MYSTIC — V. Susan Fisher picked up stakes last year, and, along with her two cats, Harpo and Dory, moved 2,000-plus miles across the country for her new job.
Fisher, 63, was appointed as the new executive director of the Mystic Museum of Art back in December. Soon after she accepted the job, she moved to Mystic from Taos, New Mexico, where for six years she had served as executive director and curator of the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House.
One morning last week, Fisher stood in the museum's Halsey gallery, surrounded by the artwork of the annual "Young At Art" exhibit. Moving from piece to piece, she paused to comment on the art and praise the artists and their teachers.
The exhibit is the region's foremost annual exhibition of art by children and teens. It features hundreds of original works by students from Westerly to New London, and Norwich to Stonington. Whimsical "Bark People" created by children from Calvary Nursery School in Stonington hung in one section of the gallery. Across the room were self-portraits of area high school students.
Fisher recognizes the importance of this art show, and appreciates its role in helping further the organization's progression from arts center to museum. "I am a firm believer in the impact of art on an individual and in the community," she said.
Tall, handsome and statuesque, Fisher walked across the room and smiled approvingly at a foam board that displays a famous quote from Picasso: "All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up."
Fisher has a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting and worked for many years as an artist in Philadelphia, where she had a gallery. She studied art history at the Sorbonne and museum studies at the Ecole du Louvre, and served as a correspondent for the New Art Examiner magazine for more than a decade, where she wrote art criticism and reviews.
She has remained an artist — a landscape painter — and David Madacsi of Mystic, president of the museum’s board of directors, said she had "the perfect skill set" to lead the museum into its next stage of development.
"She's a perfect match," said Madacsi. "She is just what we were looking for. She's intelligent, she's articulate and she's an engaged and careful listener."
The search for a new director started soon after George King stepped down, Madasci said, and began with a national search conducted by a New Hampshire-based firm, Museum Search & Reference.
"It turned out to be a good choice," he said, "they did a lot of the homework, met with the staff and the board and the search committee, found out what we were looking for and brought us six candidates."
The board was unanimous in its decision to offer the job to Fisher, Madasci said. "We were all charmed by her energy and enthusiasm for our mission, staff, and community."
Fisher, who has a disarming sense of humor, said, "I got the heavenly telegram."
Fisher's parents both worked on the Manhattan Project, and she grew up in Denver. She's lived in Northern California, Southern California, France, and Philadelphia, where she earned a degree in painting from the University of Pennsylvania. During her time in Philadelphia, 20 years, she was a co-founder of the Green Street Artists, an artists’ cooperative, and was director of foundation and government relations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Under her leadership at the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, the museum mounted exhibitions of its permanent collection, temporary and traveling exhibitions, and shows celebrating local and contemporary artists. Prior to that, she was director of development at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M.,
Fisher said she enjoyed living in the Mid-Atlantic area, and loved living in Taos, but was "tickled pink" to be back on the East Coast and thrilled to be in New England.
Coming from a landlocked state with mountains to a state with a coastline and plentiful water views is a special treat, she said, and one she relishes. Then, there's the proximity to Boston and New York, a board that's "fully aligned," a "phenomenal staff," and a community that has welcomed her "with open arms," she said.
She described her impressions of the community as one that was authentic, cosmopolitan and worldly, and where "the roots are deep."
"I'm very moved by the authenticity here," she said. "That's very important to me. Nothing can equal an authentic presence."
Fisher said she was still learning about the community, the museum, and the region, and was maintaining an open-door policy. The museum began as an arts colony in 1913, formed by local artists and led by artist Charles H. Davis. "I have a lot of respect for what's been done before," she said.
Museums across the globe are experiencing a sort of rebirth today, she said, as they "prove their relevance" in a changing society and look for new and better ways to engage with visitors and serve their communities. In Mystic, the museum is transforming itself from an artists’ association and art center into a regional art museum. "I want to be part of that," Fisher said.
Fisher said there are a number of projects and events in the works, intended to welcome members and new visitors: "We have a series of talks, scholarly events, social events and our big gala," she said.
In a statement, Mary Anne Stets, board chairman, said the museum was at an important juncture in its 100-year history. "Susan brings the right package of skills we need to move forward, and that includes fundraising experience, curatorial work with living artists, strategic planning, a track record of working with a national board of directors, and a reputation for building community engagement. She will help us build our collections, programming, educational and public offerings, and museum profile,” Stets said.
As for that "V" in Fisher's name ... the "V" that comes before "Susan Fisher," she said she likes to pretend it stands for Vercingetorix, the Gallic king who bedeviled Caesar — especially "After studying in France and getting hammered by the details of French history."
"Only it really stands for Virginia," she said.