A Museum’s Renaissance

By Jay Boyar and Harry Wessel

Director Ena Heller is bringing fresh ideas to the Cornell, a facility with an eclectic collection, a rich history, a stunning facility and, up to now, an extremely low profile. But that’s likely to change. 

Ena Heller, PhD.  Bruce A. Beal Director, Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
Ena Heller, PhD. Bruce A. Beal Director, Cornell Fine Arts Museum.

You’ve probably never even visited one of the most interesting and inspiring museums in Central Florida. Ena Heller, director of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on the campus of Rollins College, aims to change that.

“I’ve heard it a number of times,” she says. “‘We know there’s a museum there, but we thought that was just for the students.’”

One way that Heller has been trying to change the museum’s image — or lack thereof — is by offering free admission to everyone for all of 2013. And from Sept. 17 through Dec. 8, the Cornell will present three exhibits that will certainly raise the museum’s profile, both on campus and off (see Events for more details).

The upcoming trio of exhibits might be regarded as an unofficial coming-out party for both the museum, surely one of the region’s most precious under-the-radar jewels, and for the innovative Heller, who has been at the helm for less than a year.

“I’m hoping that this museum can become much more open to the community,” she says, “and much more of a resource.”

Heller, 49, was born and raised in Romania, emigrating with her parents to the U.S. in her early 20s. She went on to earn an M.A. and a Ph.D. in art history from New York’s Institute of Fine Arts, after which she founded and directed the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in Manhattan.

She was appointed to the Cornell post in September 2012. She spoke with Winter Park Magazine about parking problems, carpet squares, Kindle, Mad Men, the connection between art and religion — and the challenges presented by her job.

Q: The Cornell has three current exhibits, one featuring its permanent collection, another on birds of Florida, and a third related to the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s infamous Kristallnacht. What’s on tap for next year?

A: An exhibition documenting the history of the Morse Gallery [the forerunner of the Morse Museum of American Art, which was first located on the Rollins College campus] has been moved to the spring. We did that because we wanted to be able to participate in the commemoration of Kristallnacht, in particular to tell the story of what happened to the art that was looted.

The Morse Gallery exhibit will coincide with an exhibition of prints by Henri Matisse. We’ll also begin showcasing the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art starting in 2014 — possibly as early as spring, but by the summer and fall for sure.

Some of the Alfond Collection will be on view at the new Alfond Inn, with the artwork rotating to the Cornell. It’s a growing collection and an extraordinary addition for us, because we don’t have anything of that stature as far as very recent art is concerned.

If we continue to take loan exhibitions that originated elsewhere, I want to be able to relate them back to our collection. One of the things that’s been missing lately has been a sense of coherence and consistency, which in my view is necessary in the process of building a brand.

I’ve asked people what’s special about the Cornell, and nobody really knows. I refer to it as the personality of a museum. I don’t think anybody really knows what our personality is.

Q: What should that personality be?

A: Having been here now for a year, I’ve learned a lot more about what we have. So I’m hoping our personality will come through in the permanent installation of our collection, which will start in January 2014.

We’re reserving the largest gallery in the museum for it, to really show the breadth of the collection. We want to connect art from different parts of world, from different points in time, in a way that I’m hoping will get people to think about it in a slightly different way.

Our personality really revolves around our teaching mission. We were reviewed in Orlando Weekly, which used the line, “Art That Makes You Think.” That defines not just the personality of the museum but also the way in which we want the art to inspire people. We’ve sort of adopted it as our tagline.

Q: Isn’t the Cornell’s collection of European art central to its personality?

A: That’s the No. 1 distinction we have that doesn’t seem to be known in the community. When I came here in September 2012 there was not one thing on view from our collection. I pulled out some sculpture and put it in the orientation gallery.

Before the museum was expanded in 2005 and this building was opened, we had about half the space we have now. It was teeny. They did this big, successful capital campaign, saying that we needed more galleries because we needed to have part of our collection on view all the time.

