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Barbara Koostra, former director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, sits in one of the museum’s galleries on the University of Montana campus in 2011.

The University of Montana has named a new leader of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture and will not renew the contract of its current director.

MMAC director Barbara Koostra received a letter from Provost Jon Harbor on Nov. 19 announcing her departure from the museum on Dec. 31, 2018. During her time in the role since January 2005, Koostra more than doubled the value of the collection to an estimated $25 million to $30 million.

"I am very proud to have been at the helm of the stewardship of this magnificent collection," Koostra said Thursday. "It is complex, inspirational. It tells the story of our state, but beyond that, the world's stories.

"I hope there will come a time when its value is better recognized and better housed and better celebrated. It is a serious responsibility to the public of Montana, and it is my hope it will be acknowledged fully soon."

A news release Thursday named H. Rafael Chacon, professor of art history and criticism at the campus since 1994, as the museum's new leader. In a news release and in a campus communication, Harbor praised the outgoing and incoming directors.

"Barbara Koostra brought considerable attention and programming to the MMAC," Harbor said in the news release. "We thank Barbara for her service to UM, Missoula, the state and the region and wish her the best in her future endeavors."

In the campus announcement, Harbor lauded Chacon for the lectures and gallery talks he's delivered, exhibits he's curated, and essays and catalogs he's written.

"In addition to his teaching and scholarly work, Dr. Chacon has been engaged actively in the field of museum studies since he was a college intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City," Harbor said.

***

UM is undergoing a restructuring to save money and close a deficit as a result of an enrollment decline of more than 32 percent since 2010.

This summer, it moved the museum's administration from the Office of the Provost to the College of Visual and Performing Arts. The news release notes "the change in leadership is part of the college's staffing plan."

Koostra's current employment contract notes her salary at $92,843, and Human Resources confirmed she will be paid through June 30, 2019. Chacon's contract lists his salary at $84,085. Harbor did not immediately respond to how UM would handle the faculty position Chacon would vacate, although UM aims to save money with faculty salary reductions.

The news release from UM noted MMAC curator and exhibitions coordinator Jeremy Canwell is staying on staff. 

The museum's permanent collection houses more than 11,000 objects, including art by European and regional masters. Earlier this year, the MMAC acquired pieces from the collection of copper king William A. Clark, which became available after the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., closed and dispersed its holdings. 

In the news release, Harbor praised Koostra's accomplishments, noting she raised more than $1.5 million in funds and presented more than 60 exhibitions, including works by Monet, Renoir, Rembrandt, Chagall, Picasso and Diebenkorn. She also presented the Pulitzer Prize photographs, "which broke all attendance records."

"Landing the Clark Collection was an historic first and a monumental achievement," Harbor said in the news release.

Koostra noted the Clark Collection was valued at $10 million and said she was surprised to receive notice of nonnrenewal after such an achievement.

"It's so disheartening to receive this kind of thanks for the effort," Koostra said. "It took over two years of effort with a bevy of advocates and wonderful help and then to face this nonrenewal is very — it's hard to believe."

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Koostra came back to Montana to earn her MBA after a career as a professional clarinetist. She worked as the executive director of the Missoula Cultural Council, now known as Arts Missoula, then the Montana Arts Council's communication team, and then moved to Washington, D.C., to work at the National Endowment for the Arts. She was hired at the MMAC in 2005.

At the time, Koostra said the search for a dedicated facility for the museum was a prominent part of the interview process. She said UM sought a leader to investigate an appropriate space and raise money for "our magnificent collection."

The collection is stored on the UM campus and exhibited piecemeal in two galleries in the Performing Arts and TV Center.

Koostra said the late UM President George Dennison and former executive vice president Bob Frazier were "extremely" supportive of the museum. In the last 14 years, she explored more than nine venues for the museum both on and off campus, and she said options ranged from $6 million to $18 million projects, depending on the construction or renovation scenarios.

"I have had and still have high hopes that the public and private sides of Montana will step forward for properly housing and sharing this amazing collection," she said.

Three years ago, the museum came close to a lead donor, but it did not work out "for various reasons," she said. Over the last few years, Koostra said the administration's support for the museum has diminished, "and certainly over this past year."

In the last year, UM has brought in a new president, Seth Bodnar from General Electric, and Provost Harbor from Purdue University. The administration has increased its effort to address budget shortfalls rather than sidestep them and to make necessary reductions.

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Over six years, Koostra said staffing at the museum fell from 4.5 full time equivalents to two FTE. She said for a year and a half, the permanent collection had no staff person to catalog, photograph, organization, research, or number the pieces. She said a new .5 FTE registrar started last week.

***

As the head of the MMAC, Koostra also was named the first Suzanne and Bruce Crocker Distinguished Director.

The gift from the Crockers supports the museum in a couple of ways. First, Koostra said the donation provided extra dollars as a "retention device" to augment the director's salary and also to support other staff. Second, she said a $3 million bequest will support "excellent, expert top-of-the-line directors so that future leadership is ensured."

In an email, Suzanne Crocker shared the reasons she and her husband were sad to see Koostra depart. Suzanne Crocker is a UM alum.

"We are very sorry to lose Barb Koostra as director of MMAC," Crocker said. "Barb accomplished a great deal during her tenure with the museum including mounting so many outstanding exhibitions, bringing important acquisitions into the collection, publishing many exhibition catalogs, and overseeing the care, preservation and advancement of the permanent art collection."

As the director, Koostra also spearheaded the acquisition of collections of works by artist and POW Ben Steele, Montana painter Josephine Hale, and more. She also helped acquire individual works by James Todd, Walter Hook, George Gogas and Rudy Autio, among others.

Koostra said "the collection has never been better" and is in a strong position regarding its private funding. 

She said that when she arrived in 2005, there wasn't a mission statement, board of directors, strategic plan, marketing plan, branding or conservation plan, among other things. Since then, she said she has tried to work at "creating a structural framework from which to proceed and to get us closer and closer" to potential museum accreditation.

The MMAC has "come a long way," and the collection "needs to be shared and ... is an untapped resource in terms of tourism," she said, particularly in presenting Western art that out-of-state visitors expect, a complement to the "vibrant and highly active" contemporary art community in Missoula.

As she moves ahead, Koostra said she's "looking forward to new opportunities, completely and thoroughly."

"That's in my bloodstream, to promote the arts wherever I am and in whatever way I can," she said.

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