Twenty years is a long time. It’s evident in the way Susan Olbert recounts memories throughout her career, much of which was spent at a local museum where she now serves as CEO. Her stories mirror the victories, challenges, and fond memories that a relationship of any dynamic would experience over such an extended period. “The list of experiences at the Haggin feels endless for me,” she says.
“The artifacts can be magnificent, but it’s the stories and people that are captivating,” Susan continues. That’s why her favorite projects and exhibitions over the years are those that allow the staff to interact with the artists, historians, or talent. From witnessing Dolores Huerta’s charisma as she spoke to visitors about the importance of getting involved in their personal interests, to escorting one of the museum’s Albert Bierstadt paintings to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, experiences rich in personal connection stand out most in her mind.
It makes sense, having dedicated her entire career to nonprofit organizations. “I knew that working at the museum would allow me to focus on supporting educational experiences that help build quality of life for the people within our community and beyond.” It’s also brought quite a few laughs, too. A very popular exhibition, Driven to Dream: Stockton’s Car Culture, was part of the museum’s San Joaquin Roots Series made possible by the Tuleburg Endowment, a permanently restricted fund established to underwrite exhibitions that highlight the unique history of our region. “So, there we were with a great idea from board member Dick McClure… We had partnerships with local car owners and all the funding in place,” she says. Then came the true challenge: transporting nine cars to the main floor of the museum, which happens to be the second floor. “With a forklift and a can-do attitude, the exhibition became a reality,” says Susan with a smile.
This type of creative problem solving, perseverance, and grit are just a few characteristics that make Susan an ideal leader. Some may see taking the helm at this time as a major risk. But Susan is made for this role—right now. The museum has already benefited greatly from her proven track record of success in fund development. Her role in securing two three-year James Irvine Foundation grants served as the catalyst for reimaging the core art galleries in 2017: a huge project that allowed the museum to expand its vision in the process.
Haggin Museum turned 90 in June, marking nearly a century spent nestled in Victory Park. The nonprofit art and history museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums is a Stockton staple that has stood the test of time through the city’s many ebbs and flows. This last year, however, has been unlike any other. The museum closed its doors for 13 months due to COVID-19 guidelines and is now open at 25 percent capacity with modified business hours. That, however, is not putting a wrench in Susan’s plans to continue propelling the Haggin. “I like to remind people that the Haggin Museum and Port of Stockton both opened during the Great Depression,” she notes. “Over the last year we have increased our digital content resources. So, even during this difficult time we have grown. And this enhancement is here to stay.”
The Haggin is hosting an array of temporary exhibitions that offer something for everyone. Vietnam: The Real War Photographs from the Associated Press, a collection of powerfully moving images captured by AP photojournalists, will run through the end of October. The museum also has plans throughout the year to celebrate its 90th-anniversary with exciting tributes, dedications, and opportunities for community participation. “We are hopeful that we will once again be able to host our many traditional programs, events, and services,” says Susan. We have all the necessary pieces to accomplish this, and I am certain it will happen.”
Upcoming Can’t-Miss Exhibitions
November 18, 2021 – January 9, 2022
Frida Kahlo’s Garden
Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) is considered one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. Her body of work, consisting of some 250 paintings and drawings, is at once intensely personal and universal in scope, and relies heavily on the natural world. The exhibition transports visitors to Kahlo’s garden where they can experience the world as she did.
Our Colorful Past: Dick Belcher interprets Selections from the Bank of Stockton’s Historical Archives
Bank of Stockton’s extraordinary photo collection consists of more than 20,000 rare, historical images of Stockton, San Joaquin County, and the Mother Lode dating from 1859 to 1987. The collection includes original photos from 19th and early 20th century Stockton-based photographers. Many of the original black and white photographs have been custom “colorized” by Dick Belcher for the Bank of Stockton.
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1201 N. Pershing Ave., Stockton