We took a moment to interview Elisa Quinlan, our new Director of Development and proud Northwestern alumna. In her role at the museum Elisa spearheads fundraising efforts and connects with our Board of Advisors to cultivate events. She also oversees gifts and acquisitions to the museum’s permanent collection. We asked her about her history in fundraising, as well as her goals and aspirations for the Block, in a recent interview:
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you find your way to fundraising?
I’ve been a fundraiser for more than a decade, working for both non-profit organizations and universities. During my undergraduate studies at Northwestern, I did a summer internship at my local university in Tennessee working with the vice chancellor as a grant writer. This experience opened my eyes to the world of fundraising and the process of using my communications skills to create a compelling narrative for donors, connecting them to a mission and a broader vision. It wasn’t an area I studied in school or had even considered career-wise. I’ve always been interested in jobs that bridge philanthropy and global issues and that peak my intellectual curiosity. The philanthropic sector is growing rapidly and in my humble view is a powerful engine for change. I knew I wanted to leverage my communications and marketing background to do something with a social sector focus. Fundraising has been a wonderful career, and the opportunities are endless for growth and learning.
What particularly interests you about working within an art museum? What drew you to the Block Museum mission, exhibitions, and collection?
When I was a student at Northwestern, I served as an art critic for Art and Performance Magazine, which was a student publication at the time that covered the arts on campus and in greater Chicago. It was an opportunity to learn about art exhibitions at what was then the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery and to represent Northwestern at art openings in downtown Chicago.
I see the arts as a natural springboard for dialogue on pressing national and international issues. University museums like The Block serve as neutral conveners for these conversations and can bridge research and public understanding. I was especially interested in The Block’s interdisciplinary approach and the far-reaching nature of its exhibitions which aren’t exclusively grounded in modern or contemporary art but go beyond the traditional museum model.
Working for The Block connects me to a personal passion. I’m interested in the creative process and integrating the arts into solving the big global crises of our time, be it climate change, mental health issues, or creating a more tolerant and empathetic world. I see the arts as a catalyst for these conversations and for bringing these issues into the public sphere in a unique way. I’m thrilled to parlay my past fundraising experience into working for my alma mater and to support the growth and future success of The Block.
What museum exhibitions or programs (outside the Block) have inspired you lately?
During our recent Block Board of Advisors trip to New York City, I had the privilege to view the Hilma af Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Af Klint was an early abstract expressionist artist in Sweden whose work was very much ahead of her time. She preceded many of the heavyweight male artists associated with abstract expressionism but she wasn’t known in art circles and in the broader public until recently. Her work feels very modern and at the same time evokes a strong echo of the past through her involvement with various spiritual movements of the early 1900’s. It made me wonder how many other female artists are waiting for their retrospectives and to assume their rightful place in the art world. Af Klint was aware during her lifetime that her work was “of the future” and stipulated in her estate that her art couldn’t be publicly shown till 20 years after her passing. She was certainly ahead of her time in many regards.
What are your goals for the Block Museum’s advancement?
My goals are to help lay the groundwork for The Block’s future success as we prepare to close out Northwestern’s We Will campaign in 2020. For The Block, I would like to raise endowment funds to expand our student docent program and to ensure our summer internship program remains sustainable. I would also like to secure support for areas such as endowing our senior curator position and creating a robust art acquisition fund so that the museum can bolster its collection to support Northwestern’s teaching mission and key curriculum areas. Finally, I want to help spread the word with Northwestern alumni and the broader public that The Block is a free museum open to the public that serves as a resource for the greater community.
It’s been such an honor to start at The Block during the Caravans of Gold exhibition, which focuses on artistic and cultural exchange across the Saharan region of Africa during the medieval period. The exhibition brings modern works together with centuries-old artifacts and fragments from more than 20 lenders across the globe. It illuminates Africa’s history in a way that has never been done before and helps us view history from a more comprehensive lens. I’m waiting for the next Northwestern radio/television/film graduate to produce a mini-series on the medieval emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa, who figures very prominently into the exhibition. His 4,000-mile pilgrimage to Mecca transformed economies and civilizations across Africa and the Middle East. It’s wonderful to know school children and the broader public will now know this part of history, thanks to The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern.