The Morning Call (Sunday)
President takes helm with pandemic-sized challenges
Max Weintraub hopes to reach new audiences in a time of lockdowns
Growing up in New York City, Max Weintraub was immersed in art and culture.
His family collected art and enjoyed antiquing. Together, they visited museums around the city, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It’s there that Weintraub fondly remembers exploring the arms and armor section.
“It enchanted me as a child and it seeped into my psyche,” said Weintraub, 49.
Being enveloped in art and culture as a child put him on a path to a long career as a curator and art educator — a path that led him to the doors of the Allentown Art Museum.
As the new president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley’s largest art museum, Weintraub takes over at a difficult time, as cultural institutions across the country grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s social upheaval.
The Allentown Art Museum board of trustees began a national search for a new CEO and president back in February after the departure of David Mickenberg. Museum officials said at the time that he left to pursue other opportunities.
Mickenberg held the position for nearly seven years. The Lehigh Valley arts community praised him for his work highlighting the role of women and Black artists; expanding community outreach and audiences and public discussions that addressed historical and contemporary issues in the arts. Under his tenure, the
from Page 1 museum acquired works from notable international artists such as Yinka Shonibare and Mickalene Thomas while at the same time expanding the collections to include such regional artists as Ed Eckstein, Emil Lukas, Angela Fraleigh and Rigo Peralta. Earlier this year, Mickenberg announced the return of the museum’s Rembrandt painting.
Michelle Stringer, who chairs the board, said they looked for a candidate who could build on those successes. The board met with community groups and business leaders for their input.
The five-month search attracted nearly a hundred applicants. But Weintraub shot to the top of the list, with his extensive education and his depth of experience as an art educator and curator.
“The diversity of the Lehigh Valley is one of the things that deeply attracted me to the Allentown Art Museum.”Max Weintraub, president and CEO of Allentown Art Museum
“He has such a wide range of expertise from the museum world and he’s such a humble guy and a team-builder,” Stringer said. “We want to build upon the great work we’ve done over the years.”
Weintraub, who attended schools in the Philadelphia area, knew that the Valley has a rich artistic community.
“The diversity of the Lehigh Valley is one of the things that deeply attracted me to the Allentown Art Museum,” he said.
Weintraub went to Haverford College outside Philadelphia, flirting briefly with a career in medicine. He quickly switched gears, focusing on history and earned his bachelors’ degree in 1993. From there, he pursued further education, focusing on art history as well as history.
He earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate then went on to lead a professional career that runs deep and varied, with extensive experience as a curator and educator at some of the countries’ top cultural institutions including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art — both in New York City.
“I really came at art immersed in it,” Weintraub said. “I came at it from a philosophical and historical perspective.”
He’ll tell you that he’s most proud of his efforts to expand the reach of his museums and to draw in new audiences. While he was the director and chief curator of art galleries at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis, Weintraub said he led programming that opened the doors of the museum to the community outside the college.
A museum in a college setting can be intimidating for the public, who feel perhaps they aren’t welcome or don’t belong
“It’s hard to reach the broader public,” he said. “You’re on a campus that can sometimes feel uninviting or create barriers,” he said.
Weintraub made connections with area community centers and libraries to bring more people into the gallery. He diver
sified the museum’s exhibition programming, bringing work that celebrated LGBTQ artists and artists of color.
He also brought in Lori Waxman, noted art critic for the Chicago Tribune, who hosted a public performance of her ongoing project “60 wrd/min art critic.” Waxman would review art created by anyone and everyone, regardless of skill, for free.
“People would sit and watch as she reviews the art in realtime,” Weintraub explained.
Most recently, he was the senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum in Aspen, Colo. He’s especially proud of the work he did with teens there. Among the programs he started: a film program just for them.
“Outreach to teens is critically important as they are the next generation of artists,” Weintraub said.
Taking on the new role at the Allentown Art Museum meant Weintraub had to move, uproot his life and move nearly 1,700 miles from Aspen to the Lehigh Valley.
In a normal year, that’s an undertaking. During a pandemic, it’s exponentially harder.
“It’s the cherry on top of the 2020 sundae,” said Weintraub, laughing.
Since the start of the pandemic, cultural institutions across the country have been among the hardest hit financially. According to a July survey by the American Alliance of Museums, a third of respondents said they were not confident that their institutions would survive 16 months without additional financial relief and 16% felt their organizations were at significant risk of permanent closure.
The Allentown Art Museum was closed for five months and reopened in August. Under the current restrictions set by the state, the museum can operate at 50% capacity. Tickets are for two-hour time slots, so the museum can control the number of visitors.
“As with many cultural institutions, wehave seen a reduction of revenue due to the extraordinary challenges brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Weintraub noted. “Indeed, relative to average annual earned revenue over the past three years, the Art Museum experienced a 44.5% reduction due to the closure of our doors to the public from mid-March through mid-August. “
Weintraub clearly comes on board at a tough time. But he’ll tell you that as museums open up and audiences return, the pandemic has spotlighted many of the challenges ongoing in the arts — particularly the need for outreach.
His ability to reach out to the community and draw them in is a chief reason he got the job.
For teens and youth, it means connecting to them, bringing them in and harnessing their ability to use social media. For seniors, most at risk in a pandemic, it means offering content virtually or, when it is safe, bringing content to them at senior centers.
“Being able to develop our content and our channels will allow us to broaden the stakeholders in the museum and better set us up for moments when we might not be able to have people in the galleries, whether it’s COVID or the next crisis facing museums.”
Weintraub also sees the museum as having an important role in not only sharing art in a time of crisis but being a conduit for conversation.
A good example is the museum’s current exhibit “Prints and Protest, 1960-1970,” in which artists documented injustice, tragedy and demanded political change.
“We are in a moment of cultural reckoning,” he said. “Artists have always led the way in these important cultural questions and challenges. As an arts institution, we certainly have to not only address those questions but really lead — to promote equity and foster inclusion and promote full participation and belonging.”