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The Day – Retiring longtime director of the Slater Museum in Norwich

By on March 23, 2021 0

After more than 17 years at the helm of the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, Director Vivian Zoe is retiring.

Zoe, who turns 70 in June, said she initially wondered if she could really retire because her job was such a strong part of her identity.

“But then I realized it was time. It’s time to pass the baton to the next generation and do the things I just don’t have time to do right now. I hope some of what I love to do — like traveling again — will be possible, maybe not this summer, but soon enough,” she said.

She also works as an artist and plans to spend a lot of time in her studio.

Zoe’s official job will end on June 30, but her goal is to be on vacation by May 27 and use up her accrued vacation.

The Slater, which is located on the Norwich Free Academy campus, is operated by the NFA and is open to the public (although it was closed for just over seven months during the pandemic, reopening in September).

Zoe said she hoped her successor would start early enough that there would be some overlap between the two. The reason: “It’s a complex organization — any 130-year-old museum is complex. We have over 10,000 items. Not that in a month a new director can understand the collection, but at least (he can) master the scope of it,” Zoe said. “It’s a complex institution, the NFA is complex. We always say, those of us who are alumni, that it takes about two years to really understand the institution and all of its layers.

She wants to help this process and considers the smoothness of the transition a measure of her performance.

NFA School Principal Brian M. Kelly said: “While I haven’t had much time working with Vivian since I started my job last summer, I’ve have seen working to find ways to bring the collection of the Slater Memorial Museum to its members and the public during the closure caused by the coronavirus. Vivian and her team have developed numerous video segments to allow guests to experience Slater virtually. Now , we are pleased that visitors can return to the Museum following safety protocols. This has been a welcome addition to our campus.

“Through all of this, Vivian and her team have helped our faculty and staff to continuously use the museum and its collections for our students – and that is extremely important. Having this resource on our campus helps differentiate the NFA from others, and we are committed to finding a new principal who will both maintain its prominence on our campus and increase its visibility in the community and beyond.”

Starting with ‘Grand Tour’

Asked about her favorite memories or the accomplishments she is most proud of, Zoe mentions a range of topics.

From the start, she completely relocated and reinterpreted the museum’s permanent exhibits, starting with what is now called “Grand Tour,” which chronicles William and Ellen Slater’s circumnavigation of the globe on their private yacht. (William Slater, who grew up in Norwich and attended the NFA, created the Slater Memorial Museum in honor of his father.)

Shortly after “Grand Tour” opened, the NFA made the decision to build a new atrium for universal accessibility, which was wonderful, she noted, but construction required the museum to close.

“What’s interesting about it is that it seemed devastating, but it gave us 18 months – which believe me, isn’t a lot of time – to once again really reinvent the museum. We’ve been working on the cleaning – especially the cleaning of the casts,” Zoe said, referring to the museum’s famous collection of plaster reproductions of some of the world’s greatest sculptures. “We have restored the floors of the moldings gallery; there had been that hideous 1970s carved carpet in the cast iron gallery, and underneath were those beautiful wood floors. So we re-varnished the floors and cleaned the casts, worked on reinterpreting all the casts to make them all accessible and relate them to stories in history and stories in mythology.

“Then we literally relocated every gallery in the museum.”

It involved a delicate balance to make it more contemporary and industry-standard while taking into account that some longtime Slater fans didn’t necessarily want things to change. In the end, everyone seemed satisfied with the results.

Meyer, Pratt and Ruley

Zoe mentioned a few important moments in her career in terms of temporary exhibitions at Slater. The 2015 exhibit dedicated to John Meyer, a Norwich clothing designer who had a huge fan base across the United States in the 1960s, was a blockbuster for the museum, she recalled.

Another highlight was the Bela Lyon Pratt exhibition in 2017, focusing on the Norwich native turned renowned monument sculptor. This exposure was particularly gratifying because he was something of a forgotten figure, she said; “He’s the most famous artist you don’t know. There are so many of his works in the state and really in New England that are public monuments… that everyone sees and passes by and doesn’t know who created them.

She also appreciated that when Slater had to seek loans from Pratt’s descendants, collectors, and other institutions, he was able to secure permission from those sources, with items coming from all over the country.

The museum’s 2018 exhibition of works by Ellis Ruley, the black folk artist who lived in Norwich and who only rose to fame long after his death in 1959, “really warmed my heart because he served a community that I fear is too easy not to serve. This is the kind of stretch I think the museum needs to do long after I retire,” she said.

From Noah Webster to Slater

When she started working at Slater in October 2003, Zoe already had 23 years of museum experience. She had been executive director of the Noah Webster House in Hartford from 1999 until her arrival at the Slater.

Prior to this, she was Executive Director of the Lutz Children’s Museum in Manchester from 1993 to 1995 and Development Director of the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society from 1995 to 1999.

She holds a BFA from the University of Connecticut at Storrs and an MA in Arts Administration and Theater and Design from The Ohio State University in Columbus.

Zoe was hired as a consultant in 1999 to conduct an assessment of the Slater Museum, and the NFA asked her to apply for the position of director after the departure of the previous person in this position, Sheila K. Tabakoff.

Zoe thinks she leaves the museum in good shape, but recognizes that there are still many things she would like to see happen, including the restoration of the roof and the air conditioning of the entire museum.

She said of members of the public who come to Slater for the first time, “One of the best things I hear – both the best and the worst – is that after a visit, visitors say, “We didn’t know anything about this (museum). We didn’t know how long to plan, and we didn’t plan enough time. It’s a fabulous place.’”