The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum has a new face at the helm -- and it is a familiar one. Greenwich resident Susan Gilgore, formerly the museum's deputy director, has succeeded Sheldon Gerarden as executive director at the historic Norwalk institution.
"My hope in my tenure is to bring in to the Lockwood-Mathews not just thousands of people, but millions of people. That's my desire," Gilgore said recently.
Down to earth, yet sophisticated and chic, Gilgore, who was born in France and earned a doctorate in political science while studying in Milan, Italy, beamed as she talked about programming for 2012 that just might help her reach her noble goals.
This year is the centennial of the Titanic sinking, and the museum is commemorating it in a big way starting in the spring, thanks to a suggestion from the museum's Curatorial Committee.
"The reason we are commemorating it is very personal to Lockwood-Mathews," said Gilgore. "One of the survivors of the Titanic tragedy was actually related to the Mathews (family) and spent time at the mansion after the sinking. Her name was Helen Churchill Candee. She was a Norwalker. She grew up here and went to school here and other schools in Connecticut. She became the mother-in-law of Harold Mathews, the son of the owner of the mansion.
"But there is a lot more to it. There are other wonderful and interesting factors. She was married briefly to a man from Norwalk, who abused her, then divorced him at a time when divorce was rare. She had to go to Oklahoma to do it.
"In the 1900s, she wrote a book -- a survival guide for a single woman with children about how to earn a living as a single parent. It's extraordinary if you think about it, when it was done. She then became a socialite, renowned interior designer, a travel writer for National Geographic. She was a personal friend of Mrs. (William Howard) Taft and worked for Theodore Roosevelt. So she is an amazing figure, someone who is worth exploring."
In addition to having an exhibit focusing on Candee, Gilgore also saw an opportunity to partner with Mystic Aquarium, a division of the Sea Research Foundation, since it will unveil a permanent Titanic exhibit in April to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship's maiden voyage and sinking. Visitors to Mystic will gain insight into the technical story of how the foundation's Robert Ballard located the remains of the Titanic, as well as the impact on the crew's and public's imaginations.
"I contacted the CEO of Mystic, Dr. Stephen Coan, and lured him to the mansion for a lunch in the rotunda with the chairman of the board of the museum," Gilgore said. "We talked about a partnership, so we are going to be receiving some of their photographs that were shot during discovery of the Titanic.
"We are also talking about an education program that will be bringing students to us and to them by way of cross-marketing. And we will bring Dr. Coan to the mansion to speak about the Titanic discovery.
"Mystic Aquarium is very much about preservation. When they reached the (Titanic), Ballard didn't want anyone to pillage it. They are very much about preservation of the seas and its treasures. And we, too, are about preservation. For decades, this museum has worked at preserving its treasures and the mansion as an architectural treasure. So the Titanic brought us together, but there's that aspect, too."
Gilgore is asking anybody who has any Titanic artifacts or memorabilia they wish to loan to the exhibit to contact the museum.
While the Titanic exhibit will increase exposure of the museum, Gilgore has already helped increase the mansion's profile regionally, as well as nationally, since she started working there in 2009 as assistant director, overseeing media relations.
And it comes as no surprise to Norwalk resident Patsy Brescia, chairman of the board at Lockwood-Mathews, who interviewed Gilgore for that post.
"I just thought with her education and energy and her background that she was a perfect match for the mansion, and I still believe so. It was a wise decision that we made," Brescia said. "Susan has already attracted major supporters, such as the Xerox Foundation, and has been instrumental in raising awareness with the media and the public for our programs."
Gilgore recalled that when she started at the museum, there was no press list or clear idea of who to reach out to.
"Now, we are regularly featured in The New York Times," she said. "We've become part of the news that the media picks up and it has been extremely important to us. If you are not in the media, people think you are not in there because you are really not interesting enough."
Some of the annual events Gilgore has helped make a success are the mansion's flea market, Antiques Appraisal Weekend, and Victorian Tea.
"They have been very successful, and every year they seem to bring in more people and there is more interest in them," Gilgore said.
The museum also hosts a lecture series, and Brescia said that the goal going forward is to expand programming for kids.
Gilgore also gave kudos to Gail Ingis-Claus, a board member and artist who has taken it upon herself to bring rotating art shows to the mansion.
"I love the fact that she works with a lot of local arts associations, giving a chance to artists in Norwalk and throughout Connecticut to exhibit at a major venue," Gilgore said. "We are very happy to do that, because our scope is to be thought of as a major cultural and arts center.
"By doing these art shows, we get visitors that would not necessarily have come to the museum otherwise, but are exposed to it with the exhibit, and then they fall in love with the mansion and become supportive of it."
Support from the city
Speaking of support, Gilgore, who has lived in Paris, Milan, London and New York City, said Norwalk's commitment to history and the arts is impressive.
"I love Norwalk. I love the air I breathe in this city," she said. "There is throughout -- and we are talking about the legislators as well as the Norwalk citizens -- pride in the city and there is an interest in seeing all its museums and all its institutions succeed. We also have a great board and volunteers. We've had support from corporations and family-owned businesses. There is so much support and enthusiasm. It is not something that is fleeting. This has happened for decades. So my feeling is that I am in a great place right now. The Lockwood-Mathews is not just the most beautiful building in Connecticut, it's one of the greatest cultural centers in Connecticut."
Gilgore said she will miss working with Gerarden, who is retiring.
"At some point I said to him, `We are like an old married couple,' " Gilgore said, with a laugh. "We kind of gave to each other. I have some skills and knowledge and he has other skills and knowledge, and we kind of shared them. We worked well together. I think we both brought something that made things work."
A life in the arts
Prior to joining Lockwood-Mathews, Gilgore served as marketing director for the Connecticut Grand Opera and Orchestra from 2001 to 2008, where she managed marketing and public relations initiatives, organized press launches of international performers, and coordinated fundraisers and special events.
When she moved to the United States, Gilgore began pursuing her love of the arts in New York City as assistant curator/editor for the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation and the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities.
She later worked for University Archives in Westport, dealing with research and sales of historical documents and artifacts and in 2003 served as U.S. coordinator for the exhibition and catalog "SuperWarhol," sponsored by Montecarlo's Grimaldi Forum, assisting Germano Celant, then senior curator of the Guggenheim Museum.
A passion for art is in Gilgore's DNA. Her dad was director of the Knoedler Gallery in New York City and her uncle was director of the Museum of Modern Art.
Growing up between Europe and the U.S., Gilgore was always drawn to New York City and the English language.
"A lot of people say to me, `I love French. I love Italian. Tell me a few words.' I am just the opposite," Gilgore said. "Growing up, I listened to American singers. I knew all about Carly Simon. It had so much appeal to me.
"Two things I always knew about myself: I am passionate about the arts and history. I was 10 years old, and I was already into history. I also love writing. I worked so hard at learning English. I love communicating and being with people -- hearing their stories, looking at their artwork
"Now I find myself leading this wonderful and major institution. It's a national historic landmark. People in Europe know who we are. So it is with great excitement and pride that I have accepted the position of director."
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For information about the museum and upcoming programming, visit www.lockwoodmathewsmansion.com.