Making an Impact: Kent Lydecker

By Julie Garisto, AliveTampaBay Correspondent

Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture & the Arts is a nonprofit organization that bridges merchants, entrepreneurs and corporations with artists and arts institutions to build thriving communities. Each year, the organization’s Impact Awards honor men and women who have gone above and beyond to support local arts and culture. Honorees will be commemorated in four categories: the Patron of Culture & the Arts Impact Award, Business Impact Award, Individual Impact Award and International Artistic Achievement Award. This year’s Impact Awards will be given out at a dinner gala  on Thursday, Oct. 20, at 6:30 p.m. Visit tbbca.org for details.

AliveTampaBay is shining the spotlight on the recipients of TBBCA’s 2016 Impact Awards. This week, it’s Kent Lydecker, who has served for the past six years as director of the Museum of Fine Arts, ushering in the St. Petersburg museum’s 50th anniversary and one of its most prolific and exciting periods.

Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts will honor Lydecker for his shepherding of the MFA 2010-16 and bringing important exhibitions to the area; encouraging “robust public programs” — especially services for families and school — and growing the museum’s permanent collection, now comprising around 20,000 works of art in all media (including some 17,000 historical photographs in the Dandrew-Drapkin Collection).

Before his tenure at MFA, Lydecker worked as director for education of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than 20 years.

“A long-standing interest in history and the humanities has always been part of my character,” Lydecker says.

The son of a geologist and teacher, Lydecker grew up in Midland, Texas, and attended the same school as the Bush boys, Sam Houston Elementary.

Tales from his childhood recall film reels of 20th century-America  — he was active in the Boy Scouts well into his college years and had a pet rabbit.

The outdoor-explorer spirit hasn’t left Lydecker. He enjoys swimming and has developed an interest in bike riding since moving to Tampa Bay. He also likes to fly fish and says he’s fascinated by railroads.

Lydecker has been married for 44 years to “the wonderful and multi-talented” Toni Hudson Lydecker, whom he met in college. He has two daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

“I love above all to read, especially history and biography, with the occasional mystery,” he says. “The engaged life of the mind is paramount to me.”

Alive Tampa Bay: What experience or experiences inspired you to pursue a career in the visual arts? Do you have artists in your family? 

Kent Lydecker: A terrific professor at Rice University made all the difference, inspiring me to focus on the visual record of human creativity.  Luck and chance played a role, too. My first job — at the National Gallery of Art — opened my eyes to the possibilities of the museum world, which I had never experienced but knew was right for me once I had. And yes, we’ve had artists in my family — my father’s mother was a professionally trained painter, and our daughter Mary Lydecker is a landscape architect who maintains her practice as an artist.

ATB: Under your tenure, the Museum of Fine Arts not only evolved as an institution with a vast permanent collection of masterpieces, artifacts and photographs, but now has a formidable contemporary art presence with the 2013 hire of Katharine Pill as curator of contemporary art after 1950. The museum has also evolved as a supporter of local artists by hosting satellite events and porch parties to boost the St. Pete arts scene. Could you comment on the changes, alliances and growing pains you ushered in while director of MFA?

KL: The founding concept of the Museum of Fine Arts as a comprehensive educational and collecting institution serving the community has meant that the collection has grown — primarily through gifts and the very occasional purchase. We’ve especially turned our face to the future by emphasizing the importance of photography as an artistic medium, and by embracing the art of our time as an area of active collection and exhibition. Hence, Katherine’s role at the MFA, made possible by a visionary endowment gift from Hazel and Bill Hough.

Art is never only something for the history books, it’s also about the constantly and consistently renewing energies of artists themselves and the community we and they are part of. Thus, engaging the energies of practicing artists, collectors, students, teachers, and the public is central to the MFA’s achievement of its mission. Working authentically with community leaders and sister institutions — as for example our collaboration with the Tampa Museum to bring young contemporary Chinese artists to America, or our collaboration with American Stage for the Nureyev exhibition — makes us all more successful. And this activity is a lot of fun when institutional leaders and professional staffs see the opportunities for the future and go for them.

ATB: As a historian and scholar or the Italian Renaissance, what lessons could we learn from that time period to encourage a more enlightened society?

KL: The Renaissance in Italy was a time when people rediscovered a past — Classical Antiquity — that had been ignored for a millennium. Renaissance artists invented new ways of understanding and representing the world and the human experience. The lessons I think we can learn from the Renaissance are to be knowledgeable about the past, live and act in the present, and be mindful of the future.

ATB: Is there an arts enclave in the Bay area you’d like to see more from? What advice would you give to budding arts groups and nonprofits seeking to grow an arts community?

KL: Art is everywhere and in everything; in fact, I think of art as a verb — it is something humans do as well as something we make. My advice could be condensed to two simple words: work together. When individuals and institutions act cooperatively and collaboratively, amazing things happen. Communities thrive and grow. We all benefit.

ATB: Hypothetical scenario: You have just found out that relatives will be in town from out of state for one day only. Where in the Bay area do you take them?

KL: My quick answer is a walk along the waterfront, a visit to a museum, and a delicious dinner.

There is so much here it’s important for visitors to know that the action isn’t in just one place only. Of course, I would send them to the Museum of Fine Arts, but I would also recommend the Dali, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Morean Art Center, the Ringling, the Contemporary Art Museum at USF and the list goes on and on.

By Julie Garisto, AliveTampaBay Correspondent

Interview has been condensed and edited for brevity, clarity, and style.

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