Robert Burns has transformed the Mattatuck Museum into one of the region’s most vital art institutions where local artists are nurtured and celebrated.
Many people imagine that an art museum is a serene place to work. They often think museum employees work at a relaxed pace, and that everyone works in harmony, surrounded by beauty. Actually, the museum world is a complex subculture populated by specialists, whose work is demanding and deadline-driven. For decades, the museum world has debated the issue of what sort of person is best suited to run such a multi-faceted enterprise. Traditionally, art historians have set the standard, and curators became directors. In recent decades, board members tended to think business acumen was needed. But in this post-post modern era, it is clear that each art museum is unique, and each director must be selected to confront the particular challenges each institution and its community faces.
Five years ago, the Mattatuck Museum Board of Directors chose Robert Burns, the former Vice President for Development at the Olana Partnership, (the nonprofit support group for Olana State Historic Site in New York), as Executive Director. It is evident that they made the right choice. Burns is passionate about the museum’s mission: to be “…. a gathering place that nurtures creativity and learning through transformative experiences to encourage a deeper understanding of ourselves and our heritage”. With his outgoing, affable personality, Burns is a people person, an indispensable attribute if you are trying to bridge old divides and build new audiences. He is genuinely excited when he relates the growing tallies of families and children who are now regular Mattatuck visitors, and when he speaks about the throngs at openings. Like the best museum professionals, Burns regards the mission statement as a living document. It defines not only long range aspirations, but everyday goals. To reinforce the mission, Burns has also established a set of “core values”. Founded on his personal principles, the core values — accessibility, stewardship, community, education and inspiration — are printed on a museum office wall, a daily reinforcement of Burns’ priorities.
For Burns, embracing the idea of community is paramount. Realizing that the other art museums in the state focus on national and international art, he wants the Mattatuck to celebrate local artists. Since Burns arrived, dozens of emerging, mid-career, and established artists have been invited to exhibit their work, many of whom work in Litchfield County, (including Ann Mallory, Peter Kirkiles, and Christian Cesari, who have been featured in this column). This year alone, the Mattatuck has presented a staggering twenty-seven exhibitions, a schedule that is more typical of a commercial gallery than a museum. Though such an active calendar does not allow for the full complement of in-depth research, writing and publishing extensive catalogues, and other educational programs that usually accompany eight to twelve week museum shows, Burns has undertaken the ever-changing exhibition calendar in order to attract both new and returning visitors.
The museum will also contribute to the history of art with the pending exhibition, Jane Peterson: At Home and Abroad. Peterson (1867 – 1965) was an early twentieth century painter influenced by the Post Impressionists, but she used a bolder palette, and a more emphatic brush to render the landscape, people and things in her life. Mattatuck Curator Cynthia Roznoy is collaborating with Marisa Pascucci, Curator at the Boca Raton Museum to organize the exhibition and to write the supporting catalogue. Inspired by the Mattatuck’s recent acquisition, Tiger Lilies, a painting by Peterson, the show will open in Waterbury in November 2017 and then travel to three other museums in 2018: The Appleton Museum of Art in Oclala, Florida, the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina, and the Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, New York. This comprehensive assessment of Peterson’s work places the Mattatuck in the national museum arena, where reciprocal opportunities to participate in other important exhibitions and publications will certainly arise. Like all museum directors, Burns strives to fill gaps in the permanent collection. The addition of the Peterson painting helps to build the museum’s early twentieth century holdings. Work by women, artists of color, and mid-twentieth century acquisitions are also being sought via purchase and donation.
Originally from West Virginia, Burns studied theatre, with a minor in history at the University of West Virginia. After graduate school at the University of South Carolina, Burns was cast in several TV movies and commercials. He was also an extra on “The Guiding Light”, a job he secured on the very first day he moved to New York City. While building his acting resume, the young actor took a part time job in the development office at the Federation of Protestant Welfare. Burns enjoyed the development field, and subsequently assumed positions at the Ronald McDonald House in New York City, and CUNY New Paltz before he arrived at the Olana Partnership. He worked closely with the Olana curatorial staff to produce exhibitions, programs and publications.
Burns and his husband, Gary Schiro, director of the Hudson Opera House, live in Goshen, from whence they both commute in opposite directions. While renting their first home, the couple was searching for property to buy. The home they ultimately purchased was once owned by an Italian Marchesa who came to Connecticut after World War II. Initially, the house was not on the market, but they won over the reluctant seller with one of Shiro’s celebrated frittatas. Burns does not consider himself an art collector because he is concerned about favoring particular local artists, but he and Shiro do have favorite pieces that they have received as gifts. Though it is hard to imagine how either man has the time, they are both active in Goshen, where they have many friends, and support local causes. Among his many avocations, Burns enjoys boxing, as seen in the photograph below of the director sparring on the roof of the Mattatuck.
On October 6, 2016, Robert Burns was awarded the Main Street Waterbury Community Partnership Award for his leadership and his advocacy on behalf of the community. Burns serves on the City of Waterbury Mayor’s Art Advisory Council, and the Regional Advisory Council at Naugatuck Valley Community College. He is also a volunteer member of the Board of Directors of the Waterbury Development Corporation, Washington Art Association, and Main Street Waterbury.
We have only begun to see what Burns has in store for the Mattatuck Museum, the city of Waterbury, and neighboring Litchfield County. When asked where he sees himself in ten years, Burns said, “Right here. There is a lot more that I’d like to accomplish”.
144 West Main Street