A love of art and history brings new museum director to Columbus (Columbus and the Valley Magazine, May-June 2015)

by Jim Lynn

By Jim Lynn

Marianne Richter, age 7, stood in a large, second-floor gallery at the Louvre and stared. Before her was a series of 24 paintings depicting the late 16th and early 17th Century life of Marie de Medici, the wife of King Henry IV of France. The Louvre was a must-see stop on a month-long family trip to Europe, and others had moved on. Marianne and her mother stayed behind.

It wasn’t the Mona Lisa that captured Marianne’s imagination, or the iconic Venus de Milo. Instead, the youngster was spellbound by the panels full of colorful, allegorical images by Peter Paul Rubens. They seemed to Marianne “like a storybook fairy tale,” dwarfing her in their size, their Baroque figures curved and draped in flowing fabric as if caught in mid movement.

The half hour with the paintings given the regal title of “The Apotheosis of Henri IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Médicis” set Marianne on a path of fascination both with art and with history.

More than four decades later, the nexus of art and history positions Richter well for taking the helm of the Columbus Museum, a place that celebrates both American art and the rich cultural, economic and natural history of the Chattahoochee Valley. She comes to Columbus from directing the Swope Museum in Terra Haute, Indiana, and has worked at museums in Texas, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In leaving the Swope for a facility more than twice as large, Richter says Columbus looked like a great fit. “It’s a mid-sized museum, which is my preference,” she said. “It’s a pretty perfect size, and I like the fact that it’s an American art collection and has a strong element of history as well. It’s not often the two are so closely combined.”

Likewise, Columbus and our made-for-brochures whitewater development made the town attractive. The first Columbus picture she posted to her Facebook page is a sweeping view of the Chattahoochee. “I saw a mid-sized city, a nice place to be, a city on the rise with plenty of things to do” and without the lifestyle hassles of larger markets. The move also brings her closer to family. Her 92-year-old father, a retired physician, lives in Dunwoody. Her brother lives in north Georgia and other relatives live in Atlanta.

Richter, in her early 50s, and her cat Nera have moved into a home in Midtown, where a neighbor calls her “smart, serious and academic.” Despite her reserved nature, high on her agenda is making the rounds to meet with key leaders and community groups, expanding constituent relationships. In Terre Haute, she was known particularly for expanding community relationships with the museum there. Jumping into the rare arrangement where the public school system runs the museum, she did attend a school board meeting before the sales tax vote and was struck by the vociferous attacks by opponents. Part of sales tax receipts will go to infrastructure improvements at the museum. “We have a big responsibility to provide educational opportunities for kids in the Muscogee County School District and our education department takes that very seriously,” she said.

A native of suburban Rye, New York, Richter grew up in Rochester. She left Penfield High in 1979 for Ohio, where she did her undergraduate work at Oberlin College, studying art and history. “I loved looking at art and I loved history, so this seemed like a natural,” she said. After a year-long internship at the Allen Memorial Museum at Oberlin, her childhood fascinations were sealed. “That was what did it,” she said of her internship and studies in Ohio.

She got her masters in art history from the University of Delaware and did doctoral work in art history at the University of Illinois.

Throughout her academic career, Richter’s focus was art and historical research. “I did take two studio classes in college, but I like the research, I like the cultural history as it applies to art and putting art in its historical context,” she said. To a large extent, any work of art is linked to the history of its period. But Richter sees stronger, thematic relationships and wants to explore ways to make those connections more direct.

Lewis Hine’s photographs of children in early 20th Century Columbus, for example, closely packaged with language and other artifacts that tell a story about the “dinner toters” and other aspects of childhood and child labor in Columbus at the time.

Among the art Richter and history curator Rebecca Bush selected to hang in Richter’s large but Spartan office are some of Hine’s photographs from Columbus. Hine was a documentary photographer for the National Child Labor Committee in the early 1900s, and the works illustrate better than anything Richter’s hope to design collections that tell stories about our history.

“The photographs … are a prime example of how the same objects can be viewed from both the lenses of art history and history,” she said. “For art historians, Hine is one of the great photographers of the early twentieth century. They consider his work from an aesthetic and technical viewpoint, as well as within the greater context of American history. Historians study the subject matter of his work first, recognizing its importance in shedding light on child labor conditions for people of that time and now as significant historical documentation that gives immediacy to American history. There are multiple ways of thinking about the objects that are in the museum’s collection.”

Beyond the museum’s content and how it’s arranged, among Richter’s other concerns is how the museum uses social media and smartphone apps. Traditionally, art museums have relied on labels next to the art to describe the work and the artist, but in an era of quick response (QR) codes and beacons and other smartphone features, a label is not enough, no matter how well written.

“With social media, people who are younger have a different expectation. When you go in and read the labels, that’s somewhat one-sided. Now, people want to interact,” Richter noted. “The amount of time people spend reading a label is short. You have to have them, but there’s an art to making them an interesting read.”

The museum is already experimenting with apps including Piper and Aurasma, which can be used to socialize exhibits and comment on them, as well as to push additional information or multi-media to the user. It’s a challenge that all museum directors have got to make a priority to help capture more than yawns from younger patrons.

“It’s very, very important,” says Georgetown University’s Lisa Strong. Museum directors and curators “are very excited about digital tools being used to engage audiences.” The use of electronic devices has got to go beyond QR codes and simply pushing additional text to smartphones, she said. Scavenger hunts, costume parties and socialized discussions of the art can be enabled or enhanced with digital tools.

Richter says she’s eager to tackle these and other challenges of the new digital era and the unique nature of the Columbus Museum’s collections. No museum should be a static place, she says, and notes that while the museum operational budget is supported by the school system, she’ll need to concentrate on development efforts to expand the collection.

“The key is making sure this is a place people want to come visit,” she said.