Picture imperfect 

The most widely circulated story behind the departure of Alison Nordstrom from the Southeast Museum of Photography, a Central Florida gem and one of only 12 photography museums in the country, goes something like this:

Through hard work, constant networking, an extraordinary eye for photographic detail and a knack for marketing, Nordstrom built the museum from the ground up, inhabiting a vacant building on the Daytona Beach Community College campus and filling it with vital, profound photographs from award-winning artists. Then, after a decade of effort that helped put the museum on the map, the director was unceremoniously pushed aside last month by a college administration too unsophisticated to appreciate her brand of art.

The Orlando Sentinel and Daytona Beach News Journal quickly showed outrage, the latter labeling Daytona Beach President Kent Sharples a "proud conservative" who had censored Nordstrom by demanding she display a patriotic show in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedies. What's worse, according to this version, was that the administration was undermining Nordstrom by forcing her to funnel all future decisions through a newly formed exhibition and acquisition committee.

From there, it wasn't such a slippery slope toward insignificance and banality. A News Journal columnist hinted that art-by-committee would produce nothing more than McArt. The Sentinel rounded up a group of free-speech advocates who warned of post-Sept. 11 censorship inspired by the basest form of jingoism. Because of those press accounts, Nordstrom's advocates came to her defense. Lucian Perkins, a Washington Post photographer and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, called Nordstrom's departure a "victory for mediocrity." Patricia Snavely, who spent seven years working with Nordstrom as the museum's associate director, said the museum could fall apart in the wrong hands. "I'm so upset all of this is happening," she said. "Mainly this is a loss to the community."

Letters to the editor argued both sides. One writer branded Sharples an "embarrassment to American education" and called for his resignation. Other writers defended the college. "Ms. Nordstrom is a brilliant, driven curator, one of the best in Florida," wrote Martha Carden, who worked under Nordstrom for several years. "But she was not known for her consideration of other's ideas or concerns."

Lost in the war of words was Nordstrom herself. Her comments to the News Journal, Sentinel and Orlando Weekly were similar: The events that led to her resignation were weird, painful, confusing. She didn't know what to make of them. So, the media did it for her, focusing on an Afghanistan exhibit that Nordstrom was planning. She wanted to do a photojournalistic exhibit, one similar to a Gulf War show she brought to the museum in 1992. That show exhibited rarely viewed images of the war, pictures not seen because of military censorship. Sharples suggested a more domestic, flag-waving exhibit. Nordstrom offered to do the two shows together. Do one, then the other, Nordstrom was advised. "It was about a simple request that got blown out of proportion," says Frank Lombardo, vice president of academic affairs. "All it was was a request."

Reporters should have realized there was less to the issue than they were reporting -- not because administrators said so, but because even Nordstrom was unsure of what to call the events that led her to quit. "I never used the word censorship to describe what was happening," she says.

She says the most appropriate label would be loss of academic freedom. "I have been very happy with the amount of academic freedom at this job," Nordstrom says. "When that was changed, it was no longer appropriate for me to be here. There was not a place for me and what I do. That was made very clear to me. I didn't want to spend 90 percent of the workday fighting battles."

Administrators worry the allegations may have harmed the college's reputation. At the same time, they say there won't be a problem finding Nordstrom's replacement or continuing her legacy. "Out of 11 years, one time someone asked, 'Can you do these things separately?'" says Nancee Bailey, DBCC's vice president for academic outreach and support, and Nord-strom's supervisor. "That doesn't seem like a lot of oversight and micromanaging. The freedom of what Alison had to do in the museum has been constant."

Alison Devine Nordstrom, who turns 52 this week, was born in Boston and worked for most of her career in the Northeast. She was executive director of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in Vermont for five years before earning her master's degree in museum studies from the University of Oklahoma, where she was praised for her thesis, "Images of Paradise: Photography in Samoa 1880-1930." Samoan photography would be among the first of Nord-strom's successful shows at the Southeast Museum.

