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A blast of energy paying off at DeCordova

Dennis Kois arrived at the DeCordova when the museum was badly stalled. Dennis Kois arrived at the DeCordova when the museum was badly stalled. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / April 4, 2010

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LINCOLN — For their honeymoon, Dennis Kois and his wife, Stacey Schmidt, went on an art tour of New England. They were just out of grad school. Kois, who is now director of the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum, and Schmidt, a curator of contemporary art, visited about 25 museums in 10 days. It was a whirlwind, a blur.

“The only place I remembered, the only place that stuck in my mind,’’ says Kois, “was the DeCordova.’’

It’s that kind of place. Situated on sloping grounds by Flints Pond on the outskirts of Lincoln, the DeCordova is home to New England’s preeminent sculpture park. Towering over the park is the museum itself, a strange hybrid of European castle and modern glass-and-brick extension.

What is it? you find yourself wondering, even as you’re deciding you like it. Is it just a great park to take the kids in summer? Is it an art school? (The campus contains a huddle of old but temporary-looking classrooms, serving students of all ages in what is in fact the largest non-degree granting art school in Massachusetts.) Is it some kind of weird old house museum? (The estate was left to the town by Julian DeCordova, the son of a Jamaican merchant who made a fortune in tea and glass.) Or is it an art museum with a serious commitment to contemporary art?

Primarily, of course, it’s the latter. But when Kois took charge almost two years ago, eager to lead a turnaround that is now beginning to bear fruit, some people were no longer sure. The DeCordova had been rudderless for at least a year, as the board of trustees embarked on an extensive search to find a new leader. But problems had been brewing for much longer.

The previous director, Paul Master-Karnick, had led the institution for 22 years. He had transformed it. He strengthened its commitment to New England artists, established the DeCordova Annual, bolstered the permanent collection, and — perhaps most importantly — established the sculpture park.

“Everything I’ve heard from everyone is that he was fantastic,’’ says Kois.

But Master-Karnick’s tenure seemed to lose focus in the 2000s. The museum ran up a couple of big deficits, and its capital campaign collapsed.

“I like to say that the speed of the leader is the speed of the pack,’’ says Don Stanton, a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney who has been a DeCordova trustee since 2003 and was an overseer for five years before that. “It was leaderless.’’

The museum’s dire financial position had forced the trustees to come to the rescue. “There were 10 or 12 people carrying the museum financially on their backs,’’ says Kois. “They were tired, but they took personal responsibility.’’

The search for a new director took more than a year. “We kept looking and looking because we hadn’t found the ideal person,’’ says Robert Scott, the board president. “And then we did.’’

Kois, 40, father of Olin, 4, and Violet, 2, had a laid-back demeanor and an easy, unpretentious charm. He had been director of the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, for less than two years, and before that chief designer at the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution and assistant manager of design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He came with a mission to get things back on track.

“We had a sense that it had to move away from being a ‘hidden jewel,’ ’’ says Gerry Frank, a trustee who is the owner of Bechtel Frank Erickson Architects in Lexington. “It had gotten a little sleepy. People were forgetting about it.’’

“Just as the Institute of Contemporary Art was ramping up, we were stagnating,’’ says senior curator Nick Capasso, who was interim director for a year, and an applicant for Kois’s job. “It was a bad time for us to be stagnating.’’

“What the DeCordova had to shed is this coffee-klatch image,’’ says Stanton, “this sense that it was largely provincial, and sort of about New England art but not really serious about it.’’

Kois gave them what they wanted to hear. He promised to expand the DeCordova’s commitment to sculpture. He recognized that, as Capasso put it, “the best engine to move everything forward is the sculpture park. It’s unique. No other museum in the region has this sort of thing.’’

He promised to reinvigorate the curatorial program, improve its finances, and revamp its mission.

“He’s a wonderful communicator, he has tremendous energy, and he has a great eye,’’ says Scott.

“I was excited by his youth,’’ says Frank. “We knew this was going to be a major job for him at this stage of his career. He’s hungry to achieve things. But he’s also an old soul in a youthful body. He sees things pretty clearly, and he has a great ability to communicate with people.’’

So what, after almost two years, has Kois actually done?

For some time, the question was hard to answer, mainly because not long after Kois arrived in 2008, the DeCordova, like every other arts organization, was hit by the financial crisis. “People stopped renewing memberships and they started giving less,’’ he says.

The DeCordova ended the year in the black, but the crisis had a huge impact on the budget. Kois laid off 20 percent of his staff (none in the curatorial department) and imposed a temporary 20 percent pay cut, which has since been restored.

