art's gallery featuring a regionalist painting: a colorful five-panel mural, “The Arts of Life in America” (1932), by Thomas Hart.

VIEW: Executive Profile: Min Jung Kim

Min Jung Kim

Director and CEO, New Britain Museum of American Art

Highest education: Master's degree in art history, The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 2013

Executive insights: There is no silver bullet in any situation. It takes hard work, often juggling multiple projects and possibilities simultaneously to diversify your risks and opportunities and at the same time keeping your eyes on the prize with the long view in mind because things don't always happen overnight.

Min Jung Kim, director and CEO of the New Britain Museum of American Art, often hears people refer to the institution as a hidden gem.

"On the one hand, that's fantastic, and I want to retain our jewel-like, gem-like quality, but at the same time not make it so hidden anymore," said Kim, who joined the museum two years ago, replacing Douglas Hyland, who retired after 16 years.

Kim is attempting to bring more attention to the museum — opened in 1903 and billed as the oldest museum dedicated solely to American art — one exhibition, program, event, partnership and visitor at a time.

The museum, on Lexington Street abutting Walnut Hill Park, completed a $10 million, 17,346-square-foot expansion in Oct. 2015 as Kim arrived, enlarging exhibit and education space by about 40 percent. Still, it can only show at one time about 4 percent of its roughly 8,300-piece permanent collection, spanning from 1739 to the present.

The museum, now encompassing 70,346 square feet, borrowed about $2.2 million to fund completion of the project and expects the line of credit to be mostly paid off in two years, its annual report said, adding that fiscal 2017 proved challenging with contributed and earned revenues less than budgeted and operating expenses exceeding revenues by $659,000.

But investment returns were strong, allowing the museum to tap $1.2 million from its endowment to support operations.

While cash is tight now as the museum pays off its debt, relief is ahead, Kim said, focusing on the long view. As the expansion translates to additional programs and exhibitions and as programs, audiences and the museum's brand further develop, financing will work itself out shortly, she said.

John Howard, chairman of the museum's board of trustees, said Kim was hired following a national search to be a change agent.

"We can't pretend to be the same museum forever, we've got to grow with the times and do things to kind of help raise the profile of the institution," he said.

The board believes Kim can do that. She has key contacts in the museum world that Howard expects will bear fruit over time. For example, the recently concluded "California Dreaming" exhibition — which celebrated the work of California artists Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha, who were instrumental in the California avant-garde art scene in the 1960s — attracted important museum scholars that hadn't visited before, he said.

One thing Kim, 47, did was broaden the definition of American art, in part to reflect New Britain's diverse population.

An early exhibit of hers at the museum was "Vistas del Sur: Traveler Artists' Landscapes of Latin America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection," which Kim called perhaps the world's best collection of Latin American art. It was the first show there with labels in Spanish and English, and included Spanish tours.

Seeing Latino students recognize the language spoken at home and point to scenes of their parents' or grandparents' home countries was the kind of sight she hopes to repeat.

Another show, "Ghana Paints Hollywood," opened Nov. 9 and features African artists' paintings of posters for 1990s American movies to help promote the films in Africa. The paintings, on flour sacks, were often done without artists seeing the movies and reflected what they thought the movies and America were about and what American popular culture represented, Kim said.

Kim also established a relationship with the new Delamar hotel in West Hartford, which, for its membership, received art to display. It's a way to promote the museum to West Hartford residents and hotel guests and also create program opportunities at each location.

Kim also partnered with Art Bridges, a new nonprofit foundation founded by arts patron and philanthropist Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, which is focused on sharing American art.

Kim also plans to host a naturalization ceremony at the museum Nov. 28, another way to connect with new audiences.

"What better place to do that than at the oldest museum of American Art," said Kim, who also finds it meaningful after becoming a U.S. citizen 13 years ago.

Kim was born in Seoul and her parents, two brothers and extended family live there. The U.S.-North Korea tension concerns her greatly, she said.

Kim has a son, 8.

Kim came to the New Britain Museum from the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, where she was deputy director. Earlier experience included more than a decade in international programming and planning for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

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