The Museum of Design Atlanta has experienced a year of dramatic change. It left the anonymity of a downtown office building for handsome digs with prime Peachtree Street frontage last March and, thanks to new visibility and active programming, has increased its membership from 51 to 1,000.
Year Two looks to be just as transformative: MODA has new leadership.
Brenda Galina, who shepherded the museum for six years and led this major transition, pleaded exhaustion and stepped down at the end of December. Laura Flusche, the former associate director, has taken her place as executive director. Flusche, a Renaissance art historian, came to museum work via the Institute of Design and Culture, which she founded while living in Italy. The institute paired art experts with travelers wanting custom tours.
“I came to appreciate the exchange with people outside the academy,” she says. “Although I loved teaching, I found I really enjoyed dialogue with people who had different life experiences.”
Flusche, who moved to Atlanta three years ago, enrolled in the Savannah College of Art and Design’s program in arts administration and joined MODA in 2010.
In addition, the museum’s board has honed its mission and its vision. This is good. “Everything is design,” the mantra that has governed the museum’s recent past, is too all-encompassing to be meaningful; its program has been scattershot, its identity amorphous.
Also contributing to the problem: the lack of curatorial expertise and small budget led the museum to depend, for its exhibitions, on the kindness of sponsors and design enthusiasts with little curatorial experience. Exhibitions from individual brands, such as “WaterDreams,” which featured bathroom products from Kohler, and others with no conceptual core turned the galleries into mere showrooms or, as with the current exhibit, “The South’s Next Wave: Design Challenge,” overcrowded, underwhelming window dressing.
The new mission — design that showcases the intersection of creativity and functionality — still covers a lot of territory. Flusche, who hopes one day to hire an in-house curator, promises a more rigorous approach to the museum’s choice of presentations, which will be key to building its credibility. Exhibitions on the roster look promising.
Coming up are:
“Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation,” April 14-June 30. Curated by Mina Marefat, an architect, architectural historian and professor at Georgetown University, this exhibit examines the late architect’s oeuvre — which includes the Saint Louis Gateway Arch, the TWA Terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport and Dulles Airport outside Washington — especially in terms of how his stint in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, during World War II influenced his design approach.
“XXO: Alternative Voices in Game Design,” July 14-September 1. Co-presented by MODA and Georgia Tech’s Digital Media Lab, this show will explore the world of “indie” video games, more diverse in range of ideas and emotions than the mainstream. Curated by Celia Pearce, director of Georgia Tech’s Experimental Game Lab, and a team of designers and scholars, the exhibition is also touted as the first to explore the work of women as video game designers and artists.
“Barrique: Wine, Design, and Social Change,” September 15-October 13. This exhibition spotlights a wine barrel (barrique) recycling project at an Italian rehabilitation center for youth, who learn viticulture, winemaking and woodworking. The oaken barrels they use for storing wine have a three-year useful life. The community engaged 30 designers and architects, including Marc Sadler, Karim Rashid and Angela Missoni, to design a piece of furniture using the wood from the discarded barrels, which the community then made.
“Paul Rand: Defining Design,” October 27-January 26, 2014. The father of such logos as IBM’s, Westinghouse’s, UPS’ and ABC’s, Rand set new standards for graphic design. The exhibition, curated by Daniel Lewandowski, a senior art director at Digitas, will survey Rand’s work in the context of his design principles.
Exhibitions, however, are only one aspect of MODA’s programming and in the future may not be the central one.
“To stay relevant, we need to find new ways to engage the public,” says board Chairman Bruce McEvoy. “And we need to move outside MODA’s walls.”
“Research shows that the audience for traditional exhibitions is declining,” Flusche notes. “People like more participatory experiences. I’d like to structure activities around design thinking and principles — design as a tool, as a verb and a noun.” The museum might, for instance, have a workshop in which participants design a logo based on Rand’s principles.
In some ways, MODA is ahead of the game in attracting younger audiences. The 18-to-35 age group is its largest demographic. “They tell us they like the environment, it’s not intimidating, and they are interested in design — they grew up with Apple,” Flusche says.
And the museum is recruiting future fans with Camp MODA. The Lego robotics program for children ages six to 14 is a perennial sellout. This year MODA will be able to offer scholarships, thanks to the Vernon and Vontae Davis Family Foundation, to 10 children from City Councilman Kwanza Hall’s Year of Boulevard.
MODA is also learning how to be a bigger organization. It has received a Community Foundation Toolbox Grant for strategic planning, and it has just hired a development officer, Barbara Richardson, who will develop a fund-raising plan. Its current budget is $725,000.
Growing its revenue has a certain urgency for MODA. The museum has enjoyed its new space rent free, thanks to its landlord, the architectural firm Perkins+Will, which also designed the museum. That arrangement will end in 2015.
Says Flusche, “We have to get ready.”