Native Idahoan Melanie Fales was recently appointed the executive director of Boise Art Museum. In the dozen years she's worked with BAM, she's served in a number of positions—including interim executive director twice—always with a focus on art education.
Fales grew up in the small northern Idaho town of Grangeville and studied at Boise State and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. With a quick smile and an easy laugh, she told Boise Weekly how her parents encouraged her love of art, recalled her studies at an American museum in France and stressed the importance of working as a team.
How does someone from Grangeville find an interest in museum studies?
I think there are a couple of factors. I attribute my interest to my parents. Even though we were in a small community, they both have a very strong interest in the arts. Over I don't know how many years, my mom had purchased a series of those Time-Life books on art and art history. She gave me this set of books in high school saying, "You need to have these in your care. You need to be looking at these."
And, I was sort of born to be an artist. They really encouraged that even though there weren't a lot of opportunities in our rural community. We did have 4-H programs, so I took art every year, any time I could. We did, luckily, have an art program in the schools, so I did have elementary art and art in high school.
How did you come to work with the American museum in France?
When I started my studies at the Louvre school, they had all kinds of other things you could do. You could sign up for excursions to go to the Monet museum in Giverny, for instance. That was one of the very first excursions I went on with my classmates. There was an American museum there that had just recently opened and they didn't have any educational programs yet.
I thought it was something I could help with. I walked up and said, "I'm here for a year, I'd love this experience, can I help?"
They let me stay in one of the houses they had and I'd go there on Fridays for the weekend and then come back to Paris and do my studies during the week. That's when I realized that I really wanted to go into museum [studies] and museum education. When I saw the impact of education, I decided that's what my direction really should be.
When you were done with your studies in Paris, did you look at other places to study or did you know you would come back to Boise?
I've always been very independent and supported myself financially, so I looked at how I could make this happen realistically on my own. It sounds really boring, but I could get a job here.
There were great museum studies all over, but the great thing about Boise State is that, at the time, there was an interdisciplinary studies program. I started with that, but then moved into art education. The other great thing about this university is that you can customize your own program. I had some great professors who were flexible and would work with me and could appreciate my background and experience. I was able to take those graduate studies and apply that to my master's degree.
How did you get started with Boise Art Museum?
When I was doing my master's work, I started being a docent. I was a volunteer here before I left for France. I started [working] with the education curator at the time. [BAM] created an associate curator of education position, and I was able to get that. Then I went to curator of education, then you know the rest of the story.
Is there one exhibition in particular that you were instrumental in bringing or that you were particularly excited about?
It's funny because I always think the most exciting exhibition is the one we're working on now. I was instrumental in bringing in the Faith Ringgold exhibition.
I saw that in Spokane during my interim term and worked with the curatorial staff to get that here and then was really excited to get Faith Ringgold here to talk. That for me was a major accomplishment.
How do you decide what exhibitions to have here?
We [do it] as a team, because really, that's a huge part of this institution; we have to be able to function as a team. We're a small staff and we do extremely professional world-class work. We come together and talk about what the options are, in terms of exhibitions.
We have conversations about why it would be important to bring a particular exhibition to Boise, what the associated costs are, how does it fit with other themes we've explored, how does it fit with our community.
We talk about the education implications and, realistically, we look at how it can be funded. A lot of people don't realize we're a nonprofit museum. We're not government funded. We don't receive direct tax dollars. We rely on our earned income, we rely on individual donations, grants, sponsorships.
It really is the community that supports what we do. So we want to make sure we bring in exhibitions that will be supported by the community. At the same time we want to make sure we're still challenging our audiences and helping them understand not just what they already know, but helping them have exposure to things they don't know about.
How do you hear about exhibitions that you could bring to BAM?
People share information with us all the time. We hear from people asking when we're going to bring back some exhibition. We try to explain that if it's in your recent memory, we probably won't bring it back. We want to be sure we're continually doing new, innovative and interesting [exhibitions]. That's not to say [we won't show] historical icons, which is definitely part of our mission.
We've got an Ansel Adams exhibition that's coming up this spring. We've had Frank Lloyd Wright, we've had Georgia O'Keefe. Years ago, we did a Rodin.We try to provide a balance of local artists, national artists, international artists, artists who are emerging, artists who are in mid-career, artists who are those historical icons.
We try to do that strategically so that we do have that one thing people know about, and then in the adjacent galleries have something new and challenging.