Tuesday, Apr 15 2014 07:02 PM

Art museum loses director -- again

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    After just a year of taking over as executive director of the Bakersfield Museum of Art, John Lofgren is stepping down. The Swedish native will return with his wife to the Coachella Valley, where they have a a home.

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BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor jself@bakersfield.com

Just a year after being hired to run the Bakersfield Museum of Art -- a beacon of culture in a city often derided for having too little -- the executive director has tendered his resignation, effective June 1.

Citing concerns over his wife's health, John Lofgren, 70, announced his decision to the museum's executive board Monday and informed his staff Tuesday. Lofgren and his wife intend to move to the Coachella Valley, where they have a home.

"My tenure has been way too short here at the museum, but the potential of this organization is unbelievable," Lofgren said when reached by phone Tuesday.

Joe Hay, chairman of the museum's board, called Lofgren's resignation "sad news."

"I wouldn't say it's a disappointment," said Hay, vice president and general manager at Jim Burke Ford. "We were lucky to have John here. He's got a great personality -- very engaging. He brought a lot of enthusiasm to the museum, and he's not departing tomorrow. We've been able to put together a pretty good plan to allow him to finish some of the projects he was working on."

Board member Mark Engelien, a retired architect, has agreed to step in as interim executive director until a replacement can be found, Hay said.

"It's too early to say what we're looking for specifically," Hay said. "Whoever we choose, I'd like to find someone locally, but that's not always possible. The executive committee will probably get together in the next 10 days to discuss the search."

Lofgren was selected from a field of about 40 candidates in January of last year after a nationwide search to replace his predecessor, Bernie Herman, whose eight-year tenure was credited with putting the museum on sound fiscal footing.

"We were talking about it the other day at the board meeting," Hay said. "Another board member said that each of the directors we've had in the last couple of years were people who reflected the needs of the museum at the time. When Bernie came in, we needed someone with a strong fiscal background but as he was getting ready to retire, we wanted someone with more of a museum background, a great spokesman with a contagious personality and a background in collections. Going forward, we'd like to find a combination of both."

Though he has been with the museum only a year, Lofgren said he was able to make progress on many of his goals, including expanding the museum's art collection and exploring solutions for storage to house the pieces, currently sitting in a vault at the downtown museum.

"I have been able to identify a couple of opportunities for off-site storage but it has to be up to museum standards," Lofgren said.

Complying with exacting standards is necessary if the museum is to retain its accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, a nonprofit association that sets standards in the museum industry. Lofgren was hired in part because of his knowledge and experience with the accreditation process, which he said can be grueling. The BMoA is up for reaccreditation in a couple of years.

"I always used to say it's a gift back to the community because it tells the community we're operating at the most professional level that can be done. When people donate to the museum, they can be assured it's being handled absolutely correctly. It helps us very, very much with upgrading exhibitions because many museums will not lend things to museums that are not accredited, which means our exhibitions will be top-notch as well and our chances of getting better donations for these exhibitions improve."

Hay and Lofgren declined to put a dollar figure on the executive director's compensation package, but Hay said it is in line with what museums with similar budgets pay, based on rates reported by the American Alliance of Museums. The museum's annual operating budget is around $750,000, most of which comes from donations and fundraisers, Lofgren said. The county awarded the museum $50,000 last summer.

"(The county) upped their support because we're reaching out to such a degree with education," Lofgren said. "This year we had more than 9,000 kids that we've been helping in the visual arts all over the county, with just three teachers."

Lofgren would like to see similar support from the city of Bakersfield.

"I do think the city could step up a little more in support of the arts. We don't get a cent from the city. We're bringing people into the city, we're part of the redevelopment, part of the city."

Looking back over his eventful year, Lofgren considers himself "blessed" by his time at the museum, singling out his energetic staff, a board open to his ideas and a community that embraces fine art.

"The people in Bakersfield are extraordinarily warm, generous and friendly. I've been in many communities and I can tell you that the support of this organization is unusual. We're well-known in the community. I can't speak enough of how gracious I think the people have been to me and the museum."

Still, Lofgren -- a native of Sweden who came to Bakersfield by way of Florida -- will leave the city having failed to solve one cultural mystery.

"I still don't know what the Bakersfield Sound is. To me, it's such a difference between Buck Owens and Merle Haggard."

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