Director of the Beach Museum of Art educates, creates experiences for guests

Linda Duke, the director of the Beach Museum of Art, pictured on Sept. 20, 2019. Duke says though she's no longer in school, her job has been a way to continue her education. (Abigail Compton | Collegian Media Group)

Linda Duke is in the business of educating, but that doesn’t mean her own education is over. For the last eight years, Duke has been director of the Beach Museum of Art, and her time at the museum has taught her a lot.

“One of the things that I love about working in an art museum is that it’s like a never-ending education,” Duke said. “Every exhibition, every public program we work on, we’re in touch with new creative ideas and histories.”

Working at multiple art museums before the Beach Museum, Duke said she was drawn to educating though museum work more than classroom teaching because of the informality and lack of structure.

“It didn’t involve tests and grading, and I found that very exciting,” Duke said.

Duke’s educational focus is something Luke Dempsey, exhibition designer at the museum, said he admires about his colleague.

“Linda has fostered an environment that is focused around telling a story,” Dempsey said. “She has an obvious hunger to educate and share her passion for art.”

Most exhibitions that go on display at the museum are several years in the making, and Duke said that all the organizing keeps her busy. Dempsey said Duke takes an active role in planning each exhibition that comes to the museum.

“Each exhibition is unique and always requires discussion to finely tune the methods for constructing our narrative,” Dempsey said. “Linda is always deeply involved in this process, providing important insights and instilling our teams with confidence.”

Most recently, Duke finds inspiration by her work on a future exhibition, a collaboration with Microsoft that will open in fall 2020 called “Four Worlds.” The exhibition has been in the works for over a year and will allow visitors to utilize technology and augmented reality to explore ancient archaeological objects from different cultures.

Duke likens her job to that of the host of a tea ceremony, a custom she studied as a college student.

“[The host’s] job is to prepare ahead of time for the guests to have a really extraordinary aesthetic experience,” Duke said. “The word aesthetic means things that we learn through our senses, so to really think about the tea room, the garden path that they take to get to it, the fragrance of the incense, the painting that’s hung on the wall, the flower arrangements, the way you make the tea and serve it to them, the taste of the tea — all of those things.”

One way Duke has worked to create this kind of experience for museum guests is by hiring student greeters and gallery attendants to provide information and direction.

“When I first came here, there wasn’t any kind of student greeter in the front lobby, so people would come in the door and be like, ‘Where are the galleries?’ ‘What’s going on here?’” Duke said. “Those kind of things really matter, and how we receive guests matters to have people feel welcomed.”

Heather Kolb, senior in art education and lobby host at the museum, is often the first person visitors see when they visit. Kolb said that while there’s a range of things museum staff aim to accomplish, one is to provide guests with a break from their everyday routine.

“I think the museum is able to create a unique calming experience because it draws you out of your regularly scheduled to-do list to really connect with artists and their work,” Kolb said. “It’s something a lot of people aren’t able to do every day.”

Not everyone is an art connoisseur, but Duke says you don’t have to understand art to learn something from it.

“You could say all art through time has expressed something about the experience of being human, so when we look at works of art, it sometimes helps us imagine or empathize with what it was like to be human in some other time or place, situation, culture,” Duke said. “I think a lot of important things like that happen in museums.”

Duke said liking art isn’t necessarily the point either.

“‘Why is this in the museum? It looks like a piece of junk to me.’ I think being open-minded enough to ask that question instead of just getting angry or frustrated sometimes leads to interesting discoveries,” Duke said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that you end up liking that artwork. You may think it’s just appalling, but it’s still useful, for your own sake, to understand why you think that.”

Art lovers and art haters alike are welcome at the Beach Museum, Duke says, as long as they’re open to learning something.