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Howie’s legacy of inclusion

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Lisa Howie enjoys the Shepard Fairy exhibition at the BNG during her last weeks as executive director (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Lisa Howie is a planner. At the Bermuda National Gallery she often had exhibits planned three or four years down the road.

So the next phase in her life is an anomaly.

On Thursday she announced she was stepping down after eight years as executive director of the City Hall art gallery.

What comes next is anybody’s guess.

“I’m taking a breather,” the 47-year-old said. “I’ve given lots of careful consideration to this and it was time for a change. This is the first time I haven’t had the next step planned.”

Her passion has always been education. She studied English literature and education in university, and then taught in Bermuda for 12 years.

She joined the BNG as its education officer in 2006 and became executive director three years later.

“In 2012 we started developing the early years programme for two to five-year-olds,” she said. “It introduces young children to the museum space, creates family experiences, and uses art for storytelling. We’ve seen 1,800 children from this age group since we started.”

She’s frustrated that that enthusiasm hasn’t extended to older students.

“I have never really understood why we have to work so hard to get schools to bring their students to the gallery,” she said. “It is free for students and the bus is right next door. I would like to see more students get on board.”

She made certain to also work on herself while in the role, taking courses in business management at Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education and Columbia University.

She also did a two-week internship with Thomas Campbell, the former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“It was fascinating,” she said. “The Metropolitan is a city unto itself, as the name would suggest. They have an encyclopaedic collection.”

One of the most controversial exhibitions under her tenure featured custom-built motorcycles.

“That raised some eyebrows,” she said. “This exhibition challenged people’s perceptions of what is expected in an art museum. The motorcycle is a functional form of design, which of course is very different from a traditional form of art expression, such as a painting. This exhibition placed the bikes on plinths as a form of sculpture and inverted the notion of high versus low art.

“And it wasn’t just that we featured motorcycles, it was the way we did it.”

Bike owners would come in on Saturday mornings to talk to gallery patrons about their experiences.

“Also, sometimes they’d want their bike back. So they’d take it back and we’d swap it for another one, so the exhibition was constantly changing,” she said. “That was one of our most popular exhibitions, and people still ask us when we’re going to do another like that.

“[BNG curator] Sophie Cressall came up with the idea for the show based on something she saw in New York.”

Ms Howie worked hard to make the gallery feel like a space for the entire community, not just the elite.

“I would love it if people felt that this was a place they belonged,” she said.

She is particularly proud of her work overseas, as an ambassador for the gallery and Bermuda itself. “A few years ago a Vatican museum staff member visited Bermuda,” she said.

“[BNG chairman] Gary Phillips and I gave him a tour of the BNG. He said if I was ever at the Vatican, to look him up.”

On a trip to Italy she took him up on his offer.

“We got into the Sistine Chapel on a really bespoke morning,” she said. “It was a very magical experience.

“That was during my holiday time and on my own tab.

“The bigger picture for Bermuda is that we now have a relationship with them in writing. They have said if we ever wanted to do an exhibition with some of their pieces, they’d be open to that discussion.”

She has her own art collection at home, but shied away from naming a favourite piece. “I am interested in work that I am compelled to look at again and again,” she said. “I am really interested in detail work, and also love abstraction.

“I have given a tour of my collection and had someone say it was very eclectic.”

One of her biggest challenges at the BNG was fundraising in Bermuda’s difficult economy.

“The non-profit sector has been hit the hardest in this economy,” she said. “I think that is the trickiest part.

“I don’t want to say it is scary as much as it just needs to be resolved. Every problem creates solutions. Perhaps there will be a new opportunity for economic growth emerging.

“We just wrote our annual appeal letter. The theme was ‘Can you imagine a Bermuda without the visual arts?’

“I really hope we don’t get to that strange place, where we have to make these serious cuts that stop our cultural evolution.”

As for the future of the BNG, she said the board was in the process of strategic planning.

“That is ongoing,” she said. “I think they will take the opportunity to take pause, as I am doing, and have a look at where they want to go next.”

Lisa Howie enjoys the Shepard Fairy exhibition at the BNG during her last weeks as executive director (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Fond farewell: Lisa Howie is stepping down as BNG executive director (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)