A Conversation with Cindy Foley, GRAM’s New Director and CEO

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On June 5, Cindy Foley began her new role as the next Director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Foley comes to GRAM after a 17-year tenure at the Columbus Museum of Art, where she most recently served as the Scantland Family Executive Deputy Director for Learning, Experience and Engagement since 2015. An accomplished educator, writer and speaker, Foley is a seasoned thought leader in the arts sector, with 30 years of experience in helping museums cultivate curiosity and drive social engagement.

In her conversation with West Michigan Woman, Foley shared more about herself and what she looks forward to in this new role.

WMW: How do you see your past experience at the Columbus Museum of Art and other arts institutions translating into your new role at the GRAM?

CF: My years at CMA were marked by significant change—specifically a huge capital campaign resulting in a new wing. The challenge I found myself addressing was institutional relevancy. We were learning that our community didn't find the museum essential, and therefore, they were not responding to our campaign. Those surveyed were pleased that there was an art museum in their community, but they didn't necessarily see it as valuable to their own lives. To address this, I analyzed what makes leisure experiences important.

People want to share meaningful experiences with their family and friends, they want to have opportunities to imagine and create, and they want a place that boosts their resiliency and a sense of joy. We prioritized visitors in our decision-making, rather than just focusing on art world audiences. The results were immediate.

I know GRAM is a different institution, but I am sure, with the wisdom I've gained, will have a direct impact on how I how guide the museum. I have spent 30 years working to reimagine the role art museums play in communities. At GRAM, I feel like I hit the jackpot—an institution that is actively evolving, asking all the right questions, and centering its visitors as it changes.

WMW: What excites you most about taking on this position?

CF: One of the projects I'm most excited about—and it's also one of the main initiatives that first drew me to this position at GRAM—is the Museum's new Creative Learning Center, a 4,500 square-foot reimagined and expanded education space designed for hands-on creative exploration for guests of all ages. It recently opened to the public during a daylong celebration last weekend, and we've been thrilled with the enthusiastic response from the community so far.

Expect participatory galleries with playful activities as well as drop in artmaking opportunities surrounded by art from the museum's collection. I see this space as an exploratory space for families, a unique date location for couples, and an integral part of the GRAM museum experience for all of our visitors.

As part of the Creative Learning Center expansion, GRAM will have the capacity to serve three times the number of school groups each year, nearly 10,000 additional students. School groups will save time navigating the previous space and will be able to spend 33% more time with art during their visit.

WMW: What aspects of Grand Rapids have you enjoyed since you began your time here? What are you most looking forward to experiencing in the near future?

CF: Honestly, fabulous food and incredible beer have helped me with the stresses of moving and starting a new job. Last night I enjoyed Brewery Vivant and tried their Strawbarb. It is summer in a can.

My summer plans are two-fold. Beaches and Art. I can't wait to spend a day at the beach. I lived in Maine for nearly a decade; moving again to a place with water and natural beauty is a salve for the soul. A perfect day for my family will be a beach in the morning and a new museum in the afternoon. Michigan's museums are the perfect catalyst for us to deepen our curiosity and growing passion for the state and its people.

WMW: What can community members look forward to within the next five or 10 years at GRAM?

CF: Someone once said to me, "People use libraries, but they visit museums." I hate this statement and am determined to flip it on its head. The GRAM team is working to create a museum that our community uses. A museum that fills the needs ever changing needs of your family.

For example, research in Great Britain is showing that a visit to an art museum can have a profound impact on your health and wellbeing. Being imaginative, finding joy in an experience and sharing it with those you love have physical responses. The research was so convincing that doctors in Canada have started giving out "prescriptions" to visit museums alongside of their prescriptions for medicine. The opening of the Creative Learning Center is a physical manifestation of our commitment to being a museum you will use throughout your lifetime, whether to kickstart creative thinking in your kids, friends or colleagues, or to give yourself the gift of building resilience and hope as you experience art and create community.

WMW: Outside of your professional work, what hobbies or activities could you be found enjoying?

CF: Knitting, sewing, antiquing—I have a pretty spectacular collection of 1950s & '60s plaid thermos'. But, I really love nothing more than engaging in the curiosities of my children—having them teach me about soccer, Japanese pastries and expanding my musical tastes!

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.

Photo Courtesy of Grand Rapids Art Museum. 


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