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Meet Leann Standish, SLOMA's new executive director 

click to enlarge NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN SLOMA's new executive director, Leann Standish (right), shares the stage with nonprofit specialist Sandi Sigurdson during the PACSLO Gala.

Photo Courtesy Of PACSLO

NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN SLOMA's new executive director, Leann Standish (right), shares the stage with nonprofit specialist Sandi Sigurdson during the PACSLO Gala.

The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (SLOMA) has a new executive director, so does that mean the long-hoped-for new building is on the way?

Probably not, but Leann Standish has fresh ideas for this venerated institution.

SLOMA has long been an essential element of the Central Coast arts community, but also one that's struggled over the years to evolve into what its many supporters have hoped it would become. Formerly called the Art Center, SLOMA has had plans for a new building for decades but has yet to raise the funds to move forward.

Standish has an enormous amount of nonprofit and arts administration experience, most recently serving as executive director of the San Luis Obispo Foundation for the Performing Arts Center for nearly four years. She'll "continue to serve as a consultant to the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center to facilitate the transition to the organization's next executive director," according to a recent press release.

Who is Standish and what's her vision?

"I am a Midwestern girl through and through," she explained during an email interview. "I was born and raised in Indiana. My family still all lives in that area. I moved to California for a guy back in the '90s. That didn't work out, but my love of all things California sort of stuck. I actually started out as an administrative assistant at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, and then I sort of worked/begged my way into the development director role. It was life-changing for me to be a part of the team that made that museum run—on a shoestring, of course.

"Kaywin Feldman hired me there and once more in Minneapolis," Standish continued. "Today, she's the first woman ever to run the National Gallery of Art in D.C."

One thing Standish is adamant about is bringing in outside art and artists to the area, something that many then Art Center (SLOMA) members seemed resistant to in the past. Some thought of the organization as something for locals only. That's changed over the years.

"Oh wow ... it is so important!" Standish asserted. "Museums are a portal to the rest of the world. I think there's room to celebrate our regional artists alongside established and emerging artists from all over. We will focus on bringing the most diverse programming possible to the museum to make certain that everyone is made to feel included here.

"When I ask people about their favorite exhibition ever, very often people will share a story about an artist whose work exposed them to culture and ideas that were new to them," Standish continued. "How can we not strive to make that possible for everyone in our community?"

It appears as if she left her executive director position of the SLO Foundation for the Performing Arts Center on good terms, but why move at all?

"Gosh, that was so tough. Leading the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center was truly one of the most rewarding roles of my career. The entire existence and history of the PAC itself is so wonderful and unique to San Luis Obispo. However, my work has always been with museums, and when we came to live here, I said from the start that one day I would love to run SLOMA.

"The timing wasn't perfect but I've been incredibly fortunate to work with great people in both organizations who have made a smooth transition the priority. Plus I think we'll find ways to work together in doing some amazing things as the PAC nears its 25th anniversary."

Standish has worked at the Perez Art Museum in Miami, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Michigan's Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and the Fresno Metropolitan Museum. What compelled so many moves?

"Honestly, I've always moved with the next professional opportunity," she revealed. "Each community and project made for a step up and an opportunity to learn and grow. Four years ago when I joined The Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, it was the first time in my life that I chose a place where I really wanted to live and worked to figure it out from there. I was lucky that Johnny, my fiancé, was open to taking a leap of faith and bringing his work out here as well.

"We love the laid-back community that thrives on things like nature and great wine as well as art. That's a bit of a departure from our Miami life."

SLOMA has been trying to raise the funds to update its facilities for decades. What does she think her chances are of getting the job done? What does she plan to do differently than her predecessors?

"Well, I have a proven track record, having led campaigns in excess of $200 million in other markets," she explained. "And more importantly, that's not our first order of business. We have an opportunity to grow the museum's audience right now, and that's the priority.

"There's something of a rhythm to cultural growth and the associated capital campaigns for any community. I think there will come a time when it will be clear that we're ready to explore the things that will really help us to be the best that we can," she said. "I suspect that's a few years away for us now."

The pandemic has really put the squeeze on the arts in general. What innovative plans is Standish working on to move forward as we continue to navigate the limitations the community is facing?

"We're super excited—we're going to launch a mural program right away that wraps the museum building. SLOMA's geographical location, in the midst of downtown and at one end of the mission, is so wonderful. I can't wait to make certain everyone knows that we are here.

"I also think that experiencing an installation or exhibition by yourself is extremely powerful and something that we'll see more museums doing in the future," she said. "If you've never experienced Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Room at The Broad, I hope you'll add it to your list. It's a powerful and solitary experience; completely magical. People wait in line for hours to have their time with the work."

SLOMA is currently closed to the public due to COVID-19, but you can still interact with the museum online at sloma.org. Who knows? Maybe in the near future Standish will cook up a plan for an installation like the Infinity Room, right here in SLO Town. Δ

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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