For 13 weeks, David Grabitske has been the director of the El Paso Museum of History.
But he was introduced to El Paso more than 30 years ago through a research project on the newly appointed Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, who was born in El Paso.
Grabitske also remembers buying a hi-fi stereo system from a K-Mart in New Ulm, Minnesota. Along with it, he bought an LP titled “A Lifetime of Song” by famed songwriter Marty Robbins.
He recalls hearing the song almost all El Pasoans have heard called “El Paso.”
Grabitske, 47, has worked in historical research for 27 years and said he wants to improve fundraising and public engagement at the history museum. The job comes with a $98,128 annual salary, according to the city Human Resources Department.
“We’re aiming to have a history museum that reflects what the city is,” Grabitske said. “Everyone has been deeply supportive, and they absolutely want to see this place succeed. Every dollar counts.”
Before coming to El Paso, Grabitske was the Minnesota Historical Society’s state history and services manager, a job he had for nearly a decade. With a big boost from federal legislation, Grabitske was able to help the society raise its yearly budget from about $40,000 to around $6 million in 2008.
“I had gone as far as I could get at the Minnesota Historical Society,” he said. “I just was not getting any higher. I thought, ‘Well I am probably at that point where I have to move out in order to move up.’”
At its peak, the historical society had 800 people working in its ranks. Now, Grabitske works with 12 employees at the El Paso Museum of History and an annual budget of $700,000.
“It’s the same thing that you’re going to find at any other place,” he said. “There’s so much we could do, but we’re grounded by the amount of dollars that can drive us.”
The director position was left vacant for 19 months after Julia Bussinger left to accept a position as executive director of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs, California.
Grabitske sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about the transition from frozen Minnesota to sunny El Paso, what needs to be done to take the museum to the next level and how he intends to make better use of the museum’s 12,000-piece collection.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Aaron Montes at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105. Twitter: @aaronmontes91
Q: When did you first become interested in history?
I can still remember climbing aboard the USS Constellation and going down deck after deck after deck and being much smaller in those days. We could do that and go down into those holes. I still have this picture in my head of my brother Paul and I sitting with our legs dangling into the last hold to go down and touch the keel of the boat.
We heard our mother calling for us on deck, and so we had this short conversation about whether or not we should just go down to say we’ve been down or we should obey mom and go back. We thought, ‘Well we can always come back so let’s obey mom.’ We just never went back to the bottom of that keel. That’s the kind of hands-on experience that I’ve had with history.
Q: When did you decide to make a career out of working in museums and with history?
Right out of the gate. The first college I went to was preministerial. When I discovered Greek was really Greek to me, I said ‘You know? There’s got to be a profession that pays as well as being a pastor but maybe has less job security.’ History was it.
I transferred into Mankato State as a sophomore and took a Minnesota history class taught by Bill Lass. He’s a South Dakotan who was trained at UW Madison. He asked those of us who were declared history majors, ‘What are you gonna do with your history degree?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I do know I am not going to teach.’
Q: What did you do?
My first job was with the Minnesota Historical Society in May of 1996. There I was an interpreter at the Historical Fort Snelling. It’s an old military post that goes back to 1819 and was decommissioned in 1946.
I was lucky enough to get a job fetching books in the library at the history center in St. Paul. I got to know a lot of research historians. I wound up running a grants program for the state of Minnesota in June of 2000.
That position was quartered in the same department as the state historic preservation office. I got to work with those people for 17 years. I succeeded my boss, running the field services program in 2007.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to come to El Paso?
When the search firm called me and they said, ‘Have you seen the position for the director of the El Paso Museum of History?’ I said, ‘Yes. I had seen it the day before but I hadn’t looked at it.’ They said, ‘Why don’t you send your stuff anyway? You can always say no later.’ Things just kept working out well.
Career wise, I had gone as far as I could get at the Minnesota Historical Society. It’s almost 800 people that work there. I just was not getting any higher. As we went through the interview process, I just kept getting real good feedback from everyone, and they made it easy to say yes.
Q: How are you liking El Paso?
So far, it’s wonderful. I think the greatest asset El Paso has is its people. They are unbelievably friendly. Even when I am not lost, people are constantly wanting to know if they can help me.
Q: What was the transition like?
The transition moving from St. Paul to here happened fairly quickly, and we wound up on the Westside. It’s a 20 minute drive to work. Where I was before, leaving my house to the desk was probably about 15 minutes. I could get on the bus. I could peruse a book. I could go over notes for what I was about to do that day. Here, I have to pay attention to the road.
Q: What are some plans you have for the history museum?
