Leading While Learning
by Sonia Alleyneon
April 1, 2012
Elsie McCabe Thompson knows today that as as a child she suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In fact, today she will tell you that she has a “host of learning disabilities.” Raised in Brooklyn, New York, where her mother was a nurse, her father a psychiatrist, and her oldest sister a model student, Elsie struggled through school. “There was no diagnosis at the time. There were only good kids and bad kids.” Her mother was advised to adjust her expectations and consider sending McCabe Thompson to trade school after high school. “My mother was having none of that.” Backed by her mother’s advocacy and the school’s eventual support, McCabe Thompson attended Barnard College and later received a law degree from Harvard.
“It takes kids a while to uncover mechanisms for coping with their [challenges],” she explains. “I never did well on in-class multiple choice exams. I would always see duplicity and double meanings and run out of time. I quickly discovered a different strategy. I wrote papers for everything; then I could control the outcome.”
It’s McCabe Thompson’s ability to harness perceived challenges as strengths that led her to the presidency of the Museum for African Art in 1997—with no prior museum experience or knowledge of art. But having worked as a litigator at the law firm Shearman & Sterling and as deputy counsel to former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins, McCabe Thompson has used her curious nature, passion in advocacy, political network, and savvy as a strategist to reposition the Museum of African Art as the arbiter of African culture throughout the diaspora.
Having raised nearly $90 million through grants and donations and amassed land that has been connected and rezoned, the museum—which has not had a permanent location since opening in 1984—will now have 90,000 square feet of mixed-use space in a prominent position on Fifth Avenue at the end of Manhattan’s Museum Mile. “God found the space for us,” says McCabe Thompson, the widow of North General Hospital President Eugene L. McCabe and current wife of William C. Thompson Jr., the former New York City comptroller and Board of Education president. “I couldn’t have imagined a better location.
It all came together at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street at the corner of El Barrio and West Harlem. It literally embodies our mission: a place that could bridge communities.”
How were you considered for the position?
When Susan Vogel [the founder and former executive director] left, the museum stumbled. We were trying to figure out what we were going to do as we approached full adulthood. We were in what I called the gangly adolescence stage. [The board] decided to look for someone nontraditional, and I’m as nontraditional as you can get. I knew a couple of the trustees already, and they said, “Elsie, would you consider something really insane? We know you don’t know much about art, but we have a number of problems, would you take them on?” I said, ‘Absolutely. I wallow in the insane.’ I figured I had absolutely nothing to lose.
Since I was carrying [twins] at the time, I thought it was an amazing opportunity to give something to my kids and all others like them. For most African American kids, their idea of Africa is an embarrassment of stereotypes. So much of what they have seen is of a primitive, ahistorical people eking out a subsistent existence in the jungle. You have to be able to embrace your ancestry and look at it with abiding pride.
What gave you the confidence to accept a position totally outside of your expertise?
I had developed a career of jumping into things about which I knew absolutely nothing. I knew absolutely nothing about the art world. I considered that one of my strengths. Whatever is the established way of doing things, isn’t necessarily so for me. With a healthy sense of irreverence I will ask well-established curators, “Why does it have to be that way?” I would ask them to explain it to me. I’m not afraid to be embarrassed. I don’t want to pretend that I get it.
What is the first order of business, when you’re leading in new and unfamiliar territory?
In my case, learning the alphabet—literally. I had to acquire a broad knowledge of my subject matter, so I started visiting other museums. I did a development audit, trying to find out who our constituencies were. Who are we doing this for? Who was funding us? That gave me an idea of what our loyal constituency was. Then I had to learn how you do exhibits—and how you market exhibits to other museums, because the core of our mission has been traveling exhibits.
In March, we will open an exhibition on our fourth continent. There are so many stories we need to tell. But I had to also develop my own story about why this meant something to me. I had to be able to explain to existing and potential constituents that the museum was someplace that mattered and that it could make a difference—and to be able to say that from a personal perspective. That’s the way I advocate. What is fundraising but advocacy? When you’re selling a mission and an idea, that’s advocacy. And the more personal I made it the more successful I was.
How do you think the museum has benefitted from your curious nature?
I’m as smart as the average museum-goer, and if I don’t understand what the exhibit is about then I don’t want to do it. If [the curator] can’t explain it to me, then how is the general public going to understand? Our mission fundamentally shouldn’t be about the objects; it should be educating people about what they mean and why they are made and who made them. What was the context for their creation? It’s one of the reasons when you go to the Museum for African Art you don’t just see what I call “art under the glass.” Our exhibits tell stories that educate.
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