When travel guides call the Rollins College Museum of Art “a hidden gem,” Ena Heller takes it as a left-handed compliment. She’s fine with the “gem” part. It’s the “hidden” she could do without.
For nearly a decade, Heller has been director of the museum, built in the late 1970s on the far side of campus, where Holt Avenue dead-ends at Lake Virginia.
It’s a great location for solitude and scenery, but sorely lacking in two necessities for an institution that’s open to visitors: convenient parking and nearby foot traffic.
This relative seclusion will end in three years, when the museum is scheduled to move across Fairbanks Avenue to Winter Park proper and into a two-story, $22.6 million facility that will triple its current size and encompass an auditorium, a café, larger galleries for exhibitions and study rooms for students.
As for parking, there’s the nearby SunTrust garage. As for foot traffic, Park Avenue is just a block away.
The new museum will be situated at the corner of Interlachen and New England avenues. That puts it directly across the street from the Rollins-owned Alfond Inn. There, the college has already established a bustling beachhead where works from the museum’s growing Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art are displayed.
Next door to the museum will be a 44,000 square-foot building designated for the college’s Crummer Graduate School of Business. These three buildings — the hotel, the museum and the business school — have been dubbed the “Innovation Triangle” by college planners.
To usher in this new and more high-profile era, the museum’s name was changed this past summer from the Cornell Fine Arts Museum — in honor of Rollins graduates George and Harriett Cornell, the couple who funded its construction — to the Rollins Museum of Art.
You’d expect Heller to be over the moon about all of this. She is. But when she calls the move “a once-in-a generation opportunity,” she has more than location, location, location in mind.
When the job at Rollins became available, Heller was living in New York City and managing a busy kunsthalle, a facility that mounts temporary art exhibitions. “But I was always more interested in teaching,” she says. “And in the back of my mind, I had the type of museum where I would like to be one day.”
Heller, who immigrated to the United States as a child whose family fled Romania to escape a communist regime, has social activism in her blood. That’s obvious from the wide-ranging exhibitions the museum has hosted that emphasize inclusion and multiculturalism.
Clearly, Heller’s push-the-envelope approach has worked. Despite its obscure location, the museum’s annual visitor count has quadrupled during her tenure.
A recent example of the museum’s more intellectually challenging direction is American Modernisms at the Rollins Museum of Art, which highlights an often-overlooked, multicultural trove of 20th-century artists. The exhibition runs through May of next year.
Such changes reflect a rapidly accelerating evolution among other American art museums, particularly those connected to institutions of higher learning. Many are transitioning away from “being about something to being for somebody,” in the words of the late Stephen Weil, who was emeritus senior scholar at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Museum Studies.
That decades-long movement involves engaging modern audiences by reassessing marginalized artists, emphasizing multicultural art and creating exhibitions that reflect contemporary sensibilities and issues. The trend has intensified in recent years in light of changing demographics and heightened social unrest.
Heller says she’s intrigued by the dynamic of exploring that fresh artistic landscape in the middle of Winter Park, given its “label of elitist.” She also praises the late Hugh McKean, past professor of art and later president of the college who, with his wife, Jeannette, founded the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.
McKean — an anti-elitist despite his patrician personality — strove to make art more accessible and less inscrutable. An early name he chose for his collection was “The Museum of Living Art,” through which objects were distributed to various on-campus buildings rather than being ensconced in a single place.
In 1941, he opened the college’s Morse Gallery of Art — which preceded the modern-day museum, unaffiliated with the college, on Park Avenue. That means, upon completion of the Rollins Museum of Art, downtown Winter Park will be anchored on the north and the south by two very different but equally intriguing arts attractions.
By the way, it’s likely that by the time the Rollins Museum of Art moves into its new home, two other Central Florida museums will have relocated or expanded.
The city of Orlando’s Mennello Museum of Art has a $20 million expansion planned that will encompass its current home in Loch Haven Park, while the nearby Orlando Museum of American Art hopes to celebrate its 100th birthday by adding a second location in a 33-story five-star hotel bordered by Church and Pine Streets in downtown Orlando.
The travel guide folks will have plenty of gems from which to choose. And none of them will be hidden.
Michael McLeod, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.