There have been some shows of the collection, obviously, but not as consistently as I would like. That, to me, is very important, because we have good stuff.

Q: Has it been tough adjusting to a secular museum after heading one that’s religious in nature?

A: Actually, MOBIA is secular. It’s a museum that’s about religious art, but it’s not a religious museum. Walk through the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and tell me what percentage of the art you see that has some connection with the Bible. I used to joke: Give me 10 minutes with any piece of artwork and I’ll find a connection with the Bible.

But what I missed at MOBIA was that we didn’t have a permanent collection. Every exhibition you did was entirely different from what you did before. On the one hand it felt very liberating: It exposed me to so much art. It was my first full-time job after graduate school, and it got me out of the 14th-century chapels in Florence that I had written my dissertation on.

Cornell Fine Arts Center 2012. Photo: Scott Cook
The Cornell’s facilities were expanded in 2005, giving the museum roughly twice the space. Now there’s room to showcase more of the permanent collection, which encompasses art from around the world in virtually every genre.

Q: Will you be teaching any classes at Rollins?

A: I will definitely consider it, but I need to focus on getting this museum back on track.

Q: Is it off track?

A: I think it has been. This museum has been without stable leadership for a very long time. There’s been a bit of a revolving door since Arthur Blumenthal (director from 1988 to 2007) left. There have been two permanent directors and three interims.

The lack of stability at the top has made it impossible for the staff or the board or anybody involved to create a longterm vision. Certain programs went dormant or even moribund. So there’s a lot of that to take care of and bring back.

For me, the single greatest challenge, the one thing everything else is dependent on, is that we need to plan our exhibitions farther in advance. I’m used to working two to three years out. Right now I should have a full schedule through the end of 2015. It takes that long to create an exhibition that’s thoughtful, that has real new scholarship, that has a significant catalog that comes with it.

Once we can schedule for the next three to four years, that puts me in a much better position to go out to the community and get people excited about what’s coming down the pike.

There hasn’t been a lot of fundraising for the museum because there wasn’t anybody here doing it. There are a number of donors that need to be cultivated and engaged again.

Q: Won’t it be tough to compete for donors with all the nearby museums?

A: The Morse doesn’t need to fundraise; that’s the one museum everybody knows here. I think we should be the other museum that everybody knows. I’m a little biased, but there are certain things about the Cornell that are really unique.

We’re the only museum in the greater Orlando area that has an encyclopedic collection that’s not just about American art. We also have the infrastructure of the college and all the professors who work in fields related to the museum. They’re a tremendous resource of scholarly knowledge, and they’re always willing to help.

It seems to a lot of people that we’re just inward-focused on the campus. As a teaching museum, we are here for our students. But I’d like us to have the same educational impact on the entire community. I’d like us to have the kinds of thoughtful programs that help everybody learn how to look at art, and learn about collecting. I’d like for people to feel comfortable coming in here and asking questions and learning new things.

I also want to make it into a place that people know is family friendly. At MOBIA we had special booklets with kids’ activities. We had little carpet squares that the kids could drag along, so they could just plop down and do their thing.

And we always had an audio tour for children narrated by a child. I stole that idea from the Phoenix Art Museum, because I remember going there with my daughter when she was little.

Q: One problem for the Cornell is a lack of parking. What can you do about that?

A: The reality is there’s a scarcity of parking throughout the campus. I hear this complaint a lot, but I’m from New York. To me, the SunTrust garage [on Lyman Avenue] is not that far. Anybody who comes to the museum can park there and we validate their tickets, so it’s free. I understand the walk is not so pleasant in the summer, and it’s hard for the elderly. But for anybody who’s able-bodied, walking from the SunTrust garage is not that difficult.

Q: You’ve been celebrating Cornell’s 35th anniversary with free admission for the entire year. Will that continue?

