I'm A Museum Person

I’m A Museum Person: Rusty Baker


Photo by JD Hancock via Flickr.

My name is Rusty Baker, and I’m a Museum Person.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Like I always tell people who ask how I got into this, I had just graduated with a B.A. in English and a Pennsylvania Teaching Certificate in 1990, so naturally I was unemployed looking for work when I got a job offer from a friend’s dad to come work for his art gallery. That would be the beginning of a what has been a great journey from a commercial gallery to an art auction company outside of Philadelphia, to a job as a small art museum’s Director of Operations. A huge door opened for me when I moved from that position to Acting Director, spent a year convincing a sometimes insane board of directors I might be Director material, then was named Executive Director. After that position, I spent a small stint with one of the nation’s largest art shipping and handling companies, and then I relocated and joined Pennsylvania’s statewide museum association as the Marketing and Membership Guy. I was invited to become the Executive Director back in April when our organization restructured.

Why do museums matter to you?

Museums are magical places. We tend to feel forced to defend museums, to do research, to gather together ideas that somehow justify our existence. No one asks a car mechanic to do these things. The very word museum bears witness to the reason there are museums. Museums exist because they matter. It is wonderful that museums are an economic generator in communities. I am excited there are so many discoveries and stories that noodle out of art and objects and experiences with them. Real learning, whether you can test to it or not, comes in museums. Since I am a museum guy, the jobs created by this industry (and it is an industry) obviously determine whether there is food on my table. All of these reasons seem empty to me, just another Gen X whine I can bleat out. It is the magic of museums, the unspoken wonder of them, that really does it for me. I am certain I share this with other museum people. Museums are complex institutions, but once you get it, like tuberculosis, you can’t “unget” it.

What is your favorite museum memory?

(Editors note: Rusty really wanted to include two stories, but I liked his first one so much, I decided to let it stand on its own. If you want to hear more museum memories from Rusty, chat with him on Twitter at @rustybaker647.)

My first marriage was disintegrating, and I was working on an installation or just about anything else at work for twelve or fourteen hours a day. The curator had put together an amazing small exhibit of work that dealt with identity, and I was truly fighting a lot of demons at the time. We installed a small light bulb piece, two spooned bulbs by Felix Gonzalez Torres. We talked about what we would do if one of the bulbs burnt out.

“We leave it that way,” the curator said.

“We leave it that way?” I echoed.

“Sometimes love dies,” he said.

What museum would you love to visit?

This is a tough one. There are so many museums! Pennsylvania has something like 1,000 of them, and I haven’t seen them all. If the sky is the limit, I’d love to visit the Imperial War Museum, LA MOCA, and the Harley Davidson Museum.

Photo by mediafury via Flickr.

What is your dream museum job?

Being a curator is the dream museum job. Everyone wants to be a curator, don’t they? I’ve done it, and when it goes well, it is like hitting home runs one after another. You just hope someone in the stands cheers, too.

When you think of the perfect exhibit, what is in it?

I’ve seen a few exhibits that were almost perfect, and I was completely blown away by the Carnegie International in 1999, still think about it all the time. I talk about it when I have captive listeners.

The perfect exhibit, no matter what is in it, art or historical objects, is an organic thing. It should appear effortless, and it shouldn’t make a visitor work too hard for the payoff. Great exhibitions look like they grew from seed in a space. They were always there, and they will always be there.

What is the most random item you have bought in a museum gift shop?

I lack the shopping gene, but I am sort of compulsive about Peanut M & M’s. I’ve bought those in gift shops.

What museum would you move into for a month if you could?

I’d do that at any motorcycle museum that let me ride the bikes to make sure they were all in good working condition.

I used to work crazy long hours, and I feel like I already spent a month straight in a museum. I don’t mean that to sound as if I am some kind of silver back gorilla beating his chest. From my point of view, the more time you spend with museums or museum objects, the deeper the impact they have on you. You might listen to a popular song you like over and over again. You re-read a book you liked while you are at the beach on vacation. You saw Star Wars seven times in 1979. You don’t need to go to extremes, but it will be better the second time around.

Tom Sokolowski once spoke about a survey of visitors to the Andy Warhol Museum. They answered they had definitely liked the museum. They answered no to “Do you plan to return?” Tom was outraged by this, and he asked. “Did you have sex? Yes. Did you like it? Yes!! Are you going to do it again? NO!!!!” This was funny as hell to hear, put this way, in a more common denominator.

My feelings about A Month at the Museum are fairly complicated, but museums are, too. A thirty day stay, as a stunt or a job, only brushes the surface of what these places are.

Out of all the museums you have visited so far, which one is your favorite?

The Philadelphia Museum of Art stands out for me. I have been there a lot of times, and I think that accounts for something.  I now have my favorite things to go see at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so my time is focused on the seven or eight works I really want to spend time with. They are old friends, these things. Ghost, that big Calder right in the entrance, that’s one of them. I love that Calder. I sometimes blow really hard and hope it moves. It never does.

Photo by joyosity via Flickr.

What is the most bizarre museum you have visited?

I visited The Barnes Foundation maybe eight years ago, and that will be the story I tell my grand children. What a strange place! What a strange story! What strange stuff!

There seem to be a million books and movies set in museums. Do you have a favorite?

The first Night At The Museum probably captured what I have referred to as “the magic” about museums better than most. I am also an Indiana Jones fan, and having delivered crates to the Smithsonian’s vast storage site, I have a special appreciation for The Lost Ark. I would tell you I saw it, but that wouldn’t be true.