Telfair Museums’ new executive director and CEO Benjamin T. Simons on imaginative spaces, artistic safe havens and Savannah’s contemporary arts scene
How does your role at Telfair Museums represent a culmination of your previous positions?
This is the fourth institution I’ve worked at. One has been bigger, another smaller, and one is about the same size. I started out as chief curator at the Nantucket Historical Association, which, like the Telfair, is a venerable museum founded in the 19th century with multiple historical properties. In 2005, right around the time of the Jepson Center project, we built a brand-new museum in Nantucket: we were modernizing a beloved institution that had long, loyal support but was starting to look more progressively to the future. In my most recent role, as executive director at a small but mighty museum — Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland — I also had the chance to take an esteemed museum and open it up to new audiences.
These roles had a lot of resonance for me with the Telfair position. I loved the incredible collections and rich layerings of history, and also the openness to garnering new audiences and becoming modern, vibrant institutions.
What about your work for the Smithsonian American Art Museum?
I was at the Renwick Gallery when a major renovation was taking place, with incredible attention paid to the historic fabric and the building itself. At the same time, there was an exhibition called “WONDER,” a landmark presentation with large-scale, immersive installations that brought in record visitors. It was a revelation to me, because it went back to that original sense of why people go to museums: a sense of primal wonder that you almost can’t explain or articulate. You just have a feeling of awe standing in front of creations of the human mind and spirit.
Telfair is often on the itinerary for tourists. Why should locals visit — and keep visiting?
You’ve got a campus of museums, really: the Jepson Center, Telfair Academy and the Owens- Thomas House & Slave Quarters. One ticket allows you to go to all three sites, and you can find very different things in each museum. For me, the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters has become a must-see venue for tourists and Savannahians alike.
The Telfair has made significant efforts to broaden the narrative and to tell the stories of the free and enslaved peoples who lived in that property. This reinterpretation has been impressive and inspiring, and I think one of the great things about it is, it creates an imaginative space for visitors to inhabit on their own terms. It’s not trying to complete the story for you; it’s not trying to give you all the answers. Rather, it’s creating an open space for you to imagine the experience of urban enslaved peoples in a powerful way. It’s also not just a one-time visit — you can return over and over again, because that imaginative process continues.
The Jepson Center often displays the fruits of community-minded efforts like #art912, which spotlights local artists, and “Making Marks: Art and Community in the Time of Pandemic,” which delivered free art kits to social service community partners. Of course, we’re also constantly presenting new exhibitions, like “Picasso to Hockney: Modern Art on Stage.” Telfair Academy, just steps away, has a new exhibition, “Progressive Regression,” about how the 19th-century museum was constructed and how the collections were put together. There’s even a whale skeleton!
How will the Telfair forge ahead in 2021?
The museum responded responsibly and professionally to the COVID-19 environment and safely reopened with new procedures in place very quickly. It was, I believe, a model of national response by museums to COVID.
Visitation has resumed to almost 50 percent of where it was before the pandemic — a great testament to the leadership of the staff and the board — and our patrons have been incredibly loyal and supportive as well. One of the great functions of museums is to provide a sanctuary space where people can come with friends and family and connect and be inspired but also feel that sense of a safe haven.
We’ve heard that from our staff at Joe’s at the Jepson cafe and the museum shop, too: people come in for shelter, in a sense, not only during a crazy year, but also to find the peace and inspiration that an art museum can provide.
You’re new here — what’s your favorite part about Savannah, so far?
The fact that there are so many practitioners of art and the arts in the city is amazing to expe- rience. It’s a city of makers and lovers of art. At the Telfair, a lot of staff members are creative themselves and are pursuing creative careers in addition to their museum careers. My wife is a painter, and obviously I work in the arts, so it’s exciting to feel the connection to a vibrant con- temporary arts scene.