Interview With Elizabeth d’Huart
Executive Director, Benicia Historical Museum
To follow the path that Elizabeth d’Huart took to Benicia, start in the suburbs of Chicago. Head east to Virginia for college and on to Washington, D.C., to work. Cross the Atlantic to London to take a great job, and then make your way to the south of France before traveling west to Madison, Georgia. From there, pack up
and head to Benicia.
“I’m not afraid of change or moving forward,” she says with a smile.
This zig-zag journey brought Elizabeth to Benicia late last year. Along the way, she worked in marketing and public relations for real estate firms and publications, ran an interior design business, flipped houses and raised a daughter.
From 2007 to 2009, she was the director of the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art in Buckhead, Georgia. She’ll put those skills to use in her new post as executive director of the Benicia Historical Museum, where she started working August 24.
Elizabeth is one of three paid staff ers at the museum located in the historic Camel Barns in the Industrial Park. All are parttime, though the workload often requires more hours. Elizabeth also volunteers with Arts Benicia, serving on its youth education committee.
Serendipity and research helped her find Benicia. When she decided to move to the West Coast, she started looking for an arts community. Someone mentioned Benicia while she was visiting Savannah, Georgia, and her brother-in-law in the art gallery business affirmed the community’s support of artists. From there, Elizabeth began learning more about our town.
“My friends call me Ms. Google,” she says. “I’m a researcher.”
How did you decide to move to Madison, Georgia, after living in Europe for 20 years?
Because of my background in interior design and flipping houses, I researched historic districts. I read the National Register of Historic Districts, I looked at their populations, their average income, whether or not there was a growing commuter base—and I learned the South is still growing. … So I read The Most Beautiful Villages and Towns in the South.
Katrina hit while I was in Madison, and I decided I wasn’t going to live near an ocean. That evening I went into town and I learned that there was a chamber concert series, there was an independent bookstore, and I could get the New York Times delivered on Sunday. I returned to France and packed up.
What prompted the move to Benicia?
It wouldn’t have come up on my radar except for two things that happened at the time: I was visiting my sister in LA, and she’d been asking me for years to come to the West Coast. When I saw the real estate market was going down and realized I was not going to be able to supplement my (museum) directorship income with flipping houses, I started looking for an arts community on the West Coast. …
So on one of my trips to visit my sister, I visited Benicia and I liked it. I had a friend living here, and he said, “Why not do it? Why not?” And I did.
When did you first visit the Benicia Historical Museum?
I think it was November of 2009, while I was here to see the town. I came because I’m a museum person and I’m an arts and cultural person.
What were your first impressions of the museum?
My first impression was that it is a fascinating collection that covers a part of history and an area that I’m not particularly familiar with. I found it to be charming in the true sense of the word: it has personality, it bears the touch of people who have worked on and with it. Obviously, the collection has been given by local people who also shared their stories about the items.
What were your first thoughts about Benicia?
It seemed like Benicia was a town straight out of the movies. The other thing that impressed me about Benicia was the number of maintained green spaces, the wonderful little parks.
I also love the wind. To me, it’s like another ocean. I love listening to the wind. I keep the windows open at night to listen to the wind. …
My first impressions of Benicia were lovely.
Why were you interested in the museum position?
I am a museum person, and I wanted to live and work in the same place, for many reasons. If you live in one place and work in another, there’s a disconnect every day.
Are there differences between running an art museum and managing an historical museum? Similarities?
The management of any museum is going to be the same—it’s a nonprofit organization with a collection that has to be preserved and maintained. You have special exhibits and a permanent collection. There will be committees, a board of directors, and some conduit for local people to become involved. The size may change, but these are the components.
There are more similarities than dissimilarities between the two. However, even if people appreciate and enjoy the visual arts, they may or may not like a particular artist and that may impede their support. But there may be many avenues for local support of local history, a broader range of interest and support.
What lessons did you learn in Georgia that you might put to use here?
I would say that it makes sense to focus on the interest of the community and match your mission with the mission of the community.
We have many, many people here who chose to move here for a reason—they were looking for the best environment for their children, a place with a good education system, a low crime rate, affordable housing. I want to focus on education.
Secondly, there’s a large community, of which I’m a member, that’s interested in connecting all the dots of local historic sites and preservation. I would like to pay attention to that because our collection is not just a collection in any old structure, but in historic structures, and they are part of the whole history of Benicia. I want to make sure the museum is participating in all historical activities locally. … I think nonprofits should work together, nonprofits need to work together.
What’s at the top of your agenda as you start this new job?
Working as the director of a nonprofit, funding is always at the top of one’s agenda. Also, helping the board members accomplish what they want to do—I serve at the pleasure of the board.
How do you plan to increase attendance and interest?
I have ideas. I want to do more educational events here. I want more programs—anything that will get the children here and learning. We need to coordinate and generate publicity about what’s already here.
What’s been your favorite part of the job so far?
I’m enjoying the people. All the people I’ve met on the board and the volunteers are intelligent, well-educated, wellread. I’ve had great conversations. I like learning.
What’s been the most helpful thing you’ve done to get to know your new hometown?
Volunteering at Arts Benicia, and I’m a Chatty Cathy. I’ll speak to total strangers.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
What free time? (laughing) I’m a reader, a walker and explorer. I’m a tourist at heart. I like to go to anyplace that’s been described as a beautiful location, any restaurant that’s been well reviewed—anywhere and everywhere.