Alice Anne Schwab is no stranger to the world just outside the doors of the Susquehanna Art Museum.
She grew up in Harrisburg, and her dream from the age of 12 was to work as a museum curator. So, she moved to New York, where she managed the day-to-day operations of a Soho gallery and thereafter worked as the assistant to a prominent hotel developer.
“Not Donald Trump,” she states firmly. “While working during the day, I attended culinary school at night. After 10 years in New York, I moved back to Harrisburg to be nearer to family.”
She became a caterer and eventually opened her own restaurant, Alice Anne’s Kitchen, on N. 2nd Street.
“I had the restaurant with a wonderful staff and terrific customers for two years,” Schwab recalls. “It almost killed me. I got no sleep. I am still a recovering restaurateur.”
After a stint with the Harrisburg Symphony, she saw an opportunity to fulfill her childhood ambition when the executive director position opened at SAM, following the departure of Laurene Buckley. So, she applied, got her dream job—and almost immediately found herself in the midst of a firestorm.
After taking the position, she was told about a months-long struggle between SAM’s bank and its general contractor over a $1.2 million state grant. Soon, the story hit the press, and the museum endured months of negative publicity (and speculation about its demise) as the issue landed in court and was ultimately settled in negotiation.
Schwab now is faced with the raw reality of making sure SAM’s future extends well past its 26-year history, which will require planning, resourcefulness and a lot of money.
Schwab believes the museum is making progress on all these fronts.
First, there’s new leadership following the resignation of several board members linked to the financing controversy. SAM recently added five new members and, in December, embarked on a three-day strategic planning process with a consultant who had worked with the museum in the past.
“We have learned a lot that informs our ongoing budgeting process,” she says. “We have some major fundraising goals, but with the strength in leadership and the support that is growing in the community, I believe we are poised to be able to achieve our financial goals.”
Another major goal is accreditation, which will facilitate SAM’s efforts to borrow artwork for exhibits, a vital requirement for a museum that lacks a permanent collection. So, it is working towards membership in the American Alliance of Museums and solidifying its participation within the North American Reciprocal Museum Association.
“One of our goals is to become an accredited museum,” Schwab explains. “Accreditation is a process, not an achievement. We are in that process now. While having a facility that lives up to the standards is a first step, and we have achieved that step by creating this fine museum building, there are several other important facets of accreditation, including the ability to operate on an ongoing basis.”
Indeed, Schwab emphasizes that you can’t put the cart before the horse. SAM needed to have a world-class space that met stringent requirements for exhibits before it could even begin the accreditation process. It now has that with its sparkling, 20,000-square-foot facility at the corner of N. 3rd and Calder streets that opened just a year ago.
While many of Schwab’s goals remain in progress, there is one area that she believes is firm and that she’s especially proud of—reaching out to the greater Harrisburg community.
As one of her first official acts, she supervised the installation and dedication of the iconic mural that now towers over the streetscape on N. 3rd Street. She also expanded SAM’s educational and outreach efforts.
“While we enjoy the novelty of our Midtown Harrisburg location, and we are delighted to be a part of the Midtown renaissance, we are a resource and a touch point for the whole community,” Schwab says.
Last month, the museum invited that community along to celebrate a year of growth and healing (“We’ve had both,” Schwab remarks). And, on Feb. 13, to close its Dali “Les Diners de Gala” exhibition in the Lobby Gallery, SAM will host a special dinner re-enacting the Dali dinner party with recipes from the cookbook.
Coming up are Pennsylvania impressionist paintings, curated works on the topic of immigration and an exhibition of the work of important African-American artists.
“Each one of our exhibitions features several unique and specially designed educational engagement components, truly making Susquehanna Art Museum a museum of and for the greater Harrisburg community,” Schwab says. “Great things are happening at the museum. We love to facilitate opportunities for our community to be a part of.”
The Susquehanna Art Museum is located at 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. To learn more, visit www.sqart.org.