Michael Tomor

When Michael Tomor walks out of the El Paso Museum of Art for the last time as its director March 20, many in El Paso will bemoan his departure to take on the directorship of the large, privately run Tampa Museum of Art. In truth, we should just be glad that he’s been here as long as he has. In an era when museum directors turn over every five or so years, his nine-year residency has been a boon for the region. 

Tomor, who has a Ph.D. in art history from Penn State, grew up in El Paso and attended El Paso High before graduating from Coronado. Even after his mother and stepfather moved to California in 1983, Tomor would come back to El Paso. School reunions, funerals and vacations here with Tom Trexler, his partner of 27 years and husband since their 2013 marriage in New York City, kept Tomor in contact with his El Paso connections.

When Becky Duvall Reese left the museum in 2006, Tomor was thrilled to return to his hometown and the art that he grew up with, including the internationally renowned Kress Collection. That gift of major European art from dime-store magnate Samuel Kress was the centerpiece of the museum when it was founded in 1960. 

One of Tomor’s most far-reaching contributions was to share that collection with the world through a landmark volume of essays of each work by top art historians. As a result, some Kress paintings have gained international recognition and have been loaned out to leading institutions. 

Tomor is also leaving a remarkable financial achievement. When he arrived in 2006, the El Paso Museum of Art Foundation, founded by former mayor Peter de Wetter in 1998, had been hovering around $1.1 million. In the 2008 market crash, it fell to $880,000.

So in close partnership with Tomor, the foundation board and then-board president Jack Maxon launched a 50th   anniversary campaign, with a goal of $5 million. Thanks to $1 million gifts from Dede Rogers and Isha Rogers and the Hunt Family Foundation and other generous contributions, that goal was exceeded.

As a former docent, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know the exhibits and publications that Tomor leaves as his legacy, and as a writer on the arts, I’ve gotten to hear the accolades from Zuill Bailey, David Grabarkewitz, Bo Rattay, Lynn Provenzano, Charles Horak and others who have enjoyed their organizations’ collaborations with the art museum. 

I asked some other El Pasoans what Tomor has meant to our community. I contacted Debbie Hamlyn, who managed the recruiting and hiring process for a new art museum director in 2006; Robert and Sarah Shiloff, who Tomor calls “my surrogate parents in El Paso” and who have been frequent exhibition sponsors; Jack Maxon, the former chair of the El Paso Museum of Art Foundation board, who has advised Tomor “through thick and thin” and whom Tomor calls “my mentor;” Susan Eisen, an exhibition sponsor and advisor to Tomor and the museum; and Hal Marcus, a well-known regional artist whose work had not appeared at the museum until Tomor’s tenure. Their comments reflect many community members’ thoughts as well. 

In Tampa, Tomor’s application bubbled to the top. The search committee wasted no time in flying him and Trexler in for an extended meet and greet in January; an attractive offer followed. The two have been house hunting in Tampa and are taking the steps to start a new life on the Gulf of Mexico. 

It’s El Paso’s loss and Tampa’s gain, but again, we have gained, too. 

Q: What do you think made your experience and skills stand out to the search committee at the Tampa Museum of Art? 

I think there were a couple things and they were the same things that stood out for El Paso. 

Every museum director brings something to the table that’s different. Some are real big change agents and they bring them in because they need complete restructuring. Others have done capital projects and raised money for new buildings and saw that process through. For me, what I love and do best is community outreach and community partnerships. Also I’m good at – I don’t know, it sounds immodest – but I do well with raising money, both for endowment and for programming and before, in Pennsylvania, for operational costs. 

I came from a private institution in Pennsylvania (the Southern Allegenies Museum of Art outside Pittsburgh) where we raised everything, from paperclip money to payroll and programs. We had a very small endowment, but we didn’t use it, so every year, we were raising 100 percent of our funding. 

Here they had a new building and they were looking for someone who could bridge the museum with the community. My predecessor went through three mayors building this building and that’s what she spent most of her time doing. It opened to the public in 1998 and she resigned in 2005.

The Tampa Museum of Art really has a very good team there, so I don’t think they were looking for a director as a programmer; they were looking for a director as a community engagement leader, an advocate for the museum and a fundraiser. 

Q: When you got the job here and looked at the museum, what did you first work on? 