Nordstrom was one of four women who were finalists for the DBCC curator position. Her attraction to the job, she said in a letter accompanying her résumé, was the "outstanding quality" of Southeast's permanent collection. She also mentioned her desire to continue teaching -- she had been an instructor at several colleges, including a language institute in Japan -- and to work closely with DBCC's faculty. The appeal was understandable; DBCC's photography department has enjoyed a stellar reputation for decades, and is ranked among the top in the nation for community colleges. Ironically, faculty members later would become some of Nordstrom's biggest detractors because, they say, of her inability to work with them.

When Nordstrom was hired, she inherited two floors and 10,000 square feet of blank museum space. The first eight months of her tenure were spent working out of an office in the visual-arts building. She spent her early months painting the museum's interior and covering two windows unfortunately included in its design. (Those windows now have a special covering to keep out the ultraviolet light that might damage photographs.)

Nordstrom says one her first tasks involved talking with faculty, administrators, students and friends of the museum to shape its mission statement. Defining things such as staffing and training, that statement later was approved by the college board of trustees. She also began cataloging the permanent collection, which emphasized contemporary photographers Sally Mann, William Klein and Lorie Novak. Today the museum owns the largest collection of post-revolutionary Cuban photography in the country.

Nordstrom's position was unusual. Not only was she curator, but she also was the museum's director -- one who had no board of directors to answer to. "For a start-up company, it wasn't a bad way to go," says Kevin Miller, the chairman of DBCC's visual-arts program. "But it's hard to imagine any [established] venture operating that way. A change was overdue."

One of the first shows to hit it big defined what made the Southeast Museum special. The show, "Picturing Paradise: Colonial Photography of Samoa, 1875 to 1925," was curated by Nordstrom in collaboration with the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum of Ethnology in Cologne, Germany. Not only did it showcase compelling photography, it also provided opportunities for departments other than photography -- anthropology and history, for example -- to use the museum as an educational tool. The exhibit later traveled to Oxford, England, and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Other successful shows soon followed. "Vietnam Requiem" presented the brutal aspects of war by photographers, some of whom didn't survive the conflict. "Imag(in)ing the Seminole" took a second look at how the media stereotyped the Indian tribe. "Raised by Wolves" showed pictures of homeless teen-agers. "Into the Storm: Photography of the Gulf War" exhibited rarely seen pictures of the Persian Gulf conflict.

Nordstrom didn't organize these shows. They came to the Southeast Museum as rented or "canned" shows. But Nordstrom had the good sense to add something to them. In the Vietnam exhibit, for example, she also displayed snapshots taken by Vietnam veterans living in Daytona Beach. In conjunction with "Raised by Wolves," the museum hosted a forum on the teen-aged homeless.

Among the more popular shows Nordstrom pulled together was "Midway: Portrait of a Daytona Beach Neighborhood," an exhibition of rare Gordon Parks photos. Parks, perhaps the nation's most prominent black photographer, took pictures of Daytona Beach's black community when he was a photographer for the U.S. Office of War Information in 1943. Nordstrom was tipped that the pictures might exist and eventually located them at the Library of Congress. Another popular success was last year's "Voyages (per)Formed: Photography and Tourism in the Gilded Age," based on Nordstrom's doctoral dissertation and for which she selected travel photographs she found in the archives of the Boston Library. The exhibit won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and was also shown in Boston.

For the most part, Nordstrom worked as a curator unbothered by academic politics. She took a sabbatical to complete her doctorate in cultural and visual studies from The Union Institute in Cincinnati. The museum won grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, a decade award for cultural significance from UNESCO and an award from the Ansel Adams Research Fellowship.

"It is a beautiful museum," says Perkins, the Washington Post photographer. "When I arrived in Daytona Beach [in 1992], I was shocked that such an institution existed in Daytona Beach. You often don't see museums that nice in big cities -- certainly not with that quality of exhibitions. If that museum was transplanted to Washington, it would attract big crowds. It would compete with all the museums here in Washington."

