The RISD Museum overlooks downtown Providence from a narrow, tree-lined street atop a hill. Its galleries blend easily with the genteel brick buildings that house the classrooms and dormitories of the renowned campuses that coexist here: the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University.
From the outside, the museum seems tiny. From the inside, it's a welter of exhibition spaces, storage areas and a four-year-old contemporary glass wing that extends to six floors in places, but is tucked ingeniously and discreetly into the hill.
The School of Design, a four-year, top-ranked college of art and design, graduates about 550 students each year. Its museum was founded in 1877 to serve as an educational resource for the college, a place in which students could learn by studying actual works of art.
RISD Museum, which last year drew 90,456 visitors, owns about 70,000 objects, with rich holdings in decorative arts. "The collection at RISD is very varied. It is very much like the collections at the Victoria and Albert in London, only smaller," says Franklin W. Robinson, who preceded Bolger as RISD director. "The textile and costume collection is 20,000 objects and is one of the glories of the museum and in the country."
But the institution also is the largest museum in the state and aims to serve art lovers throughout the region. Its director, therefore, must perform a delicate balancing act as she tries to satisfy the needs of the college community, of artists, of RISD Museum curators and of local residents.
"The museum works in coordination with the community and Brown [University] and with its own artistic environment," says Robert Bergman, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and former director of the Walters Art Gallery. "It's a smaller museum than the BMA, but it has a complex and multifaceted environment, which is excellent training for an urban museum."
Born in New York, Bolger attended the University of Delaware and received her doctorate in 1983 from the City University of New York, specializing in 19th-century American art, particularly American impressionism. The first 15 years of her career were spent on the curatorial staff of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she rose to the position of curator of American Painting and Sculpture.
"I consider her my closest friend, my soul mate in the museum world," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery. "She is straightforward. That seems so simple, but there's a lot in that statement. It says a lot about how she relates to her staff, to the public, to collectors."
In 1989, Bolger accepted a job as curator of painting and sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. "I was recently divorced. I had two small children, and I couldn't imagine raising them in New York City," she says.
At the Amon Carter, she managed the permanent collections and co-curated a number of exhibitions including "Thomas Eakins and 'Swimming.' "
"I first was impressed by her expertise in American art. She is a scholar of many accomplishments," Bergman says. He adds, "The combination of her museum experience, scholarly talents and a talent for organization and administrative work have made an equally impressive museum director."
Doing it all
Still, when Bolger came to RISD, she had never run a museum. "Becoming a director for the first time was a huge transition to make. I had done bits and parts of the job -- raised money, curated, supervised, but I had never done it all at once," she says.
It surely didn't help that her predecessor, Robinson, was a near-legendary figure in local art circles.
Tall and loquacious, the Dutch art specialist is renowned for a booming voice that echoed through the museum halls as he roared his welcome to visitors.
Under Robinson's leadership, the museum added to its collections, increased its attendance and originated a number of successful exhibitions. Before Robinson left in 1992 after 13 years to become director of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, the museum broke ground for its newest addition, the Daphne Farago Wing.
But many mundane details of maintenance, such as the leaky heating system, had fallen by the wayside.
While agreeing there was work left undone, Robinson also points out that "you know the problems that were left unsolved, but you don't know the problems that were solved because they aren't there anymore."
At any rate, when Bolger arrived in 1994, the museum needed major improvements. In addition to the leaky vault, other storage areas were woefully overcrowded. One room housed 18,000 prints and drawings -- some by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh -- stacked on top of each other from floor to ceiling. Morale among curators was low. Communications between college faculty and museum staff had dwindled.
Bolger describes her method of dealing with seemingly insurmountable problems as "going in on it like a laser beam and just doing it."