Bruce Barnes has an ambitious plan for the thousands of pieces of artistic history at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.
At the museum and in a nearby storage area are photographs dating back to the most elementary cameras. They tell a story about the history and evolution of the art form, one with an intricate connection to Rochester.Barnes wants to share that with the world.
After taking over at the George Eastman House in 2012, the 51-year-old Barnes made it a priority to take the tens of thousands of pieces in the collection and digitize them. The plan is to put them into an accessible database where anyone in the world can call them up.
"This would be available to everyone, from people doing scholarly research to students working on a school project," Barnes says. "It would share what we have with the world."
Putting the archives online may be his biggest project, but Barnes is working on many other plans for the museum. He plans to expand its donor base, creating connections across the nation and around the world as he asserts the international scope of the museum.
As he leads the organization, with close to $6 million in annual revenue and 110 employees, Barnes also has plans to better integrate the George Eastman House with the Rochester community.
Barnes came across the George Eastman House almost by accident. He was president of the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, a private foundation in New York City, when a search firm expressed interest in him for another non-profit arts organization there.
When Barnes was looking over the search firm’s website, he came across a job opening that seemed even more interesting-at the George Eastman House.
"I didn’t end up getting the job in New York, but it worked out because I was introduced to the position at the George Eastman House," he says.
Barnes, who took over after longtime leader Anthony Bannon retired in May 2012, came to the position with a diverse background. He was the founder of ADA1900, which works independently in collaboration with museums across the nation to foster understanding and appreciation of American decorative art from around 1900.
Art history, especially decorative art, has been a passion for Barnes. He is the co-author and editor of "The Jewelry and Metalwork of Marie Zimmermann," co-published by ADA1900 and Yale University Press in 2011.
He also was co-publisher of a book on artist Charles Rohlfs that accompanied an exhibit organized by ADA1900 and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The exhibit traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Art, Huntington Art Collections and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Organizing this exhibit brought Barnes into close connection with museums, allowing him to see how they operate.
"That was essentially what got me interested in being a museum director," he says. "Working with the exhibit allowed me to see the ins and outs of museums, and I knew it was something I wanted to do."
The business world
But Barnes’ life has not been all about art. He came to the Eastman House with decades of experience in business, including work on Wall Street. From 2000 to 2004 he was CEO of Element K LLC, now Skillsoft, which provides online learning.
At Element K, Barnes oversaw 800 employees, which he said has prepared him well for working at the Eastman House.
"The George Eastman House is a remarkably complex museum, with six different curatorial areas," says Barnes, who has a Ph.D. in economics. "It has helped a lot having experience running a large organization before, and my background has also helped me think through a lot of IT issues."
The background made Barnes stand out, says Thomas Jackson, chairman of the George Eastman House. While the search for a museum director will sometimes yield candidates with extensive business backgrounds, they usually are weeded out.
Not so with Barnes.
"We had never encountered anyone like Bruce, with a Ph.D. in economics and having been the CEO of a company," says Jackson, the former president of the University of Rochester. "Usually people with that kind of background don’t make it far in a search process because they’re just dabbling, but Bruce was not like that at all. He had the experience, the knowledge and vision it took to run a museum."
Barnes’ business experience includes senior executive positions at Ziff Communications Co., Ziff Brothers Investments LLC, Wasserstein Perella & Co., Reservoir Capital Group LLC and QFS Asset Management L.P.
He has proved to be a director who is unafraid to take the lead on a project but also welcomes other ideas, Jackson says.
"He’s very smart and not afraid to put his opinions out there early but doesn’t try to steer everyone down his path," he says. "He’ll give his idea but then invite people to amplify or disagree with him.
"It’s clear he’s open to a whole lot of ideas, and that brings out the best in everyone because he’s so damn smart himself."
Barnes said he feels at home in his return to Rochester, living with partner Joseph Cunningham on Alexander Street. His home is within walking distance of the George Eastman House and the Little Theatre, where the film buff likes to take in a movie on the rare occasion when he leaves the museum before late evening.
Plans for GEH
Barnes sees the George Eastman House not so much as a strictly Rochester museum but as a world-class museum that happens to be in Rochester.
It could just as easily be in New York City or Chicago, he says, but remains close to its roots. He acknowledges that the geography comes with some challenges.
"We could definitely have more success fundraising in a larger city, and for success in the future we need a broader range of non-Rochester support," he says.
Expanding that new support system is a major goal for Barnes. He plans to increase the museum’s national and international stature through a three-part strategy involving more touring exhibits, more scholarly books and the digitization of the entire collection of photographs.
The museum is working on the first goal, with a traveling exhibit making its way around Europe before ending in New York City. Barnes says these tours will have mainly a U.S. emphasis in the future as the George Eastman House looks to increase its stature in the art world and reach potential new donors. But they will include other international jaunts as well.