Nordstrom also continued to oversee exhibits as a guest curator at Stetson University, the University of Florida and Rollins College. One of her Rollins shows, "Unexposed Identities," opens this week at Cornell Fine Arts Museum. The exhibit focuses on the abstract photographs of Cindy Sherman, Gerald Slota and Frank Yamrus, and highlights images of faces and people in non-conforming, sometimes surreal poses intended to add meaning to the portraiture.

Yet from the outset of her tenure, Nordstrom felt tension from DBCC's photography department. She says resentment likely stemmed from the administration's decision, under former DBCC President Phil Day, to make the museum independent of the department.

Other museum employees felt the tension as well. "People wanted things done the old way," says Snavely, the former associate director, who now is a curator in New York. "I'm surprised it's still going on."

Even so, Nordstrom says it wasn't until this fall -- two years into the tenure of a new college president -- that she realized the administration wasn't fully behind her. "There may have been a lack of interest on their part or a lack of understanding of what we do," she says. In another conversation, she adds, "There was a communication failure from the beginning [of the Sharples administration]. Maybe we failed to understand each other."

Kent Sharples became DBCC's president in July 1999 after 18 years as president at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in Conway, S.C. A tall, thin man of 58, he has a reputation as a smart businessman with expertise in fund raising and lobbying. At DBCC he has added three instructional courses, encouraged the mentoring of college employees for management positions, and formed a council in which faculty and administrators jointly plan curriculum and shape the mission of the college.

Several weeks after the newspaper reports of Nordstrom's departure were published, Sharples still was feeling the sting of their accounts. Not only did the papers not give him a chance to respond, he says, but they also misrepresented his politics. He is a fiscal conservative, perhaps. But a proud conservative? No. Not a man who identified with the Woodstock nation and once voted for Eugene McCarthy, the left-leaning Minnesota congressman.

It was several weeks after Sept. 11, Sharples recalls, when he sat down with Nordstrom and Bailey for their monthly meeting. On a whim, he thought of the patriotic show, he says. The museum would be the "perfect medium" to unite Daytona Beach and the college campus. "Where does it say that a museum cannot and should not have a feel-good show at a time when we need to feel good about ourselves?" he asks. "Where does it say -- after 3,000 people were killed in the World Trade Center -- that we shouldn't use a museum in the process to help with the healing? If that's McArt, then you can supersize mine because I feel we have an obligation to heal the community."

"Feel-good exhibits are not by nature bad exhibits," says Gary Libby, executive director emeritus of the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences. "But they don't teach people much about themselves and their world. They reinforce existing beliefs and prejudices. Exhibits that challenge viewers oftentimes make one feel threatened, embarrassed or inferior. Exhibits that question and challenge help initiate change, where a feel-good exhibit reinforces the status quo. Alison Nordstrom was a change agent. Dr. Sharples, from his statements, believes in maintaining the status quo."

Yet Sharples says he has no desire to select subject matter or otherwise influence the direction of museum exhibits. He says his desire is to encourage discussion about museum exhibits; the museum administration simply needed to be restructured so that it was more accountable to the rest of the campus. Administrators just want to entice more visitors to the museum as well as allow for more input from faculty and the community. "In a sense, the museum has been run at the sole discretion of one person," Sharples says. "In a sense, Alison's guilty of the sin I've been accused of committing. The irony of the whole thing is, as I've attempted to bring collegiality to the museum, it's being interpreted as censorship."

After the meeting with Sharples, Nordstrom met in November with her supervisors, vice presidents Lombardo and Bailey. Lombardo is the one who suggested to Nordstrom that the two shows, hers and Sharples', be done separately. Lombardo says he knew Nordstrom didn't like the idea because she raised the issue of censorship during the meeting. Still, he thought she had handled his suggestion well. "When she first walked out, I thought she was OK," he says.

