Bruce Barnes envisions a way to take the thousands of pictures and artifacts stretching back to the genesis of photography that are held in the massive archive at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film and show them to the world.
The new director at the George Eastman House, Barnes comes into the position with ideas on how to expand the audience for the museum and spearhead preservation efforts.
Barnes was announced as director this month, taking over for Anthony Bannon, who left after 16 years with the organization. Barnes comes to the position with experience in the non-profit art world, having served as president and founder of American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, a private foundation based in New York City.
Barnes also has an extensive background in the business world. He was CEO of Element K LLC from 2000 to 2004 and has held senior executive positions at Ziff Communications Co., Ziff Brothers Investments, Wasserstein Perella & Co., Reservoir Capital Group and QFS Asset Management.
James Locke, George Eastman House board member and chairman of the search committee, said that after an international search, the board found the perfect candidate in Barnes.
He has the "combination of skills, experience and passion needed for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the George Eastman House," Locke said.
"He is quite a remarkable fit for us with his excellent academic background, financial acumen, with prior positions with top Wall Street financial firms, and tested leadership as a CEO in Rochester," he said.
The Eastman House has 108 employees and attracted 135,611 paid visitors in 2011, ranking No. 7 on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of cultural attractions. It also was No. 29 among the region's non-profit organizations, ranked by expenditures. Its annual budget is $8 million.
Barnes said he is excited to join an institution with such a wide range of expertise and world-class collections.
As he begins his tenure, he has some general ideas for the direction he would like to take the museum, he said. The most significant of these is broadening the museum's national and international reach.
He plans to achieve this by creating a more active program for traveling exhibits. Another idea is what he calls the museum's "Manhattan Project," creating a virtual museum online to showcase the vast number of works the George Eastman House holds.
"We would start with photographs, creating a database where people can access and search our library and the incredible amount of research material on photographers and photographs," Barnes said. "This is an area where we've lagged behind because we have such a large collection that the task is daunting, but it's an area that if we can do it, it will be transformative to the George Eastman House."
Such a database would give the George Eastman House more chances to collaborate with other institutions and enable more people around the globe to conduct research in photography and film, Barnes said.
"We want to give access to all sorts of people who may not be scholars but have an interest in photography," he said. "I'm interested in broadening the audience we reach, and at this point the most powerful and cost-effective way is through online delivery with a well-designed website."
Through his work with the ADA1900, Barnes has been watching how many museums have made the leap into interactive Web databases. He said the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is a good example for the George Eastman House. The museum once had an inadequate website but expended the effort to make it an interactive resource for visitors.
Barnes said there are other museums to use as a template for a project to bring the George Eastman House's collections online, including the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
As he was interviewing for the director position, Barnes identified creating an online database of the collection as a top priority.
"It was something that the committee agreed with, and we see it as a very substantial project," Barnes said. "It's not just something that you're going to turn around tomorrow and see it accomplished, but we believe it's going to be absolutely transformative to the institution when it's finished."
Barnes said his background in the world of business will help in guiding the George Eastman House. At Element K he worked in online learning services, and he said he understands issues related to online delivery.
While Barnes said he does not consider himself a technologist, he has developed strategies in that area and knows what it takes to create a successful online product.
"I think coming from the business world and managing an organization with 800 employees, a complex organization in a dynamic field, is a very useful background for managing any organization, business or non-profit," Barnes said.
Barnes plans to sharpen the museum's focus on preservation, both in actually maintaining its collection and in being a leader in ideas and methods of preservation.
"We have some of the most knowledgeable people in the world about this, and two academic programs where we teach preservation," Barnes said. "One of the challenges with photography and film is it's much more vulnerable than paintings and work on paper, and needs to be treated very carefully in preserving it."
As he eyes expansion nationwide and even worldwide, Barnes said he is committed to the museum's mission of community service in Rochester.
"I think the George Eastman House is a vital part of the Rochester community and does all sorts of things that go beyond its stated mission," he said. "The events in this house and on its lawn, the wide variety of film programming and of course the exhibitions themselves are all very important."
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