At 26, many young adults are just starting to figure out what they want to do with their lives, or at least how the heck they’re going to support themselves. Then there’s Deana Haggag. In June of 2013, the 26-year-old was appointed director of the newly named and recently re-opened Contemporary. The former Contemporary Museum had suspended operations in May of 2012 after failing to raise funds for a new location. A newly minted graduate of MICA’s master’s degree program in curatorial studies, Haggag stepped up to head the museum, which is now nomadic. Sans a brick and mortar location, it will focus on presenting experiential art throughout the Baltimore community via collaborative programming with a variety of artists. In other words, it’s up to Haggag to steer this anchor-less ship in a fiscally responsible manner while delivering contemporary art experiences that will attract and energize audiences. Recently, I caught up with Haggag to find out how this bright, witty twenty-something plans to execute such a lofty plan.
You were an art history and philosophy major at Rutgers before pursuing your MFA at MICA in curatorial studies. Are you a practicing artist, a champion and appreciator of art, or both?
I am definitely not a practicing artist. I can barely write my name legibly. I happen to love the arts. I love defending the arts. When I applied to art school, I also applied to law school. Art school was a pipe dream. People told me lawyers aren’t getting jobs, there are too many lawyers, so you may as well do something you love.
As part of your master’s degree thesis, you worked with Gallery CA, a 90-unit artist residence in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, to better define the mission of the gallery for its residents and the broader community. Elaborate on that a little, and explain how that experience prepared you for this position.
City Arts is the building where Gallery-CA lives; it’s one of the first models of subsidized housing for artists. When the gallery was built, it didn’t have a solid plan for how it would work. When I went to school at MICA to study curatorial arts, someone had pitched activating the space. I worked closely with the building’s owners, and the larger Baltimore arts community, toward this goal.
Preparations aside, if someone had told you when you were 20 that you’d be the executive director of this museum in Baltimore at 26, how would you have responded?
Oh my god. I was such a ****head when I was 20. But I’m not the only person my age I know in this position. I know a lot of hard-working young people taking on leadership roles. People said to me: Do you have any idea how hard this would be? I’ve always known how to scrape and work and get by. My generation as a whole does that.
How has your appointment as director of the Contemporary been received?
There was a lot of push back, skepticism, when I got this job at 26, which I think is totally natural and normal. Baltimore is a city where finding work is not always easy. But since we’ve launched [the re-opening], things have been wonderful. There’s a whole bunch of other people who are doing it with me—the board, the advisory council, staff, volunteers, mentors. I’m running on the backs of hundreds of people.
Talk about the challenges of spearheading a museum’s re-launch. Does it feel like a fresh start, or do you feel as though you’re coming into this with baggage from its previous iteration?
A little of both. It definitely feels like running a 25-year-old startup, which comes with its fair share of benefits and challenges. History has gotten in our way, but also helped us. We’re bringing in a lot of artists to speak and work in Baltimore. I feel like they’re coming because of the museum’s 20-year history. But the decision to give up our building allows us to remain far more sustainable than we were before. It’s wonderful to start over. We’ve been really transparent about our plans. That’s refreshing and new. People feel like part of the process. There are no smoke and mirrors anymore, no institutional behemoth.
You describe the Contemporary as a nomadic, non-collecting museum. Is this a deliberate decision, one based on financial circumstances, or a combination?
We’ve never been a collecting museum. We’ve always had rotating shows. We did have a building; we got it at turn of the millennium. With the decision to close, the board spent a year, and I joined the next year, discussing whether we should be nomadic. There’s a lot of research around this. The decision to remain nomadic has been the smartest thing the board did—from programming, social, financial, and ethical perspectives. It allows us to envision much larger projects than we’ve ever been able to do before. That’s the most exciting thing.
You’ve said that the museum’s three guiding principles are: artists matter, collaboration is key, and audience is everywhere. Talk a little about how the Contemporary plans to act on these guiding principles.
Here’s an example. For the museum’s annual speaker series, the theme, partners, and location will change every year. We’ve been working this year with 13 un-established galleries. We asked them: Who is your dream artist, who’s somebody you’d love to come here? Then our staff played a matchmaking game. We have a roster of 13 artists coming. The beauty of the artists is they’re each so different, which reflects different galleries and tastes. We have to represent what’s happening in contemporary art today. We have dancers, painters, critics, things that are socio-political. It’s just so broad, the range of artists coming.
How would you describe the appetite in Baltimore for contemporary art?
Insatiable. It really is. I had no idea. For example, we kept our speaker series free, treaded lightly, and didn’t think anybody would come. Then the registration booked, and it was standing room only.
What project or exhibit of the Contemporary are you most excited about showcasing in the upcoming year?
We have two or three projects in the works. We haven’t finalized all the details, so I can’t discuss. But again, even just in these first few projects, we’re looking to make sure there’s a range, reflecting different issues and different mediums.
Where does your biggest support come from?
The arts community here has been overwhelming supportive. We’re trying to change that ‘ra ra’ into monetary support. It makes me think of something my dad told me when I got this job. He point-blank asked me: Do you give the BMA or the Walters? Now, I sit down and think about which organizations I want to support, and every single year I’ll make the contribution. It’s about re-establishing philanthropy in this investment. Without these places, it’s a dimensionless society.
What is the biggest challenge facing you as executive director of the Contemporary?
Financial. Keeping something like this alive is not very easy. But in that sense, it’s much larger than just my organization. We have this relationship with these galleries. What do I do when the year is over? How do I have the power to continue to support these underground galleries? How do I think internally, about programming, but also externally, about how we’re changing the fabric of the city and the fabric of the way arts are seen in the city?
What do you hope for the museum in five years?
I hope we will not be so extreme about our happiness and sadness. Every little thing is either the best or the worst thing. In five years, I want to know without a shadow of a doubt that the Contemporary will be there for the next 20 years because we have built a support base; it will have nothing to do with leadership. Now, it’s still in the phase where it’s about the leadership. It needs to be more patron-driven.
Do you have a favorite artist? Who and why?
Like every day it’s different. There’s always somebody new doing something different. I have a favorite audience; I love the teenagers of Baltimore City. I think they’re super weird. They’re some of the smartest people I know.
What’s on your bedside table right now?
I’m reading a ton of books about nonprofit stuff. And I have a stack of magazines from the end of the year with articles like ‘artists to watch’. I also like trashy fiction, but I don’t have a lot of time for that.
What’s something that very few people know about you?
I’m really stage shy. I am terrified to speak in front of large groups of people. Every single time I have to do it I freak out.
What do you do to unwind?
I really like the movie theater. That’s the only time I can actually say I don’t think about anything. I am not the vacation, retirement type. It has bothered every person I have dated; it bothers my friends. I love my job. It can be hard to unwind.
What do you think about the appointment of Samuel Hoi as head of MICA?
I have not actually met Sammy, but I’ve heard wonderful things about him, at least from people on my board. I know at Otis he was pretty revolutionary at looking at art beyond the campus. I am incredibly excited about his appointment. I think he’ll bring the changes that are needed at MICA while maintaining Fred’s legacy. All of these huge cultural institutions in Baltimore are transitioning. Women are taking over organizations, people of color. It shows that Baltimore is becoming more forward thinking. I think it’s a beautiful thing.
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