The first thing I did when I came here was to go back to the museum’s mission and focus a lot of attention on Mexico. Many questions in the interview dealt with reaching out to the Mexican-American population. 

The focus was almost immediate. 

We brought in “Mexico Modern” right away – that happened within four or five months of my arrival. That was a recommendation that came from Mickey Schwartz, who had a home in Santa Fe and called me to say there was this fabulous exhibition of major Mexican art there and it was the show’s only location in the United States. He asked, “Can you get it before it goes back to Mexico City?” 

Adair Margo was engaged in the museum at the time and with her connections with the U.S. government, she helped me reach out to the director of Mexico’s equivalent to our National Endowment of the Arts and her equivalent also. We got that show with the help of her liaisoning with both federal governments because the art was coming from the federal Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.

That was huge because the museum in El Paso had never done an exhibit with works by Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, Maria Izquierda, Frida Kahlo and other major artists. That kind of set the stage. I went to Mexico City to thank the museum with the Mexican consulate – her name was Elsa Borja – and she introduced me to everyone I needed to know: the museum directors and people in the federal government and cultural affairs branch of the foreign service. That began a lot of programming with Mexico City and also with the museum of art in Juárez.

Q: What would be an example of some of the cross-border programming?  

A year after I started, we launched our first Biennial Binational that bridged Juárez and El Paso, but it also was a direct community outreach to regional artists. That was the first discussion of non-nationally recognized border artists showing at the museum – and that made a big difference to the regional artists and to the community to see what was going on along the border. So I’m really proud of the relationships we established with Mexico and with our Mexican-American community. 

Museums have this interesting unique responsibility to the community. The fastest growing population of the United States is Mexican Americans and they need to understand their cultural heritage as much as any other cultures, ethnicities, races in the United States. The museum should be helping them understand their cultural history – and the community really reacted to that. 

Q: You have launched and nurtured so many different alliances and outreach programs here. How have these relationships helped the museum? 

We really have figured out a way to have meaningful relationships with community performing arts groups, including El Paso Pro-Musica, the symphony, the opera, the film festival and other groups. And then recently we’ve had a focus on health. The most recent community partnerships are with the Alzheimer’s Association and Fort Bliss, which I am really proud of.  

One reason why we do these partnerships and community outreach is that at the art museum we rely on the media to get the word out to the public who are not our members. That’s not always reliable and marketing is very, very expensive and it’s extremely passive. So we put it out there but we don’t know its impact. 

We know we’ll get a boost in attendance, but when we can do community program partnerships, we reach out to a group of people who may or may not engage with art, they’re not already predisposed to art. So we bring groups of people to the museum over a period to time for something they might not even know there was a need for – like why do we even need an art museum. 

But to bring them in and for them to have a good experience, if it has meaning in their lives, they will talk to other people about it. That is our most reliable marketing tool: word of mouth. You’ve got to get them into the museum and have a good experience. 

Q: Which exhibit will stand out the most for you from your time here? 

That’s tough, but I’ll tell you the one that was the most surprising. It was when we did the Peter Max Retrospective. Not that it was the “best” exhibit, but literally, it was a blockbuster in the true sense of the word.  People stood in line wrapped around the museum waiting for the doors to open. Peter came to the opening and we had 1,100 people that night. The museum was packed. It was a good exhibit, but the relationship that the community had with this artist was amazing – they wanted to see his art and they wanted to see him. 

Q: If you were trying to “sell” potential job candidates on the virtues of the El Paso Museum of Art, what would you say? 

First, it’s the finest mid-sized museum when it comes to physical plant. It’s just remarkable. I told Becky and I told my staff and anybody who would listen that every time I walked into the museum I thanked Becky that she built such a fine facility. The back of the house – storage, receiving, loading, great spaces for carpentry work – its design and layout is amazing. That would be a huge selling point to anybody. 

The second thing I would say is that we have an extraordinary permanent collection. It’s extremely well balanced and it needs to continue to grow. Third is that the private sector of this community really wants to be engaged. You just have to ask them to be involved; they want to be asked.  

Also we have a great staff – they do great work. Each of them has the skills and opportunities to go further in their careers. They have the ability to share what they’ve learned here with the museum community elsewhere.

Q: In our community, you represent a couple of minorities: you’re Jewish and you’re gay. Do you think that your leadership in El Paso has made a difference in people’s attitudes toward these two groups? 