We’ve got a number of things to do to really take the museum up to the next level. Before I got here, we were given the Hunt Family Challenge Grant.
They’ve asked us to raise $1 million to receive an additional $500,000. The art museum has a similar one for more. That is something we are working on. In order to build effective fundraising, you need to deal with membership. We’ve almost doubled the number of members here at the museum since I got here.
Q: How many members did the museum have before you arrived and what’s it like now?
It’s fluctuated over time. We’re definitely in a growth period. When I got here it was right around 80 or so. My development coordinator told me that we now stand at 137. It almost doubled. We are going to continue to get that word out and welcome those who want to stand with history.
Q: You are known for fundraising, collection management and growing attendance. How do you hope to bring that to El Paso?
Everyone has been deeply supportive, and they absolutely want to see this place succeed. No matter what they can afford, everyone is welcome to participate. Every dollar counts.
Take out a membership. Consider leaving us in your will.
Our foundation, which is down the street from here that’s managing the challenge grant is where those funds need to go. It’s a separate 501 (c) (3), whose sole purpose was set up to support the good work that’s done here. The city provides a baseline and the foundation can provide some extra, and it’ll be incumbent on us to figure out what the appropriate level of earned revenue needs to be.
Q: Where are you in the challenge grant goal so far?
That was issued in the Fall of 2016. There are goals that are laid out every year, and we’re making good progress on it. It goes on for a number of years.
The Hunts have been extremely gracious and generous with this. It will really help train us up to be better fundraisers than we have been. That kind of help is always good and welcome. As some donors have said, ‘Oh, if I give a certain amount then I am gonna cost Woody Hunt something? Sign me up.’
There’s a lot of good jest and appropriate competitiveness among the families. Like I said, everybody I talk to really wants to see this place succeed.
Q: In terms of dollars?
Just starting. We’ve taken some good first steps, and that’s part of my job – to help us take that next step.
Q: What are some challenges the museum has?
It’s the same thing that you’re going to find at any other place. None of these challenges are insurmountable, but we’re grounded by the amount of dollars that can drive us. It’s not a limitation. As fundraising progresses, we should be able to tackle some of the things on our to do list.
Q: When will people see changes at the museum?
We just mailed our members a new magazine. That’s a change from the way it was. It used to be a report out to the membership of the things we did. But now as a real benefit to our members it contains deeper stories to certain things that are in our exhibits. They have taken the time to support us. They’ll benefit by being able to read some deeper stories we were unable to include in exhibits.
Q: With your leadership, what can El Pasoans expect to see at the Museum of History?
Greater engagement. And that would mean more members, more donors, more visitors, more participants in our programs and so on.
Consistent and deeper use of the collections we do have. We have a collection of about 12,000 objects. And certainly you’re going to see that in the “What We Brought” exhibit. It’s an artifact-heavy rich environment.
We’re aiming to have a history museum that reflects what the city is.
Q: What is ‘What We Brought?’
We all chose El Paso. I chose to come here for a job. Other people have said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve got 5, 6, 8 or 10 generations behind me, and I chose to stay and never left.’ Why is that?
That choice of choosing El Paso is what binds us all together. The exhibit “What We Brought,” draws on the strength of our collection here. Which is the objects that people chose for one reason or another to bring to El Paso when they chose El Paso.
Whether the Tigua being forcibly relocated in 1680 or me moving here a few weeks ago, there was only so much space that we had. Time was a factor. But we chose certain things to bring to El Paso.
The exhibit will cover three basic kinds of things. First, the essential items: Your clothes, toothbrush, razor or whatever you need to have to take care of your body and soul.
Then you’ve got the things that you’re skillful at. It might’ve been a bat, ball and glove or a violin or any number of ways that we make it through a day and enjoy a little downtime.
The third area is those that help us remember where we’ve come from. These would be heirlooms, everything from a tumpline to a U-Haul trailer.
Q: How well do you know Mexican-American history?
I had one class as an undergraduate on Mexican history. The teacher’s name was Ernie Grieshaber. As you can tell from the name, that’s a very German name. I had that class and I had some Central and South American classes as well. One of the goals of the program was you’re supposed to take classes from all parts of the globe. So, I did.
Q: Where are you from?
Historically, the family is mostly from West St. Paul. I had a great, great grandfather who came in 1865 and farmed and developed Roberts Street. Historically, that’s where the roots are.
I grew up on a little spit of land that was between the Severn River and the Magothy River in Maryland. We spent a lot of time in Largo, which is where our church was. We spent a lot of time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It seemed like just about every other weekend that my parents were taking us.