Tibbie Dunbar was the first Executive Director of the A+D Museum in Los Angeles and now she's moving on after twelve years in that role. AAO spoke with her in an exit interview of sorts, asking for her reflections on what she learned and how the field has changed over the last decade.
Association of Architecture Organizations (AAO): How did you get involved in this kind of work?
Tibbie Dunbar (TD): It wasn't something I was actively looking for, but the opportunity came about through people that I was working with in another capacity. They were board members of the Museum and they said, "I think you would be quite good at this. Are you interested?"
I come from a design background, with a Master of Fine Arts in metal and design, so I was more on the D side of the equation at the time. I have always enjoyed the history of architecture and my brother is an architect so I have a genuine respect and admiration for the practice. It also felt like my life was coming around full circle as my mother was a museum curator and I practically grew up in museums. I thought this opportunity was just too great a creative challenge to turn down. That's how it started 12 years ago. It was an incredible journey.
AAO: When you started what did you find? What was there?
TD: When I started in 2004 the Museum was just four years old. It was definitely a young grassroots institution with a hardworking and passionate board of directors. A lot of what made it survive was in-kind donations. It had already moved twice because it was located in donated space. Within three months of my starting, we had to move again and this time the Museum didn't have a place to immediately land. We were very fortunate to have the assistance of the AIA Los Angeles chapter. They gave me a small office from which to operate.
The Museum’s nomadic life continued until we decided to change our paradigm. Stephen Kanner, one of A+D’s founders and the board president at the time, and I did an enormous campaign to raise not just funds, but also support in critical mass from the design and architecture community of Los Angeles. This allowed us, finally, to move into a space where we paid rent and could look forward to stabilizing and long-term planning.
AAO: A lot of architecture centers are constantly debating among themselves whether they should be focused specifically on architecture whether they should open the door to design. Were those distinctions important at the Museum?
TD: The founders of the Museum were architects, but they always envisioned it being an architecture and design museum. They were inspired by places like the Design Museum in Helsinki, and so it had always had that as part of its mission.
When the board ran the Museum, the focus was more on architecture. When I came on as director we started to do more design exhibitions. There are a lot of people in the practice of architecture who are doing interesting design work. I think there are a lot of gray areas within the design disciplines. We strived to explore what was going on in these cross-disciplinary activities.
AAO: Which exhibits or programs over the years stand out in your memory?
TD: When I started, the Museum was primarily curating and organizing exhibitions. I started to organize education and cultural programs. The first K-6th Grade architecture and design based workshop series and Los Angeles walking tours were extremely successful and brought the Museum to the forefront by providing experiences that people were actively looking for.
I'd have parents calling and saying, "My child's been interested in architecture since she could pick up a pencil, but I can't find any programs for this." At that time, I didn't have anyone to run these programs or a place to host them, so I called up architecture firms and I asked, "Would you be interested in hosting an education workshop for young people in your firm's office on a Saturday morning? We'll work on the curriculum together. We'll get the kids." They said yes! It was an incredible opportunity for these young people not only to experience a really great workshop taught by professionals in the field, but also to see behind-the-scenes at the firms. It was enormously successful.
And then we created “Urban Hikes: Forgotten LA.” These hikes we were as much cultural as they were architectural. It was really about exploring the city, which I saw as part of our mission as well. We looked at urban conditions and urban culture, taking people out of their comfort zones and opening their eyes to parts of the city with incredibly rich histories. It was another wonderfully successful program.
Another program that stands out - because I think it really was a good shape-shifter for the demographics of the Museum - was a performance based series we presented with SKYY Vodka. At the time, SKYY was aligning themselves with design in their branding and marketing, and their PR company came to me and said, "SKYY wants to fund your dream project." So we did this amazing series of concerts where electronic musicians were playing and graphic designers were corresponding with graphics right beside them, and they were all working live, creating content live. It was all there at the Museum, with interactive components projected all over the building. It was free because SKYY underwrote it, and every evening we had at least seven hundred people attending. These were people that were coming out of the music scene. They had most probably never been to A+D Museum before, but there they were, experiencing our exhibition at the time on Los Angeles developers.
That was our goal, to put architecture and design in front of people, to really get people excited about it.
AAO: Do you think that people are more receptive to this kind of public programming now as compared to when you started?
TD: I remember when I started, I was looking for other architecture and design institutions or centers around the country. I found very few that were investigating both architecture and design together. So I felt we were really filling a niche that needed to be filled. There has been a growing interest in design and it’s getting much more exciting all the time.
AAO: What factored in to your decision to leave the Museum?
TD: I felt that I had helped bring the Museum to a really interesting place. It is now in its first freestanding building in a very vibrant section of the city that is changing rapidly. I felt like I had taken it to a really good place and it was time for a new creative challenge. I was very pleased when I learned that they had hired Dora Epstein Jones as the next Director. I've known Dora for years. I think that was an excellent choice.
AAO: What are you up to now?
TD: I left the nonprofit museum culture, but I'm still very involved with the architecture and design community. I do business development for bulthaup, a German kitchen design company. It's a product that is exquisitely designed and manufactured, and it's a company that comes from a really good core philosophy of design. The company wanted more event-based programming and content creation, and that's what I was doing at the Museum, so it was a nice opportunity. The creative stuff I loved doing at the Museum, I'm doing here, and for a company that I believe in 100%.
AAO: Do you have any advice for young people running centers and trying to follow in your footsteps?
TD: The hardest part was the fundraising, and I would say get that in place first. Get your board in place and working hard. Get some really serious investors. If it's going to survive, it needs to have that infrastructure in place before you start. Then you can set an operating plan and set where you want to be in two years, five years, ten years. With those things in place, you know you've got some measure of sustainability.