I would hope so. Definitely in the role of having a leadership capacity in the Jewish community and the arts community, I would say that people don’t consider me in a silo – that I only “do art museums.” There was a really nice crossover for me being involved in El Paso’s Jewish Federation (he served on the board from 2006-2014 and as president 2010-2012) and the Jewish community and the art museum. Those communities eventually crossed over into my professional life and I loved that. 

And for being gay in the community, Tom and I always like to think that because we are so out there as a couple that it can give people more comfort in knowing that that’s an acceptable lifestyle. No matter what we do, there will be people who don’t believe that. 

It’s always been an important part of my job to make it very clear that I am gay. It always comes up at the interview process and I’m very clear about that because people give to people they trust. If there’s a part of your personal life that is not being shared, it can come off as not telling the truth.

If they don’t know you, they won’t give to you; they’ll be very skeptical. It could be advocacy, it could be money, it could be trust – they will not give to you if they feel that you’re hiding something. So being openly Jewish and openly gay is an important part of why I think the El Paso community and any community I’ve lived in trusts me, because they know who I am. 

Q: Why Tampa? Why now? 

About a year ago, I decided that the amount of time I was spending on working in the government as an organization was interfering with 100 percent of my time working just on the museum and what it was doing in the community.

To put that in perspective, the city, which I consider to be nameless and faceless, is an organization that has a responsibility to expend the public tax base in a responsible way and they tell the community this is what we’re going to do with your money and we are going to provide you these services. But that tax base shifts, from year to year. If the projections are off, that budget changes and we are required to size down our budget across the board. There’s a lot of time spent on managing shifts in the government budget that have an impact on us. 

Also there’s the fact that there’s such a high turnover of staff at the city. I’ve gone through now three directors and three interim directors at MCAD (Museum and Cultural Affairs Department). That’s six different leadership positions in nine years. Within MCAD, there’s a central business office. The business manager’s job has shifted four times and the accounting position has changed five times. We have liaison services with the museum, so I work with the legal department and I’ve had three different legal liaisons. I’ve had four different liaisons with the Office of Management and Budget and three different representatives from Human Resources. 

And every time that shifts, I’m delegating up for information and training them on how to work with the museum, which is not like the police department or streets or general services. So for me, it’s always been a part of my job, but I did make a decision last year. I decided in my career that I don’t want to spend that amount of time being not able to control that situation. I decided to go back to the private sector. 

I decided, after being heavily recruited for more than five years, to look at other jobs. Recruiters had been contacting me constantly, each time with me coming back and saying politely that the timing’s not right, I’m not ready to move. But when I made that decision last year, I decided about six months ago to go ahead and start answering the recruiters. 

The recruiters working with the Tampa Museum of Art felt that my job and experience were exactly what they were looking for and they moved my application forward. So I went to Tampa in December for a 50-minute interview with the search committee. The recruiter called me that night and said they want you back in January. 

So three weeks later, they invited me in for two days of interviewing with a social event. They asked if I wanted to invite my spouse and Tom came with me. Ten days later they contacted me and said they wanted to make an offer. They gave me everything that I wanted. They got what they needed and they offered me everything I needed. 

It took a long time to come to that decision. It wasn’t an easy decision to make because I love El Paso. This is not a move about El Paso; this is a move away from government employment. 

Q: Aside from the people you worked with and got to know here, what will you miss the most about El Paso?

The weather – and the desert. I really love the desert. I used to dream about the desert when I lived in Pennsylvania. I missed it. And I will miss the authentic Mexican food here. El Paso is so important to me: my grandmother lived here and my mom and her two sisters and I grew up here. I have no family members currently in El Paso, but I do have three generations of extended family friends.  

Q: What advice would you give your successor? 

The public really wants to be engaged in this museum. They want it to be their museum. Understanding that will enable you to engage with them. You have to reach out to them and listen to them. They really drive the success of the institution. 

Q: Any parting words? 

My parting words would be “thank you.” El Paso has given me so much while I was growing up here and while I’ve been a professional here that I don’t ever think I can say thank you enough. I don’t think I can give back as much as the city and the people have given to me. El Paso is still my home and it will always be. 

Email arts and culture columnist Cindy Graff Cohen at cindygraffcohen@gmail.com.