After Two Weeks on the Job, New President of Whaling Museum Has Only Positive Impressions

By John Sladewski
New Bedford Standard-Times

James P. Russell, the new president of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, poses in the museum’s Lagoda Room, where the skeleton of a right whale is being reconstructed for future display in the Jacobs Gallery.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Standard-Times on Tuesday interviewed James P. Russell, who was named in mid-September as the new president of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
An Attleboro resident, Mr. Russell, 43, is former vice president of the International Yacht Restoration School and Museum of Yachting in Newport, R.I.
Here is the transcript of the interview conducted in his office at the museum.
S-T: Mr. Russell, you have been here how many weeks now?
I’ve been here two weeks
S-T: Congratulations.
Thank you. It’s all great fun.
S-T: What do you see? What are your impressions?
Well, they’re all positive, I have to tell you.
Through meetings with the search committee and subsequent meetings with rest of the board, meeting staff and now as I meet civic leaders and community leaders and donors, each meeting tends to reinforce what I’d thought all along, which is that this place has got great history, great heritage, a great story and great collection. And perhaps most importantly, as was described by one of the volunteers at a volunteer meeting yesterday, we’ve got great human assets. We’ve got a terrific staff, a focused board, and a terrific volunteer and docent crew. So there’s a lot to work with here.
S-T: In scale, how does it compare to the place you came from?
It was the International Yacht Restoration School; that recently merged with the Museum of Yachting. It’s a similar scale. Slightly different missions, but nonetheless connected form the maritime point of view, and it was essentially similar in scale.
S-T: When you were interviewed by the board, what did they focus on? What were they looking for?
I have to tell you, that was a very thorough search, and there were a lot of good questions thrown at me by many people. They were looking at management background. They were certainly looking for somebody with an interest in and knowledge of running museums, maritime museums. Certainly fundraising was a component.
I would have to say that partnerships and working with the community was stressed at multiple levels. And the ability to engage many different constituency groups was underscored by numerous trustees and numerous folks on the search committee. I thought it was interesting that Bill Wyatt, who heads up the volunteer council here, was on the search committee. I thought it was interesting that Dave Prentiss (then director of the Buttonwood Zoo, now director of the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra) and Katherine Knowles (director of the Zeiterion Theatre) were on the search committee and they could ask questions that gave a more encompassing view and also brought in some interesting directions that may not have otherwise come up.
S-T: This museum was not always so involved in the community, not always so outward-looking. It was a very insular, closed, sleepy museum before Anne Brengle came here. And she turned it into something completely new and significant that it wasn’t before. She was very ambitious. She brought in the merger with the Kendall and the expansion with the Jacobs Gallery. Where do you take it from here? Where do you think this museum might be going?
Well, it’s a great question… Of course, I see the museum as it is now. I haven’t been following the organization for the past 13 years, although I have the highest regard for Anne, and I have to tell you she’s doing a hell of a job down at the Coast Guard Foundation. What a great move for her.
Having read the literature and having been briefed by the trustees, the organization has seen a tremendous leap forward, and of course as I look at the organization, I ask, what can I contribute?
There are many excellent directions which have been laid forth that need to be explored. And certainly, when it comes to driving the organization, being as inclusive as possible, as participatory as possible with different groups in the community and beyond, will certainly be a focus. Building constituencies step by step, block by block, I suppose will certainly be a directive. Already to that end we’ve had some good meetings within some of the — well, I suppose, in marketing terms, “constituency rings” — we had a terrific meeting the other day with some members from the Azorean community, and we plan to do some good work there. … So, absolutely that will be a thrust and we will continue the good work that Anne started.
You mentioned the Kendall acquisition. And I’ve been through a merger … when IYRS came together with the Museum of Yachting. Very often with a merger it takes time to taste, swallow and digest, and I think we’re still in the digestive phase with the Kendall. There’s so much potential here that we have yet to tap. There are many directions that we can take and many stories that we can tell (such as) uncovering and displaying the collections in a systematic and programmatic manner that has logic and theme built into it. Trying to tell the story in a way that looks at history but is relevant and interprets the state of affairs today. Creating conditions for staff to push themselves professionally and to discover new opportunities. (Those) will be some of the key hallmarks as we move forward here.
S-T: Yesterday I was at the salvage company looking at the bank records from the Merchants Bank. That is an entirely new aspect. You had a little display up on the balcony of the whaling office for years, but this brings in the entire economy in a microcosm. But that’s just one area. You could take this museum in the direction of politics, ecopolitics or natural history.
That’s right. Of course, this is why it’s so exciting, Steve. Anybody with a semblance of creativity will come in here, and of course a lot of sparks are going to go flying. … We just need to caution that it’s a function of capacity. … But you’re right, there are many directions we can take. I am going to deliberately be vague, and only because I don’t want to necessarily come out with a vision for the future in my first two weeks. I think that would be rather foolish. I want to get to understand this organization, get to know its idiosyncrasies and then well start making some suggestions.
We already know what our general thrusts are for 2009. The question that we’re already asking ourselves is: What is the thrust in 2010, ’11 and beyond? … Coming into Q4 in 2008, we have exhibits rolled out for 2009. We have programmatic elements which have been scheduled, and it’s a function of executing those and delivering on them at a very high level. The interesting question will be what happens on a macro level. Obviously we’re all concerned about the economy now … (and) we are in the midst of our annual campaign. It’s too early to tell whether we’re seeing a dip or slowdown in giving.
S-T: You must assume there is going to be one.
