By Kate Skelly
Sandra Harris is the Executive Director of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum (DCWM). Founded in 1960, the Desert Caballeros Western Museum is located in Wickenburg, Arizona, an hour drive from downtown Phoenix. The mission of the DCWM is to “welcome and enrich diverse audiences by inspiring an appreciation of the art and history of the American West through creative exhibitions and educational programs that preserve the West’s cultural legacy”. The Museum displays and interprets artifacts that defy stereotypes about Western art and history and connect people to the West by triggering intellectual and emotional responses. On the DCWM campus, visitors can stroll along a street of old Wickenburg that re-creates life in Arizona circa 1915, complete with a general store and saloon. The DCWM is also host to the popular Cowgirl Up! – Art from the Other Half of the West, a yearly event where women Western artists show and sell their work. In this Member Spotlight, Sandra discusses Arizona’s distinctive character and museums.
How are Arizona’s culture and museums unique?
Arizona is the 48th state, achieving statehood in 1912. Perhaps that explains the youthful energy in which possibility is endless, as well as a spirit of determination and love of a debate. The mix of cultures and motivations that influenced the area long before and into statehood is still what feeds traditions, politics, art and design. Arizona museums represent all of these complementary and/or competing factors in ways no other state can.
During your career you have directed museums in a number of large cities including the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, NV and the Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, CA. What are some of the differences you have observed between directing a museum in a small town like Wickenburg versus a large city?
Although small, Wickenburg has always been a crossroads for people traveling north, south, east and west. While the permanent population is not a large number, the influence of Phoenix, visitors and part time residents makes it feel larger. Being the only museum in town brings less direct competition but more expectation to be all things to all people. One very beneficial difference is the ability to call leaders like the Mayor, Town Manager or Chamber of Commerce Director and walk to their offices for a meeting on a moment’s notice!
Many museums rely on tourism in addition to their local community for visitation. How does The DCWM approach both types of visitors?
We are fortunate that tourists continue to seek out the type of Western experience Wickenburg provides. For visitors we invite them to immerse themselves in a place that cherishes its history and regional art, just an hour from a booming modern metropolis. This is actually the same appeal for residents as far as programming. One of our Strategic Plan goals is to be active and visible in the community. This takes us in many directions from having a student advisory group to holding free family days, having over 100 seniors as volunteers, being in local parades, hosting an annual exhibition for the local art club, or supporting other local businesses as often as possible.
What are some current trends in public outreach that you find particularly important?
The online world changes so quickly that it can be a challenge to adapt and know when/how to use various platforms. Crowdfunding is an area that shows particular promise for project based, community oriented development efforts. Connecting digital experience with use of our physical space in traditional and new ways is the link we want to make right now.
What would you like to say to attendees as they prepare for WMA 2016 in Phoenix?
Be ready to discover this year’s theme of change all around you. Phoenix is a vibrant, complex, challenging place that led many of us in WMA to the museum profession. The city and its museums are ever developing and deserve the thoughtful exploration that will happen during the conference. Welcome to the Valley of the Sun!