It was also at this meeting that discussion of the exhibition and acquisition committee -- an idea that had been floating for awhile -- was formally broached. Lombardo emphasizes that Nordstrom was not being dictated to. Certainly she wasn't given a list of photographs to display or, conversely, photographers whose work she couldn't display. In fact, she still could have combined the two shows, he says, and the administration would have been none the wiser. "You know when we would have found out?" Lombardo asks. "When we walked in the door."

Nordstrom immediately became alarmed that the proposed committee was being formed to rein in the museum's supposed "liberal bias." Nordstrom recalls those exact words being used.

But administrators remember it differently. "I recall that during her meeting with [us], there was a discussion pertaining to having only one point of view, or voice, for all of the shows," says Bailey. "This may have been referred to as a bias."

What role the committee will play is vital to the future of the museum. The role of the curator calls for a connoisseur, someone educated enough about the art to know what will stimulate and provoke. If it assumes that role, an oversight committee would not only render Nordstrom's position useless; it would also undermine the most traditional means by which art reaches the public. "A curator will research and bring to an oversight committee exhibitions that he feels are acceptable," says Libby, who not only directed the arts-and-sciences museum but also is a former president of the Florida Art Museum Directors Association. "The oversight committee can then pick and choose exhibitions brought to it by a curator. Ms. Nordstrom was told the committee itself would select exhibits, which eliminates the role of the curator."

Yet administrators say the function of the acquisition and exhibition committee has not been fully developed. The intention, says Kevin Miller, the visual-arts chairman who was named as the museum's interim director, was never to put together "a bunch of Stalinist bureaucrats saying nyet to everything." It will likely do nothing more than make recommendations for adding to the museum's 6,000-piece permanent collection.

"The committee will be there to represent the planning part," Miller says. "It's not there to micromanage. Nor is it there to proscribe. It is not a committee that does curatorial work. That is still a form of scholarship."

Several days after her meeting with Lombardo and Bailey, Nordstrom submitted her resignation letter on Nov. 27. The two-sentence memo gave no reason for her departure. It mainly said she intended to fulfill the remainder of her contract, which runs through June 30. (Although she exited immediately, she officially is on paid leave and vacation until then.)

The media accounts left many DBCC administrators and faculty members feeling betrayed; they assumed it was Nordstrom who alerted reporters and claimed censorship. But that's not true, says a reporter at the News Journal, which broke the story; the original tips came from elsewhere.

Moreover, after the story broke, letters to the editor began to illuminate a harsher side to Nordstrom's personality. The gist was that maybe she was too rigid for academic life. Though many describe a person who is warm and personable, detractors found it easy to paint her as a fish out of water, one who looked down on a city associated more with stock cars than high art. Yvonne Newcomb-Doty, DBCC's dean of educational support, says Nordstrom called Daytona Beach a "cultural wasteland." And more than one person repeated words attributed to Nordstrom that described the college as a "second-rate school in a third-rate community."

Nordstrom says she said no such things, and lists a number of attributes she likes about the place -- the beach and ability to garden year-round, for example. In interviews, she had nothing but compliments for the college and the community. "I'm not the only person to roll her eyes during Bike Week," she says.

But a Nordstrom fan who characterized her as a "blazing, insane genius" nonetheless observed, "she said very unkind things about people in the most casual way, thinking they would never come back to haunt her."

Because of the things she said, some faculty members avoided her. Gary Monroe is a DBCC photography professor who sat on the search committee that hired Nordstrom. He says he would literally cross the street when he saw her coming to avoid negative remarks about colleagues. "Her lack of collegiality, her incessant negativism and self-aggrandizement made her believe that we weren't deserving of her existence," he says. "She never had a nice word about anyone unless you were in her stable."

At art openings, Nordstrom introduced professors as "photo studs," which they felt wasn't meant to emphasize their virility but their perceived lack of brains. "We got tired of her not only ignoring us but even denigrating the program and faculty," says Patrick Van Dusen, a professor of commercial photography.

