Steven High has had a front row seat to Reno’s growing art scene in the past 10 years he’s spent as director and CEO of the Nevada Museum of Art. Now he’s heading south to Savannah, Ga., where, after Jan. 31, he’ll take his new post as director at the Telfair Museum of Art.
How have you seen Reno’s art scene change in the past 10 years?It’s changed dramatically. It’s not only grown, but it’s also become much more sophisticated in the types of programs people are doing and the type of work going on here. I think it’s been a great renaissance in the arts here. The one thing I regret, in a sense, is we’ve had some great young, contemporary galleries come and go in that time. It’s a shame. It’s the nature of those businesses—it’s hard to keep them running. They provide really unique visions and perspectives on our community here that, sadly, we don’t have a lot of those opportunities, though there are new ones coming on all the time. Like there’s the new group … The Holland Project. It’s great to see that kind of collaboration coming together to showcase those visual arts.
Do you have a favorite exhibit from your years at the museum?
There was a sequence of shows. One I’m really proud to have hosted here was the one we did when we opened the building here—the Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and 20th century Mexican art exhibit. To me, it was a real symbol of our commitment to reach out to all of our community here, in particular the Latino and Hispanic community. From that, we’ve tried to do everything bilingual here to make the museum accessible to everyone.
Then a show that we organized that I think was kind of groundbreaking was From Exploration to Conservation, Picturing the Sierra Nevada … It started with the very early explorers who came out here and always brought artists along with them. … It ran the range from Thomas Hill—these great landscape painters—to Helen and Newton Harrison out of San Diego, who did this big project really documenting the Sierra Nevada politically—who owned the land, who are the stakeholders in the Sierra Nevada—and then organized a series of community meetings to talk about the overall Sierra Nevada and its future. We partnered with the Wilderness Society on that.
Then I guess the exhibition that started us rolling here with a series of high quality exhibitions back in 1997—Dubuffet and Miró. … There was Dubuffet looking at the really childlike, graphic images of man, and we put it in the context of Miró's surrealist sculpture. … We’d had some good shows here, but the ones people would come to were mostly Western shows. This show broke all records for the museum for attendance. … It inspired all of us that there was a real appetite and hunger for interesting and challenging work in this community.
Do you have any exit advice?
I think the museum is doing really well. It’s been doing some interesting, challenging exhibitions. … Our year coming is really solid, beginning with the Warhol exhibition and ending with … [an exhibit] on Yosemite. … I have a fantastic staff, and I almost find myself wondering, ‘Why the hell am I leaving?’ But on the other hand, I’ve been engaged with the museum for 10 years, which is a long time for a director. It’s healthy for an organization to have a new leader come in … For me, it’s going into a new situation that’s larger in scale and has some greater resources to draw from and also some different challenges.
How did you become interested in the arts?
It wasn’t really until college, when I started taking art history classes. It was remarkable. It opened up a whole new level of ideas that I had never thought of. I grew up on a farm in southern Idaho; we didn’t have a lot of art there, and there certainly weren’t any museums there. That exposure to art history was pretty startling to me as a young freshman in college. .. As a junior in college, I had my first job as an intern at the museum I’m going to now—the Telfair Museum of Art. So almost 30 years later, I’m going back.