Barnes is uniquely qualified to lead efforts to ramp up traveling exhibitions, Jackson says.
"One of the things that doesn’t leap out on his resume but is such an important part of Bruce is the amount of connections he has in the museum world," Jackson says. "He knows the directors of many major museums, has an amazing knowledge of modern photography and the experience of curating his own traveling exhibit."
Barnes already has increased the emphasis on touring exhibits. This month Eliza Kozlowski, director of communications and engagement, spent time in China, meeting with a businessman connected to Eastman Kodak Co. who was interested in putting together an exhibit on George Eastman and the history of photography.
As a result, an exhibition is in the works that will debut in July. Kozlowski credits the project to the increased emphasis Barnes has placed on connections.
"We hadn’t done much work with China, and the businessman … wanted a stronger representation of work from Chinese photographers," Kozlowski says.
The George Eastman House also is working on a project tying together the museum’s two other goals of publishing more scholarly books and opening up the archives. Using a recently acquired archive of Technicolor artifacts, the museum is aiming to publish a book in 2015 called "The Dawn of Technicolor."
"The book will tell the story of how Technicolor evolved from its two-color phase, overcoming technical and business challenges and creating a much better picture," Barnes says. "It’s a project we’re uniquely capable of doing because we have access to all of the Technicolor material."
These scholarly books will raise the museum’s stature, but no project is more ambitious than converting the archives to digital, Barnes says. The project is expected to take five years and requires a significant upgrade to the museum’s IT system.
Because many of the photographs in the archive are sensitive, the museum is using a gentle but time-intensive approach.
"We’re literally photographing the photograph," Barnes says. "We don’t want to scan them because we don’t want to touch them, so right now we have a human being with a digital camera taking pictures of them."
Once the pictures are put onto a publicly accessible database, users can help organize them by adding tags and categorizing them, Barnes says.
Achieving these three goals will help the George Eastman House connect with donors, an important goal as public funding and corporate donations have fallen off in recent years, he adds.
"We used to get $1 million a year from Eastman Kodak Co., and even in the years before their bankruptcy we were getting $200,000," Barnes notes. "But we’ve been finding generous donors who have stepped up and filled the gap.
"Still, it’s a very challenging time for us and other non-profits."
Barnes says the best way to raise revenue is through dedication to the mission.
"Museums are non-profit institutions and can’t rely too much on raised revenue," Barnes says. "If you look to raising revenue too much, it can dilute your mission. I think it’s much more effective to stay committed to your mission and go to donors and say, ‘Look how good we’re doing in this area that you’re passionate about.’"
Closer to the community
Barnes does not just want to expand the reach of the George Eastman House to New York and San Francisco. He also wants a stronger presence on University Avenue in Rochester.
Photography and film history are vital to the museum, but so is maintaining a landmark home with its local history and sprawling gardens.
"We’re very committed to the house and the gardens, and we want to find ways to open that to the community more," Barnes says.
One idea is a community garden. George Eastman was an avid gardener-though Barnes said he is not sure how much work the Kodak founder actually did, other than enjoying the vegetables that were harvested.
A community garden could help open the museum up to new audiences within Rochester, Barnes notes.
"We’re currently looking at places where we could put a community garden, and we would like to use it as a means to work closely with people in the community whom we maybe haven’t worked with before," he says.
Barnes and the museum also are following closely a development project just beyond the museum’s backyard. Space at 933 University Ave. is on the development block, with Morgan Management LLC proposing an apartment complex.
Barnes opposes that project, offering a proposal instead that the George Eastman House turn it into another entrance for the museum, parking space and a connection to the Neighborhood of the Arts.
"It wasn’t my intention to come to Rochester and oppose a development project, but in a preservation district a deal is made with people to protect the environs, and that is what we aim to do," he says.
As the museum deepens its roots locally and spreads its branches farther across the country, Barnes envisions it growing accordingly. He has no large increases in staff planned but sees additions to the IT and curatorial areas in the coming years.
The museum also has added an exhibition manager responsible for touring exhibits. That position had been eliminated in the past few years.
Raising the museum’s profile nationwide and within Rochester will be trying work, Barnes says, especially against a backdrop of uncertain and often declining funding. But it is a mission he feels compelled to take on.
"What originally interested me most about museums were the great collections and getting to think of ways for more people to see them," Barnes says. "That is my primary mission here, to allow more people to connect with our great collections and raise the museum’s profile through that."
Position: Director, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film
Education: B.A. in economics, University of Pennsylvania, 1983; Ph.D. in economics, University of Pennsylvania, 1989
Family: Partner Joseph Cunningham
Activities: Decorative art, visiting museums, movies
Quote: "Museums are non-profit institutions and can’t rely too much on raised revenue. If you look to raising revenue too much, it can dilute your mission. I think it’s much more effective to stay committed to your mission and go to donors and say, ‘Look how good we’re doing in this area that you’re passionate about.’"
5/17/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.