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Q & A With Tim Schiffer

March 03, 1994|Josef Woodard

Tim Schiffer, the Ventura County Museum of History and Art's new curator, is a bright, soft-spoken sort, with a broad-based curiosity and a penchant for change and challenge--within reason. A taste for moderate change is a characteristic job requirement in a museum such as Ventura's--aiming to please as large and wide a crowd as possible.

The 39-year-old Yale graduate spent eight years teaching at the College of Creative Studies, an academic enclave at UCSB. At CCS, Schiffer gained valuable experience running the gallery space, known for its chance-taking exhibitions outside of commercial or general public considerations.

It's another story entirely at the Ventura museum, where accountability is paramount, an active board and membership check every move, and aesthetic conservatism is the rule.

Because his arrival in the curator's chair last October almost coincided with the museum's plum National Endowment for the Humanities grant, Schiffer is seen by many as a timely force for positive evolution at a key time in the museum's history. "I think some people expect me to work some sort of wonder and do a make-over with this museum, and it's not in my job description," he said, laughing. "I'm just trying to do my job."

But the very nature of that job may be in transition, as the museum goes through a growth spurt and continues to refine its identity--one that wavers on a line between history and art. Schiffer recently spoke about riding that fine line. The next day, he was off to Washington, D.C., to learn a thing or two from the NEH.

How does this new role differ from the job you had at UCSB?

This is much more complex, because there are more people involved. This museum has a lot of different facets to it. It's a historical society with a library and there is a mixture of art shows and historical shows. That makes it a bit different.

There is also the whole organization of the museum--the board, the docents. It's a much larger institution. It involves working with a lot more people.

Does the issue and importance of diplomacy come up more often?

Yes, to a certain extent. I'm trying to coordinate the different activities--the tours, the membership drive, long-range planning for the museum that we need to be aware of.

The NEH grant that we just got is, for me, very exciting. My part of it involves coordinating the efforts of a number of different people to try and get this plan for the new exhibit done. There is a lot of responsibility attached to it.

It seems like this grant might usher in the next phase of the museum's life. Is that true?

I think so. I think this museum is on a definite upward tack. I hope that it will allow us to have a really good installation in the gallery. This museum gets a lot of use by school kids and tour groups, so it should be really good. It's one of the only things of its kind that's available in Ventura.

The art aspect of the museum came into being much later than the historical component. Does that color the attitude toward exhibitions?

There is, not animosity, but some people in the membership favor the historical aspect, and some favor the art aspect. When they changed it to the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, some people thought that was a good change, and some didn't.

I think people are OK with it. I gave a lecture about art a few weeks ago and 40 of the docents showed up. That was a good showing. A lot of the shows that we do are crossover between history and art, like the (late Santa Paula artist) Cornelius Bottke show coming up. We're going to do a show of all his etchings. He's part of the history of Ventura County.

On the other hand, I'm going to do a tool show this summer--featuring historical tools and appliances. I think that will go in the opposite way: It's a historical show that will have an art side to it, because a lot of those tools are almost art. Old tools get into the art realm.

My idea is that you try to have a variety of shows so that people will be encouraged to come in and broaden their interests a little bit.

Do you feel that you have to do that with kid gloves on, not stepping too far outside of certain parameters of taste?

I would say that I don't see it being a museum for cutting-edge contemporary art. I just don't think that's what the museum is about. The mission of the museum, as it's written, is about Ventura County art-wise and history-wise.

Part of what the art shows should do would be to encourage artists in Ventura County and give them some kind of venue to show their work, and also to show historical work that relates somehow to the county or is by county residents.

Next year, I'm hoping to do a show of Otto and Vivika Heino, the ceramic artists from Ojai. They've been here since the '50s.

Do you have in mind to change the identity of the museum?

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