Former associate director at the Jewish Museum of Maryland Anita Kassof, who is “thrilled to be back in Baltimore and to be committing to this community again,” has found her new home and her latest mission at the Baltimore Museum of Industry as its new executive director.
Kassof, who has spent the past four years commuting to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, officially takes over at BMI this month. While she loved the work and deeply respected her colleagues in New York, she said her ties to Baltimore remained strong.
“My husband and I underestimated just how deeply rooted we are in the Baltimore community and how committed we are to this place,” she said. “I tell people I feel like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It took me a little while to be away to realize that there’s no place like home.”
Kassof, 51, brings years of curatorial and directorial experience to her new position. In addition to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, she spent 11 years at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, three years at Baltimore City Life Museums and was a founding staff member at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where she worked for 12 years.
“It was a really privileged moment to be there,” recalled Kassof. “Holocaust survivors were coming forward for the first time. They had raised their families … and they were just starting to tell their stories, so for the first time they were giving us their materials and they were sharing their experiences with us.”
Though the majority of Kassof’s experience is at Jewish museums, the skills translate.
“Much of the work of ethnic-specific museums has really broad relevance to the museum profession,” she said, noting her past responsibilities to cultivate new audiences, care for collections, identify and secure funding and design and build collections relevant to new audiences — all of which “[have] absolute relevance to any museum.”
“Anita’s background in museum leadership, curatorial experience, and her strong ties to the Baltimore community will make her an excellent leader for the BMI,” said Streett Baldwin, chair of the BMI board of trustees and director at CPA firm, Ellin & Tucker. “The staff and board alike are looking forward to having her join the museum and lead the institution into our next chapter.”
“My first several months will involve a lot of listening,” to trustees and staff, said Kassof, adding she’s also very eager to gather input from local community leaders, elected officials, business leaders and teachers to find out how “they envision the BMI and how they see this as part of their lives.” She would also like to launch a formal strategic planning process within the year. She added, “And I absolutely want to ramp up the exhibitions, both to dive into the existing collection and also how we might interpret industry,” citing technology, health care and finance, in order to look at “industry” with a wider scope. “So we’re looking forward and honoring our past.”
[pullquote]“I’d like [visitors] to be intrigued by what industry is today, what does it mean for Baltimore’s future, and how are contemporary industries contributing to Baltimore’s renaissance?”[/pullquote]
Acknowledging the importance industry has played in Baltimore’s past, she said that traditional manufacturing is still very relevant “but that there is a future to industry.” She noted some BMI exhibits that are already edging toward that, such as Video Game Wizards — Transforming Science and Art into Games and the Maryland Engineering Challenges, both of which engage younger visitors.
Kassof understands an important component of the visitor experience involves nostalgia and the “Oh wow! I didn’t know that” about Baltimore’s history, but she said, “I’d also like them to be intrigued by what industry is today, what does it mean for Baltimore’s future, and how are contemporary industries contributing to Baltimore’s renaissance?”
A visit to the museum needs to be relevant, and it needs to resonate, she said. “Where you really hook visitors and where you really create meaning is when they can somehow find a personal intersection with the museum.”
Kassof hopes to create partnerships with other museums as well and intends to reach out to her colleagues at the American Visionary Art Museum and the Maryland Science Center for possible collaborations that could enhance what she described as an ongoing challenge to lure visitors to the south side of the Inner Harbor tourist area, a part of the city — between Federal Hill and Locust Point — that she said is undergoing a lot of change.
A place like BMI is an important anchor and “cultural institutions can be an agent of change in neighborhoods, and they need to have a voice at the table,” she said. Especially for an area in transition, added Kassof, the BMI is “an authentic voice that honors the past.”