Oh, dip—the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation hired itself its first-ever director, and her name is Holly Harrison. In a nutshell, the foundation takes the Thomas’s collection and makes it viewable through its Art Vault space in Santa Fe and elsewhere. It also facilitates educational opportunities, talks, workshops and other such happenings across the Southwest and beyond. Harrison joins after stints at the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, so we lobbed some Qs her way.
What was the allure of joining the Thoma Foundation as its director?
First, I should say that Carl and I started talking about his and Marilynn’s vision for the foundation around 2018, so I feel very fortunate that we had a few years of establishing trust and building a great relationship before I came on board. Honestly, the allure was Carl and Marilynn. Beyond that I would say that simultaneously getting to steward their amazing collection and direct philanthropic dollars were big factors. Being the first director was more daunting than exciting, but that’s starting to wane a bit. Throughout my career, I have been invested in increasing awareness and access to art, and it is my great pleasure to determine how best to apply financial resources to help institutions and organizations partner with the foundation in achieving that goal.
Your job description contains language about “grantmaking in the rural Southwest.” Can you give us an idea of what that means more precisely?
The foundation recently shifted its geographic focus to Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. In 2020, our team and board started thinking strategically about how to support education in this region and, more specifically, rural education. Our founders have strong rural ties in the area and have long felt education is the best way to increase opportunity for young people. We’re also trying to fill a funding gap since only about 7% of philanthropic dollars in the US go to rural initiatives. But ‘rural education’ is still a very broad focus area, so we’ve been working this year with the help of the amazing grants team to really hone in on what we mean when we say we want to support ‘education.’ There’s a lot of a wonderful work happening in early childhood education in our region, but we’ve felt like high schoolers often get left out of the conversation. We’ve gotten interested in supporting the transition from high school to college, building out career pathways and strengthening wraparound supports that help students succeed. This work around education led us to deeper conversations about defining ‘rurality’ and supporting thriving rural communities.
At some point, we also want to bring in the arts and think about how our historic (and still strong) focus on arts grantmaking overlaps and strengthens the work we’re doing in education. There are so many people in our region and across the nation who have done the academic study, community engagement and activism around these areas, and I think our next step is to bring some of those folks together. We’re still very new to this field and still learning a lot, but I want to see us in the role of a convener that can bring people together to have sustained conversations about how we can foster economically diverse, culturally vibrant rural communities.
The Thoma Foundation makes what is essentially a private collection a publicly viewable thing. Do you think this speaks to the democratization of art, and are spaces like Art Vault just the beginning of a trend wherein viewing art becomes more accessible and collectors stop hiding away beautiful works?
I think Thoma’s commitment to making art accessible and available to the public is a reflection of the values of Carl and Marilynn Thoma themselves—that so much can be gained by a public appreciation and exposure to art, particularly in communities in which access to world-class art and education hasn’t always been possible. But, I also believe their work fits into a tradition of private philanthropy directed for public enjoyment. Not all collectors hide their work away for their own personal enjoyment. Think of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who intended her collection to be accessible to the people of Boston, or the Terra Foundation, whose mission is to enhance the appreciation of American art around the globe. Perhaps what you are noting is less a tendency of private collectors coming into the open with their collections and more a reflection of current beliefs that art is more than just a treasured possession, but is a conduit to social change, a spark that ignites educational opportunities and a mechanism to bring communities together. It’s an expansion of who constitutes the public audience for art.