Villa Finale is celebrating five years: A look back at how we got here!

Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens will be celebrating its 5th anniversary of being open to the public on Friday, October 2nd. Although five years do not sound like much, a lot has happened during that time. I am one of three remaining staff members that were hired before the museum was open to the public, so I thought I would share some reminiscences with you regarding everything that went into opening this historic site and some of the experiences since then.

San Antonio or bust! My car loaded and ready to go from Los Angeles, with three cats in the back, April 2008.

San Antonio or bust! My car loaded and ready to go from Los Angeles, with three cats in the back, April 2008.

I first came to Villa Finale from Los Angeles in early March, 2008 for my interview. It was not only my first time at the site, it was also my first time in San Antonio! I immediately fell in love with the King William District and I remember thinking I was in Disneyland as I made my way from the bed and breakfast where I was staying to Villa Finale for my interview.  The interview I felt went well but just in case I did not get the job I made it a point to see the Alamo just in case it would be my last time in San Antonio for who knew how long.  Little did I know Sandra Smith, who was Villa Finale’s Director at the time, would call me a couple of days later to offer me the position of Manager of Public Programs. Taking the position was a scary decision since my entire family was, and still is, in Southern California; plus, I didn’t know one single person in San Antonio. But I could not pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not every museum professional gets the opportunity to conceptualize and open a historic site from scratch! In a month I trained my replacement at the historic site where I was employed, packed my apartment,found a place to live in San Antonio, transferred all my personal business and arrived at my new home with three cats in tow on Sunday, April 6th.  On April 9th I officially began at Villa Finale.

Under construction!

Under construction!

My first order of business was to become immersed in San Antonio history, especially the great accomplishments by Walter Nold Mathis. I had to write subject documents on all the major themes covered at the site: King William, Villa Finale (the house), Walter Mathis and the Mathis collections.  Mind you, as a Southern Californian born and raised it wasn’t entirely easy although I had a great understanding and knowledge of the mission system in the West and Southwest. On weekends, I made it a point to go downtown and visit the missions as well as other places of interest to become familiar with the city and its history.  For weeks, I visited archives all over town with Meg Nowack, Villa Finale’s Curator and Deputy Director, accumulating photographs and historic information to use for our exhibitions and interpretive material.

With Meg Nowack in Villa Finale's kitchen planning out exhibits for the Visitor Center, late 2008.

With Meg in Villa Finale’s kitchen planning exhibits for the Visitor Center, 2009.

The most difficult part was becoming familiar with Walter Mathis’ collections since most objects were packed in boxes. Somehow I found a way to write about things I couldn’t really see! I am so thankful to my colleague Meg Nowack who was patient and kind enough to guide me during that first year towards useful places I could find the information I needed. She was also great to work with as we put together exhibitions for our former Visitor Center that was located at 122 Madison. And speaking of colleagues, Meg and Chris Roddy, our former Buildings & Grounds Manager, and their spouses became my very first friends in San Antonio. They welcomed me into their homes and we all got together for dinner or happy hour every week. To this day, I am so grateful to them for their hospitality and friendship!

First volunteer class, 2009.

First volunteer class, 2009.

A little over one year before Villa Finale opened to the public I began to put together Villa Finale’s guided tour and a volunteer program (since I also assumed volunteer coordinator duties at the time) including writing a volunteer handbook, an orientation model, and guide training materials including a syllabus. Being someone who began in the field as a museum volunteer, I knew Villa Finale’s volunteer program should be welcoming, inclusive and informative. I will never forget that first class of volunteers – some of which are still with us – for not being intimidated to study and learn the tour we give at Villa Finale. The over 12,000 individual objects we have in the house have been known to “scare” people away from becoming guides. Fortunately, most stay and become very enthusiastic about Villa Finale!

Volunteers at our opening celebration, September 2010.

Volunteers at our opening celebration, September 2010.

As volunteer training revved up, so did work at the house, inside and outside. Cleaning, repairing, unpacking and putting everything back just as Walter Mathis had it by using photographs taken right after he passed away in 2005. When I first arrived at Villa Finale, opening day seemed so far away.  Meg, Chris and I ofted joked among ourselves about how nice it was to have this wonderful historic house to ourselves!  Finally, the day that seemed so far into the future came: our grand opening celebration on September 30, 2010. I remember being so proud of seeing our first class of volunteers in action! But the real thrill came when we opened to the public on October 2nd. After all, Mathis left this wonderful gift to share with the general public and really, this is for them!  The day of our opening, I remember reflecting on everything that was accomplished to get to that moment: the creation of marketing blurbs, interpretive materials, designing a logo, work in and around the house, recruiting volunteers … so much leading up to it, and much more to do!

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Volunteer Guide, Dalal, leads one of the first public tours at Villa Finale, October 2, 2010.

