I remember the first time I met Allison Perkins. It was at a media preview event this time last year. At the time, I was trying to find my footing as “media” while she was securing hers as a “townie.” Our paths crossed and, following a casual introduction, our conversation quickly evolved into one of how to stay progressive while staying put. Although the conversation was short, what stuck with me most is the way she spoke in such an authentic way. There was a lot going on that day around us, but she remained present in that moment with me. And over the past year, as we have casually bumped into one another, she has consistently done the same.
This year is Allison’s tenth as Executive Director of Reynolda House Museum of American Art, and she is entering her second as Associate Provost for Reynolda House and Reynolda Gardens at Wake Forest University.
She came to Winston-Salem to take the helm of Reynolda in 2006, bringing with her more than 30 years of art museum education and leadership experience. Since then, she has established a strong reputation for collaboration with colleges and universities, business leaders, and arts and cultural organizations. Under her leadership, the Museum has completed a comprehensive digitization and cataloging of its collections, commissioned (jointly with the University) a cultural landscape report on the historic Reynolda property, and completed capital improvements to the house and landscape that included restoration and renovation of the 1937 indoor pool house.
She also oversaw a two-year restoration of the 19 acres surrounding the Museum.
When we reconnected a few days ago I reignite our paused conversation with a simple question: “So, why did you choose this place?” As with any good story you must start at the beginning, so we talk of her upbringing as the daughter of a manufacturing engineer.
Her father’s career had her family moving often, and early on she discovered that being the new girl in town was fun. “Everyone gravitates towards the new girl,” she says with a smile. Her mother made each move more exciting than the last. They would learn new facts about each city and, together, make new discoveries. As she headed off to college her father encouraged her to consider becoming an engineer. He cited the shortage of women in the field and the success she could achieve. “But see there was one problem,” she tells me with a laugh. “I hate math and that’s kind of important!”
Instead she chose to follow her interests and major in art history. “My father was so worried about my choice and how I would make a career out of it. But I told him I would find a job out of college in my field. I really wanted to prove to him that I could do it – and I did!” she says proudly. This was a pivotal moment in her life, one where she set a seemingly lofty goal and saw it through. This theme has continued throughout her career.
From her first day at her first job she has been a sponge, learning as much as she could about each museum’s collection. Her love of art and art history has only intensified throughout the years, and her hope is that she can continue to help light the spark that sets others on a lifelong path of learning.
Over the past thirty years, she has progressed through various positions. In addition to moving up, she has moved around, living in roughly 14 states and calling the Midwest, New England, Texas and the Mid-Atlantic home. In 2005, while working at Baltimore’s Museum of Art, she earned a place in the Getty Foundation’s renowned museum leadership program. This highly competitive program is open worldwide to museum leaders. Following completion of the program, the opportunity at Reynolda came calling. It was unexpected and, true to character, she was open to change. She had never been to Winston-Salem, or North Carolina for that matter. But she was familiar with the institution’s notable art collection. “And I’m kind of an art snob so that definitely mattered.”
~ Looking back to look ahead ~
Day one of her interview at Reynolda began with a tour of the historic home led by the woman who might just love it most, Barbara Babcock Millhouse, granddaughter of original owners, R.J. and Katharine Reynolds. Barbara, also an art history major, was the visionary behind turning the home into a Museum of American Art. She single-handedly built the Museum’s art collection, working with professionals at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Allison recounts that initial interview as she and I walk into the bungalow’s exquisite Reception Hall. “Barbara had the brilliant foresight to amass the collection in a time when American art was plentiful and affordable. She purposefully made it a point to create something for the people of Winston-Salem and she did it on such a high-level in terms of the quality of the art. It helped set this city apart.”
That day, ten years ago, Allison was eager to learn more about the Museum’s art collection. Barbara, however, had just completed a major multi-year research and restoration project and was more eager to talk about the historic furnishings. Allison says she remembers listening intently but thinking, “she keeps talking about the furniture but what about the art? Isn’t that what I’m here for?” She had never worked in a historic home like this but somehow it made perfect sense. “I thought this was a conundrum of a place. It really had me intrigued.”
When she thinks back to what really captivated her about Reynolda, it had less to do with the physical; it was a visceral reaction as she followed Barbara up to the attic. As the tour continued and they ascended the attic stairs, a familiar smell hit her.
“I can’t explain it but I had this really sharp memory of climbing the stairs at my great-grandmother’s house in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was that same attic smell and I thought, in that moment, I have to be here. I have to work here. I cannot explain why.” It was in that moment that she first felt connected to the home that would help her find hers.
