Long-time leader of the Albany Institute reflects on over 40 years of evolving collections, communities

After working at the Albany Institute of History and Art for more than four decades, Tammis Groft knows what’s behind every wall in the museum.

The CEO began her term with an internship and worked her way up to Chief Curator and then Deputy Director. She has been Managing Director since 2013.

“I wore a lot of hats,” Groft said.

She plans to retire once the Institute appoints a new director, and she recently took the time to sit down with The Gazette and look back on the past 45 years, during which she has helped organize more. of 100 exhibitions, to expand the collection of the Institute and to raise funds. to operate one of the oldest museums in the country.

Prior to coming to the Institute, Groft studied at Hartwick College for his undergraduate degree and then majored in American Folk Culture at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, affiliated with SUNY Oneonta.

She began an internship at the Institute in 1976 and was subsequently offered a position of Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions. During this time, she not only curated exhibitions at the Institute, but also at the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection, which was at the time in partnership with the museum. It features the work of artists from the 1960s and 1970s who practiced in New York City and worked particularly in Abstract Expressionism, including artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, and Seymour Lipton.

It was during these early years that Groft organized one of his favorite exhibitions, “Cast with Style: Nineteenth-Century Cast-Iron Stoves from the Albany Area”.

“I did this exhibit early in my career and we continue to exhibit our collection of 19th century cast iron stoves, and it is quite remarkable the impact that the stove industry in Albany and Troy has had, providing heat not only in this region but around the world, ”said Groft.

After becoming Chief Curator in 1987, she focused more on the Institute itself, which Groft helped undergo a complete transformation.

“The museum has gone through a renovation and construction project which has been a huge change; we were able to build three floors of brand new and state of the art storage, add all the appropriate temperature and humidity controls for the galleries and the educational wing, the gallery shop and the cafe, ”said Groft.

From 1998 to 2001, the museum was closed for renovation, and while most of the staff worked in a satellite office, Groft and a few others were on the construction site.

“We stayed there and spent a year making an inventory of all the collections, making sure everything was cleaned and dusted, getting everything ready for the move to the new storage. . . . So I know what’s behind every wall in the Institute, ”said Groft.

The museum’s collection has also evolved and grown exponentially during his tenure, in direct response to the changing needs and interests of the surrounding community.

“I would say our collection today is five times larger than it was in 2000. Since then, the Albany Institute has made it a priority to present solo exhibitions of artists who live and work in our community or in New York State, ”said Groft. “We’ve added lots and lots of works to the collection. . . . We’ve done almost 50 solo exhibitions, and I think that really strengthened the Albany Institute’s bond with contemporary artists.

This includes artists such as Len Tantillo, whose stunning paintings of historical scenes were on display earlier this year at the Institute in a retrospective titled “A Sense of Time: The Historical Art of LF Tantillo”. In 2020, the Institute showcased the work of Ruby Silvious, a Coxsackie artist who works with tea bags and other recycled materials.

“Regional contemporary art is a priority and remains [so]”Groft said. The museum offers much larger exhibition space than most contemporary galleries, so artists can show more works in their catalogs than they normally would.

“I think it’s great for the museum, the community and the artists. We are very proud of it, ”said Groft.

Beyond the retrospective exhibits, the Institute has also been heavily involved in the Mohawk Hudson Regional, an annual jury-paneled exhibit that features works by local artists in various museums in the region, including at the Institute of the Year. last.

Groft also helped the museum modernize its collection, bringing in objects from the 20th and 21st centuries.

“Our collections were very focused in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we wanted to make sure that we were expanding to include the materials, objects, papers and documentation to the present day,” said Groft.

This includes the search for materials and artefacts that reflect the diversity of the communities surrounding the museum.

“We have spent a lot of time in all of our communities thinking about diversity, equity, access and inclusion. Museums have carefully examined the collections to see where our collections are located. . . and make sure we reflect the needs of the community, ”said Groft. “We always strive to do a good job. There’s always more work to do, and I think that’s what’s exciting about working in a museum where you work with objects, you work with stories, you work with community members – finding the right way. best way to tell them stories – and sometimes it’s through objects, sometimes it’s through exhibits.

Recently, the Conservatives acquired a 1950s dress made by Annabelle Heath, an African-American seamstress who designed and worked in Albany during this time.

“[We’re] making sure we are looking for more contemporary dresses and also reflecting the fact that there were a number of African American seamstresses in our area, ”said Groft.

Another recent acquisition reflects the experiences of a family of Armenian immigrants who came to the region in the 1890s.

“This collection was quite wonderful as there were a lot of photographs from when the family lived in Armenia and when they moved to the Albany area,” Groft said.

Beyond the photographs, there are records of how some family members suffered from the Spanish flu and spent time in the hospital for treatment.

Throughout his years at the Institute, Groft has also been instrumental in delivering relevant educational programs and fundraising, the latter aspect being one of the most difficult aspects of the job.

“In the role of director, one of the main things you are responsible for is to raise funds, not only from our community, businesses and individuals, but also from all the grants available to museums, and in order to to be successful at grants, we need very talented staff. We need relevant projects, and I’m very happy to say that we’ve been very fortunate to have been able to raise funds from federal grants and state grants, ”said Groft.

“But raising funds is essential. It takes the board, staff and community together to be able to keep and keep your doors open, and that has certainly been a challenge due to the pandemic. “

Throughout the past year, when the Institute had to close its doors due to COVID-19, curators have maintained online exhibitions and planned virtual programs and artistic activities.

“A lot more people have attended our conferences and other types of programs because [they were] accessible by Zoom. I think it’s positive for the pandemic. When we organized the Mohawk Hudson Regional, instead of bringing 35 artists to the gallery and taking gallery tours which is wonderful, our education department created videos of each of the artists, which are now on YouTube – which is another positive pandemic, ”Groft said.

Retirement

Groft announced his impending retirement earlier this year and said the transition would be bittersweet.

“I have always loved my job. I will miss my job, but I look forward to doing a variety of things that while you work you aren’t always able to do, ”said Groft.

His career will be in the spotlight at the Institute’s “work of art” cocktail and silent auction on November 3. Institute and artists.

“Through her knowledge, experience and exemplary leadership, she has built a solid foundation that has allowed the Institute to grow and evolve over the years, and has positioned the Institute well for long-term success. term ”, said F. Michael Tucker, Chairman of the Board of Directors. “Tens of thousands of visitors to the museum have benefited from her keen sense of curatorialism and her committed leadership as Executive Director. It exemplifies the passion for art and history that the Albany Institute of History & Art strives to foster across the region and beyond.

For more information about the event or the Institute, visit albanyinstitute.org.

Albany Institute of History and Art

Year of foundation: 1791

Areas Served: Albany and surrounding counties

Mission: The Albany Institute of History and Art connects diverse audiences to the art, history and culture of the Upper Hudson Valley through its collections, exhibitions and programs.

Quote from the director: “Since its founding in 1791, the Albany Institute has changed its name seven times, we have moved to different buildings seven times, all with the aim of meeting the changing needs of people. [our] community, ”said Tammis Groft.

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