Since our public opening on that day in 2010, there has been much change and growth at Villa Finale.  With our ongoing research, we have updated a lot of guide training and marketing materials.  We have also left the former Visitor Center at 122 Madison to focus operations at the historic site and are currectly thinking about how we can provide visitors that service at Villa Finale’s grounds.  We have tried hosting some events and programs that haven’t quite worked out while others have been amazingly successful.  To be more identifable to the general public, we added “Museum & Gardens” to our name, a small move that has helped immensly.  I have also seen volunteers come and go, all wonderful people who enjoyed their time with us but had to leave due to life’s demands.  And of course, great colleagues have also come and gone.  I have also had the pleasure of seeing several folks from our volunteer and intern ranks promoted to staff positions, including our current Execuitve Director, Jane Lewis.

Villa Finale as Grand Marshals of the King William Parade, April 2011.

Villa Finale as Grand Marshals of the King William Parade, April 2011.

Villa Finale is truly a labor of love and I am so happy I made the difficult decision to move so far away from home to be a part of this great project. Today, I have many wonderful life-long friends in this city, many of whom I’ve met through my work at the site and through colleagues. If you haven’t visited Villa Finale yet, I invite you to do so! Perhaps your first visit could be at our 5th anniversary celebration called That Was the Year That Was: 1967 on Friday, October 2, 2015 from 5:30pm – 8:00pm (admission is free). Mathis bought the house in 1967 and we wouldn’t be here without him!

Thank you, San Antonio for your growing support these first five years. Also, thank you to all of my colleagues, past and present, for making and continuing to develop Villa Finale. And a HUGE thank you to my friend, former colleague and professional mentor Max van Balgooy who told me about Villa Finale and provided much-needed guidance during my first couple of years here. I cannot wait to see what the future brings!

Enjoy the gallery below featuring glimpses of Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens history!

Villa Finale Retreats to Fort Worth – Part 3

My last post ended with our staff leaving the Fort Worth Water Gardens on our way to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art on the third day of our staff retreat.  First, a little background.  Amon G. Carter was the founder of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a civic leader and a collector of American art.  (There is much more to Amon G. Carter: for more information click here.)  He died in 1955 but in his will left terms for the creation of a museum to house his collection plus other fine examples of fine American art.

Today, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art houses many fine examples of paintings and sculptures.  Further, the museum educates the public through a variety of special exhibits and programs.  We were fortunate enough to be there during a grammar school visit; normally, this would be a distraction if you’re just visiting for fun, but being in the field, you are always looking for ideas to incorporate into your organization.  Some of the art may seem a little daunting for children to grasp; however, when given the opportunity and with the right guidance, young people can and do appreciate many subjects adults may otherwise not give them credit for understanding.  I listened in on some of the instruction and conversation the children were engaged in; the educators at Amon Carter were really making the kids use their own experiences and powers of observation to convey the messages seen in the art … kudos to them!

Aside from “eavesdropping” a bit on the school children’s lesson, our staff had ample time to view the beautiful art throughout the museum.  Personally, I also enjoy reading text on all the labels.  This is great because you learn more about the work and an artist, but not so great when you’re pressed for time!  And indeed we were as we made a short walk down to our next stop: the Kimbell Art Museum.

Before I get into the wonderful art found throughout the Kimbell, I would like to first mention the ingenious design of the main building which is the work of Louis Kahn.  Completed in 1972, the structure is designed with light as the main theme.  Kahn’s designed called for barrel vault ceilings with narrow plexglass “skylights” that would allow for natural light.  However, in order to avoid direct light from damaging the pieces within, the natural light is disseminated by aluminum reflectors that hang directly underneath each skylight.  The result is an open and bright gallery that allows for an enjoyable viewing experience of the artwork.

Speaking of the art … amazing!  And so was our docent, Len Schweitzer, who knew the subject matter passionately well!  The permanent collection itself is relatively small, less than 350 pieces, but – following the collections policy established by the Kimbell’s Board of Directors – the works collected into the institution are to be based on the highest quality rather than quantity.  The Kimbell boasts such artists as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Monet and Matisse, to name but a few.  In addition to paintings, the museum also houses antiquities, Asian, pre-Columbian, and African pieces such as sculptures, ceramics, bronzes and more.  The Kimbell is a MUST-visit when in Fort Worth.  Admission is free and so is an app available for download with visual and audio information (if you do not have a pair of headphones on you, no need to worry.  The Kimbell’s shop has headphones for sale at a reasonable price).

Our staff was exhausted but fulfilled with our trip to Fort Worth.  You really do not know how much one’s state has to offer unless you get out there to explore.  Whether you’re planning to visit Fort Worth or another city near or far, do your research to see what best fits your interests and pocket-book.  So much to explore, so little time!

We’re looking forward to our next retreat in January 2016.  Where we go next remains to be decided!  Any suggestions?