A: We definitely will continue it past 2013, and we want to announce it in a festive sort of way, maybe with an open-house party. We’ve seen such a huge difference since we started with free admission. Our numbers have basically doubled, and we’ve had extraordinary feedback from any number of people.

It’s really accomplishing what I hoped it would, so we’ll continue it for as long as we can afford it. I’m one of those people who very firmly believes we should have free education and free culture. The Europeans are a little better at it than we are.

Q: You have an interesting background, emigrating from Romania in your early 20s. What made you decide to leave your native country?

A: Oh, God, when I first gained consciousness I wanted to get out. It took a long time. My sister came first, in 1984, then my parents and I were finally allowed to leave in 1988. It was two years before the revolution; I think if we’d had any inkling I would have still come, but my parents would have probably stayed. My dad actually went back part-time, afterward, and he still spends half a year there.

Q: How was your English?

A: I was fluent, but without the ease of speaking it every day, it took a little adjustment. My parents are obsessed with languages; my mom is a linguist. We spoke French at home until we went to school. And we started English very young.

Q: How many languages do you speak?

A: Four: English, French, Italian and Romanian. Romanian is very close to Italian. I can read German, but it’s a struggle. I’ve only taken German for art-history purposes, because it’s the language art history was invented in. I couldn’t read a novel in German, but I could read an art-history book.

Q: What was your biggest adjustment in coming to America?

A: I was amazed at all the freedom I had. In Romania, if you got a visa and a passport to go on a trip, when you returned you had to hand in the passport. So, for every trip abroad you had to apply to the government, this whole big process that could take months or years. I remember being amazed at how many people I met in New York who didn’t have a passport. I thought, you have the right to do it and you choose not to do it?

Another thing that amazed me was the access to information. Our libraries in Romania didn’t have open stacks; you could never just roam around. In New York I spent every waking hour the first couple of years in the library. My friends thought I was the biggest geek they’d ever met, but I had a lot to catch up with.

On the not-so-easy side, the biggest adjustment was the sense that whatever my life had been until that point had ended, and that I may never be able to go back and see my family and my friends in Romania. Had things not changed, it would have been very difficult to go back. I think that was the hardest part for me.

And that fear you have more when you’re younger, what my 14-year-old daughter is experiencing right now: The fear that I’m not going to make friends.

Q: Is your daughter making friends?

A: I have to say, all the kids are so nice. That age can be difficult, especially for girls, not known to be the nicest among themselves. But my daughter is very much like my husband: They make friends very easily; they’re extremely social and extremely likable. She’s very excited about starting at Winter Park High School, where she’s in the IB program.

Q: It sounds like she’s adjusting pretty well to the move.

A: It’s not ideal; it wasn’t her choice. But she’s a good kid and she went along with it. She’s doing better than I thought. It’s a hard age to be, even if you don’t move.

And my husband, who was born and raised in the Bronx, is the type of person who, until very recently, thought that if you go outside New York City the air is different, that you can’t breathe. I give the guy enormous credit for doing this for my career.

When I started looking at other opportunities and we decided it was time for us to consider moving away from New York, we realized we had a short window before our daughter would be in high school. We both said, once she starts high school we’re not moving. We got in right under the wire.

Q: So, what do you do to relax?

A: I’m not a huge watcher of television. Mad Men and Modern Family are the only TV shows we watch religiously, although we’re also addicted to Frontline, the investigative show on PBS. I like to read novels. I don’t like to exercise, and the thing that saved my health was the Kindle. I read on the treadmill, on the bike, whatever I’m doing at the gym.

I read and loved Cutting for Stone earlier this year, and I recently finished the Wally Lamb book, Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story. It was excellent. I loved She’s Come Undone, but this is sort of the slightly more positive, more optimistic Wally Lamb.


Diana Beltran Herrera’s intricate and delicate paper bird sculptures will roost throughout the Cornell until Dec. 8.

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