Meanwhile it was her bold question that helped convince Reynolda’s Board of Directors that she was right for the job. Already invested in the Museum’s history and thinking strategically about its future, she had calculated that the home was completed in 1917, with the Museum opening to the public in 1967. “So I asked Barbara and the board if they had thought about how they were going to celebrate their centennial anniversary in 2017. I think I kind of stumped them.”
We laugh as she continues to reminisce, and find a seat on a bench on the Lake Porch. Midstory, she admits that at that time she never imagined that she would actually be present to lead Reynolda into its next 100 years. She simply wanted to get the Museum to its best possible place during her tenure and then move on, as she had always done.
“This is the longest I have ever lived anywhere,” she says. “The only place that comes close is Fort Worth, Texas, when I worked at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. My son was born in Forth Worth so it was a special place.” A few weeks ago she and her husband dropped their son off for his freshman year of college. “It’s hard to believe he was just eight when we moved to Winston-Salem. I think that, in part, is what keeps us rooted here.”
“My work, and what I do professionally, is such a big part of who I am. Being challenged and always learning is what motivates me. It keeps me grounded and keeps me excited.”
As is the case with many talented leaders, headhunters do call her from time to time, and when a new opportunity once caught her attention, she went home to enthusiastically tell her husband the news.
“He is so self-aware and confident in who he is that he has never said ‘but wait, what about me?’. He engineered his own career to move along at my pace.” So naturally she was shocked when he pushed back on her enthusiasm, saying that he didn’t think it was a good time for another move.
“He spoke of how our kids were thriving in Winston-Salem, and how we both had good jobs we loved and were part of a strong community. He put it in the context of our whole life and how this city was good for us. He challenged me to think about why I would consider letting that go.” She couldn’t deny that he was right. It was time for her to take on a challenge unlike any other before her: the challenge of growing roots and blooming where she was firmly planted. It was such a foreign concept that she knew she had to enlist help.
~ Grow where you are planted ~
Working with an executive coach, she reengineered her thought process. Instead of asking “where to next”, she’s asking “how do you create your next opportunity right where you are?” And that is precisely what she is doing.
Early on, during her first years at Reynolda, she and her team worked with a consultant to develop a strategic plan that would lead the Museum into its milestone centennial year. That plan had them looking at the bigger picture of Reynolda.
“Reynolda is just this one piece of a much bigger place. Our affiliation with Wake Forest University is such a dynamic part of our story.” In 1946, in a visionary move, Reynolds heir, Mary, and her husband, Charles H. Babcock, Sr., gifted 350 acres of the then 1,003-acre estate to Wake Forest College for the relocation of the campus from Wake Forest, North Carolina, to Winston-Salem. On October 15, 1951, President Harry S. Truman came to town to give the keynote address at the groundbreaking ceremony. Ultimately, the Babcocks gave 605 acres of Reynolda land to Wake Forest University, including Reynolda Gardens and Reynolda Village, now home to shops and restaurants.
Allison sees the Museum’s affiliation with the University as an essential part of its identity. “It links us to the incredible changes that are going on in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. That revitalized area is part of our community’s tobacco legacy and R.J. Reynolds’ legacy as an entrepreneur. And this home,” she gestures around the room where we sit, “represents Katharine Reynolds’ legacy as an entrepreneur and her civic-minded gifts to this community.”
She continues, “as I learn more and more about our history and our ties, I myself become more rooted in Winston-Salem. It becomes a part of what I’m striving for and makes me ever more committed to being here. Now that I have opened my mind to the idea that while you’re in the same position you can keep doing bigger things, I believe this is when you can truly be impactful.”
Moving forward, as she and her team enthusiastically inch toward the kickoff of Reynolda’s centennial year celebration, she looks to strengthen her connections to this community through compelling collaborations. These collaborations will help them uncover more stories from Reynolda’s past that are still untold. Most recently they opened their archives to the Peppercorn Children’s Theatre. Through this collaborative project, they helped the group pay homage to the African American community that inhabited the nearby area known as Five Row. In this new century, she hopes to further explore challenging topics like race and tobacco and how they weave the fabric that makes up our community today.
Daily she asks, “how can we be a part of a positive and dynamic change in our community? How can we let the stories of our past inform our future? And how can we take that connective tissue of our history and let it be some of the glue that binds us back together as a community?”
Yes, it’s a tall order she says. “But I think if you don’t have big lofty goals it’s hard to move forward on the small steps it takes to create change.”
~ Andrea Littell