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DeCordova taps Kois as new director

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Globe Staff / March 19, 2008

The DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park has hired Dennis Kois, a veteran exhibition designer who currently runs the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, as its new director.

Kois, 38, just the fourth director in the Lincoln museum's 58-year history, replaces Paul Master-Karnik, who ran the museum from 1984 to 2007.

"This was just too good of an opportunity to pass up," said Kois (rhymes with "voice") who didn't apply for the job but was recruited by Phillips Oppenheim, a New York search firm. He was one of 15 candidates interviewed.

"We think he's a fabulous leader, and an unbelievably intelligent young man," said Robert H. Scott, chairman of the DeCordova board of directors and a member of the search committee.

Before running the Texas museum, Kois served for five years as chief designer at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. He was assistant chief designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1999 to 2001. Among the shows he helped design there was "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years."

Scott said it was becoming less unusual for a design specialist to get the top job at a museum.

"There's a developing theory in the management that people who are experts in design can add a great deal in the running of organizations," said Scott. "Many young people who used to go to management schools are now going to design schools."

The DeCordova's mission is to collect and show works by living New England artists. When he arrives in June, Kois will set to work on the museum's ongoing multi-year plan, said Scott. The DeCordova is looking for ways to improve its educational programs and will likely launch a fund-raising campaign to increase its endowment, said Scott, who added that it was too early to set a target figure.

Kois praised the museum, but said that it has "huge potential to be doing more than it is doing."

While hailing its "interesting and wonderful shows," he described it as "maybe a bit unfocused at times." He declined to single out specific exhibitions for criticism.

"I think the curators are looking to better define what New England art means in an era when art has become sort of boundary-less," Kois said.

The incoming director said he doesn't expect immediately to launch a capital campaign, but acknowledged that the DeCordova needs to raise more money so it can rely less on ticket income and revenue from the classes it offers.

"Ultimately it's going to need to raise more to do better and more engaging shows down the road," he said. "The question is how do you do that without sacrificing the other parts of your vision?"

Scott would not name the other candidates for the position, but acting director Nick Capasso, the museum's longtime curator, confirmed that he was one of them. He said he's looking forward to meeting and working with Kois.

"I knew when I applied for the position it was a long shot because I knew our trustees were looking for somebody new," he said. "As good as a director as I could be for DeCordova, I could never be new."

Kois took over the Grace, which houses separate art, history, and children's museums in a historic hotel, in November 2006. During that time, he's overseen a show featuring the work of Texas painter David Bates, and the planning of upcoming exhibits on Vernon Fisher and James Surls. He also led a renovation of the children's facility and the building of a new educational center.

The Grace has a $1.1 million annual operating budget, $11 million endowment, and 65,000 visitors each year. The DeCordova has $4.5 million budget, $12 million endowment and draws around 125,000 a year.

Kois is married to Stacey Schmidt, who was most recently associate curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She left that job when their first child, Olin, now 2, was born. The couple also have a daughter, Violet, born two months ago.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com. For more on the arts, visit boston.com/ae/theater_arts/exhibitionist.

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