We are planning and as well looking at the 2009 budget. We’re already looking at tightening our belts, and we’re looking at it from the point of view of needs and wants. There are certainly a number of needs. We need to provide a superior visitor experience. We’re absolutely going to hold the line on that, and if anything improve it.
And, of course, what does this visitor experience mean? The visitor comes to us from a variety of different points. It could be the tourist from out of state, it could be the constituent or a member down the block, it could be the researcher who wants to come in to look at our research library.
S-T: You were making note of the crowds you have here today. It seemed remarkably busy. Do you think the attraction is shifting to more local people than it was?
Well, it might, and I think it’s true to say that when times get a little tough, people tend not to look at the vacation in the Caribbean and they may tend to look a little closer to home. Our marketing consultant called it “staycations.” It’s cute, but it does accurately describe the fact that people within a maybe 50- to 75-mile limit will look towards local attractions and take advantage of those as opposed to going elsewhere. So I think you’re going to see, from a tactical point of view, a marketing strategy that looks possibly more regional. However, I think it’s important that this museum recognizes its role in the community and recognizes that it’s got a message which is local, regional, national and international.
I can tell you we’re getting a lot of support for this from the mayor’s office and from the national park and a from group of execs that meets informally to discuss these matters. We are looking at strategies where we can project both within the region and also externally.
S-T: Now assuming you have all these programs and all these elements to pay for and maintain, can we foresee any less visible cutbacks for ’09 and ’10? What happens first if something has to happen?
I can tell you that as we’re taking our first pass at the 2009 budget, we’re investing in staff. We are making the logical assumption that we have assets here and we want to try to leverage staff and give staff the best possible platform to exert themselves.
Were looking at productivity, Aligning productivity. We’re looking at capacity issues. We’re looking at, well, what can we cut back? What areas aren’t absolutely necessary? But what we’re finding is quite interesting. I can tell you there’s a yearning on the part of my colleagues to show demonstrable improvement in the organization in ’09, and you will see it as early as January and February when we hang the right whale.
That project is not only going to be the largest visible exhibition that we’re going to hang this year (and probably for the next couple just based on its sheer size, 49 feet long). But it’s going to be hung in the Jacobs Gallery. We’re going to mount a whole series of events around it to promote it and promote its unveiling, and we’re going to do this in the quiet winter months, which is typically a quiet time for us, so we can build some excitement and bring some interest and bring some tourists downtown.
So that’s just an example of a very large capital intensive project which is going ahead. We don’t intend to slow down. There are elements here that we can push forward which are either revenue neutral, or we just simply build it in as a core and important objective so that folks in New Bedford see no visible sign of contraction at the organization. I think there is capacity in the organization. I know there is willingness among staff, and we’re going to work through this problem. We’re going to work through a contraction and we’re going to look at this in a very positive manner.
S-T: In the publicity surrounding your appointment, you were labeled a master fundraiser down there in Newport. In light of the museum’s national and international role, this museum has only in recent years started reaching out far afield for some serious contributions, the Jacobs Gallery being the biggest and most visible one. Is this going to be part of your fundraising strategy? What do you see there?
I think so. Newport is different from New Bedford in a variety of ways, perhaps culturally. Certainly in Newport there was a focus towards New York. And here there tends to be a focus more towards Boston. But I think the general thrust is correct. I think we have to recognize that and as we do look at our support base here, it starts growing somewhere over the Tiverton-Westport line and it tends to balloon up, and then it trails off somewhere along the Cape.
Well, that needs to change. The story here, I can tell you, is one that is more than just regional. It’s national, and it’s a story that’s more than national. It’s actually international. But I don’t think we necessarily have the capacity to exploit that at the present time. Certainly I will be looking towards strategies to engage national funders. What we have here is substantive. What we have here is critical. What we have here is a good story.
This is going to allow all boats to rise here, Steve. I think this is a rather interesting point. We need to look at this organization from the point of view of helping leverage other nonprofits in this area. We can apply for funds. We can go to constituents. We can go to groups. We can go to backers and tell a story on a broader, more national reach that other nonprofits probably can’t do. …
Yes, a large part of my focus in Newport was in raising funds and raising awareness. I often find raising funds is only as good as the product you sell, and I think you’ve got an excellent product here and we’re going to sell her aggressively.
S-T: Based on the foundation you have now, it’s a lot bigger organization and a lot more varied and farther-reaching than it was 10, 20 years ago. There is more on the plate to attract people from different angles. I mentioned to Mike (Dyer), the librarian, the idea that he might want to approach the UMass Dartmouth Charlton School of Business for some kind of grant or partnership in curating the bank records.
I think that’s a very interesting story that speaks very specifically to New Bedford’s important role in commerce very early on. I view it almost like what they are, primary research documents, and there’s food there for many a student, many a Ph.D. candidate, to go delving into, and that is one rather important element here that we would like to see promoted, and that is the use of the Kendall Institute. I mentioned this earlier when I said we’re still trying to digest this. Let’s get more scholars here, perhaps locally with UMass and perhaps more further afield.
But let’s start using the primary resources from the point of view of research, which of course in turn allows both the museum and New Bedford to be projected to national audiences as these studies or these publications come on line.
S-T: Is there anywhere I haven’t gone?
Well, we discussed community participation.
I would just like to reinforce that I would view that as a very expansive term and not just to look necessarily at communities who had a relationship with whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries, but to look at New Bedford today. Look at new communities in the city today, and make sure that how we present and promote and create an experience is relevant for all groups.
October 12, 2008
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