“It focuses your thinking,’’ says Kois of the crisis. “I realized that we needed to proceed with caution. We couldn’t take financial risks. There were things we needed to go slower on.’’

On the other hand, he says, the crisis meant that he had “a pressing reason to drive through some changes that needed to happen faster. You can’t just sit on your hands.’’

Nor has he. Kois has tried to generate a new sense of excitement about the DeCordova. That he has enjoyed a measure of success is borne out by the sums of money he has raised with the help of newly energized trustees.

He raised a $1 million endowment for the sculpture park, directed at the care and conservation of the sculptures, separate from the museum’s general endowment of $8 million. He has also established a $1.5 million acquisition fund for the park, allowing the museum to buy major pieces of sculpture. (Both come with the promise of further gifts if additional funds can be raised.)

Finally, Kois succeeded in raising a $1.2 million discretionary fund that creates some “wiggle room’’ in his $4.8 million annual budget. A third of that revenue comes through philanthropy; the rest is income generated by other museum activities. Every trustee participated in this last drive, at a rate that in many cases doubled or tripled their earlier gifts.

“What he’s been doing has been met with a tremendous level of enthusiasm and support from the financial community,’’ says Scott. “Right now,’’ adds Stanton, “the place is on the sharpest trajectory up.’’

More visibly, Kois and Capasso have begun the long process of raising the quality of the sculpture park. Until recently, the park contained around 80 sculptures, about 60 of which were on long-term loan. The quality was not universally high, and the park looked crowded.

“We want the landscape to breathe,’’ says Capasso. “We’re returning loans at a furious clip.’’ By the end of this year, 25 loans will have been sent back.

In the meantime, thanks to the acquisition fund, new sculptures by Sol LeWitt and Antony Gormley have been installed in the park, and Kois is negotiating to acquire works by Andy Goldsworthy and Dan Graham.

“Before this, the most we had ever spent on a sculpture was $45,000. We’ve just purchased this Gormley for $400,000!’’ says Capasso in a tone that suggests he can’t believe his luck. Potential donors, he continues, “were just waiting for someone to get the sculpture park going. Our whole fund-raising philosophy has changed. Before we were saying, Help us, we need you. Now, there’s an excitement about what’s taking place here. People want to be a part of it.’’

In an effort to emphasize its new focus, the museum last year changed its name to the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum. Other alterations Kois has made include changing the DeCordova Annual (a survey of New England contemporary art) to the DeCordova Biennial and sharpening the show’s focus by appointing a single curator.

He has established an ongoing series of site-specific installations by New England artists — the “Platform’’ series — and made efforts to tie the sculpture park and the museum together by planning sculpture shows that are displayed both indoors and outdoors (a Chakaia Booker show, opening next month, will be the first of these efforts).

“The program leads,’’ says Kois, when asked about planning temporary exhibitions. “Being a director is about that leap of faith — the sense that if what you’re doing is strong, the funding will follow. Risk is part of it. This place used to be so risk-averse. Some of the shows we’re doing will be harder to like, tougher, more boundary-pushing. They’re not necessarily going to attract funding from our old donors. And that’s why we’re also trying to get new ones.’’

Not everything Kois said he would do has been done. Probably not all of it will be. When he first arrived, for instance, he talked about shifting the museum’s focus away from New England art and making it more national in scope and ambition.

“I tended to be less respectful of the local art scene and of regional artists,’’ he admits. “Coming from those huge institutions I worked in [the Met and the Smithsonian], you could lose sight of the importance of this stuff. There’s a kind of myopia. I even thought that in four or five years we might not even collect New England art specifically, that we’d be more nationally oriented. But seeing the galleries and all the activity here, I realize that was a really shortsighted position.’’

Kois is still adamant about wanting to raise the quality of the art the DeCordova shows. But the museum will remain committed to New England: “What I’ve realized is that you can make a huge shift in the quality of the programming without necessarily losing the New England focus.’’

Other institutions involved in contemporary art have been watching. “Speaking from the heart,’’ says Edward Saywell, director of the West Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, “I think it’s just terribly exciting and heartening. I’ve been so impressed by the way Dennis has harnessed the potential of the DeCordova. The museum has become a critical part of the Boston art scene.’’

Does Kois see the DeCordova as competition for museums like the ICA?

“On one level of course I want to say, Yes, we’re competitive and we wanna kick everyone’s ass! But actually, we’re not in competition with the ICA. There’s enough unique niches in the art world for us all to coexist. It’s a healthy local art scene, and the city’s richer for it.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.