By Rick Coates
One of the first stories the Northern Express covered in 1991 was the opening of the Dennos Museum Center on the campus of Northwestern Michigan College. Gene Jenneman has served as executive director ever since, and he took time via Skype to be interviewed while at a museum conference in South Korea. Jenneman reflected on the past 20 years of the museum and the Milliken Auditorium, its importance to the region and some thoughts on the future.
Northern Express: Why are you in South Korea?
Gene Jenneman: I was invited to speak at the first Yeongwol Yonsei Forum: A World of Museums in Yeongwol, South Korea (near Seoul).
Yeongwol is a community seeking to revitalize its economy through the development of an extensive number of museums on various subjects, becoming Koreas Museum City. This project was begun in 2005. The purpose of this forum is, in part, to assess the project to date. The focus in Yeongwol has been to develop museums with single collections.
When the Dennos was created there was a need to address the integration of the colleges unique collection of Inuit art into the overall program of the museum. I have been invited to speak on the development of the Dennos as a community museum that serves the purpose of being a specialized museum of Inuit art, while offering a much broader range of programming. This trip and my visit to China points to how the Dennos has become a global institution.
NE: You went to China as well?
Jenneman: Yes, you do not fly this far for a three-day event. The Dennos has developed cultural relations here in China for both visual and performing arts. I met with several potential performers and with perspective partners for future projects at the Dennos.
NE: Okay, lets go back in time. You have been the Dennos only executive director; reflect a little on those first years on the job.
Jenneman: I arrived in August of 1988 and started working with the architect to take the initial concept for the building and to modify it for the current collections. I spent those first few years (prior to the Dennos opening) working on developing collections and the vision of the museum to fit the community expectations.
NE: Certainly the Milliken Auditorium was a big part of the planning process.
Jenneman: Well this actually is somewhat of a funny story. The Milliken was originally supposed to be a 250-seat lecture hall, not the performing arts venue that it became.
Just two weeks after I was hired there was a major tribute dinner honoring Bill and Helen Milliken. The State of Michigan granted $500,000 to name this lecture hall in honor of the Millikens. So I bought two $100 tickets and hadnt even received my first paycheck yet. The brochure on the tables at the tribute dinner stated that the auditorium was going to be 350 seats, not 250. So I immediately began thinking that the stage would need to be expanded and that a performing arts venue would be a nice addition and we raised an additional million dollars and expanded the project. In my opinion it was among the best things to have happened to the project.
NE: What has the Dennos Museum Center meant to the community?
Jenneman: I think the biggest thing is that prior to the Dennos this area had no capacity within the community to bring the kind of exhibitions that would eventually come. No one was really able to envision what that exactly would mean when we opened the doors.
My feeling from day one right up until this day was that the Dennos should enhance the cultural experience of the region rather than recycle it. By that I mean we should be constantly bringing things that are new to the community, rather than already showing what exists in the community.
Certainly, early on having the Van Gogh self portrait was big for us. We had thousands of visitors and the big hype was the armed guard standing watch. That really set the tone for our potential. Our partnership with the Detroit Institute of the Arts over the years has been so valuable. I think another big thing we never imagined 20 years ago was how global the Dennos Museum would become. I am in South Korea talking about the Dennos and I was just in China for a second time talking about the Dennos.
NE: Have you accomplished what you set out to do 20 years ago?
Jenneman: Yes and then some. I think in many ways we have exceeded the communitys expectations in regard to what we have accomplished.I have always been a risk taker and continue to be so, and when you take risks, hopefully you are successful most of the time. I think by taking that approach we end up with a far more interesting institution. I believe that when you look back over the past 20 years at the range of exhibitions and performers I believe that we have provided a very rich cultural experience for the region.
The complete Gene Jenneman interview is online at www.northernexpress.com Jenneman addresses the challenges the cultural arts face today including the major funding cuts; details on his trip to China; the importance of the various collections; early protests and objections to the museum; the musical line up for the 2011/12 performing arts season; and the future of the museum as well as his pending retirement.