Professors also note defensively that -- while Nordstrom celebrates the museum's existence only in terms of her 10 years there -- DBCC has had a photo gallery since 1978, when professor Dan Biferie began exhibiting student and faculty work in the library and visual-arts building. Eventually an 800-square-foot gallery was built in the south end of the Goddard Theater. Even then, the photography program had a reputation strong enough to attract master photographers such as Arnold Newman, Robert Frank, Yousuf Karsh, Eddie Adams, Robert Rauschenberg and Mary Ellen Mark.

"The museum already had a direction," says Biferie. "It already had momentum. It already was a living thing. The only thing new was the [museum] building was built."

Professors remember as many as 400 people attending presentations by those masters. The museum, by comparison, averaged 500 visitors a month during the first part of 2001. And some in the department take issue with the ads Nordstrom placed in journals such as Photography in New York when she might have concentrated on promotions to attract local visitors. (Nord-strom says the ads helped build credibility with donors.) That has led some to conclude that the department has lost ground with Nordstrom running the museum.

"We don't have an aura about ourselves any more," says Monroe. "We hope we get it back with a new curator."

Van Dusen hopes to see more shows that have practical value to students. During Nordstrom's tenure, he says, exhibits tended toward the abstract, the theoretical, at the expense of commercial photography. "We lost that mix," he says. "We stopped doing the applied shows that I thought were real important for the program."

Might certain professors merely have been jealous of Nordstrom's achievements? "In a collegial environment," Monroe responds, "one person's success fosters everyone's success."

Nordstrom notes that as many faculty members supported her as criticized her. She says she never intended to alienate the photography department. She did what she could to ensure that the department and the museum worked together, she says. She taught photography and museum classes part-time, reviewed student portfolios, and hosted shows featuring faculty and student work. She emphasizes that the museum's mission was to augment the instruction of the entire campus, not just visual arts. "The museum has always served the photo department as well as all the other departments at DBCC," she says. That's one reason the museum was broken off from the photo department in 1990, she says.

Now, with Nord-strom's departure, the college has again placed the museum and the photo department under one administrator, Nancee Bailey, who holds a master's degree in art history and sits on the board of trustees of the DeLand Museum.

The college also has carved Nordstrom's former job as director and curator into two roles. The feeling was they should have been separated long ago, but Nordstrom wouldn't have allowed it.

Kevin Miller will serve as director until a new one is hired, probably by July. The museum might handle the curator duties with guest curators, or by contracting the duties on a temporary basis. And administrators are moving ahead with appointments to the acquisition and exhibition committee, which also should be in place by July.

Administrators don't seem worried about losing state and federal grants. Nordstrom helped secure about $58,000 of the museum's $320,000 annual budget through the grant process, according to the college. Miller expects the same amount to be available for the next director. "It ought not be a problem," he says.

Given the long-range planning required for museum exhibits, the irony is that for the next two years the Southeast Museum of Photography still will present shows Nordstrom selected. There are no plans to alter exhibits in her absence. In fact, this spring Nordstrom's Afghanistan exhibit will proceed as planned. Sharples' feel-good show was not scheduled. The feeling was that there wasn't enough art in the permanent collection to make his exhibit work.

What the museum will look like beyond that is a guess. But administrators are certain there will be changes. "In five years, it won't be the way it is now, for sure," says Miller, adding, "We have no plans to allow it to fall into disarray or dismantle the reputation this museum enjoys nationally or internationally."

And they don't worry about finding a replacement for Nordstrom. They say it's important to remember, when considering the future of the museum, that administrators weren't objecting to the usual censored issues: nudity, violence, religion.

"We are not afraid of art," says Bailey. "That's bottom line. We embrace diversity, different voices and different visual images. Always have."

Administrators have discussed building a new museum, one that sits on college property closer to International Speedway Boulevard. The new building might include a cafe and likely would be promoted as a marquee facility, a gateway into the campus. A move to that building, like Nord-strom's departure, is seen as another development in the evolution of the museum. "Are we losing a person who is a great curator? Yes, we are," Lombardo says. "Does she have talent? Yes, she has. But like everything else in life, we'll move on."


More by William Dean Hinton


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


© 2016 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation