As part of a wave of new leadership at Homer nonprofits and civic organizations, next week the Pratt Museum welcomes its new executive director, Jennifer Gibbins, who starts on Dec. 2.
Formerly of Anchorage, Seward and Cordova, Gibbins arrived in Homer last Monday and has started to settle into a home near the Pratt. With her old dog Bo sleeping by her, Gibbins sat down for an interview last Friday.
Moving to Homer fulfills a longtime dream to move to the lower Kenai Peninsula, she said.
“I have had an eye to Homer for many, many years,” Gibbins said. “I feel so fortunate for this opportunity. People have been so welcoming — the (Pratt) board, the staff, the community as a whole.”
The past year has seen turnover in local executive directors, with new Homer Public Library Director David Berry, new Kachemak Bay Campus Director Reid Brewer, new KBBI General Manager Joshua Krohn and new Homer Foundation Director Michael Miller. Gibbins takes over for Laurie Stuart, who left over the summer, and Interim Executive Director Marilyn Sigman.
“We are fortunate to have someone of Jennifer Gibbins’ caliber to lead the Pratt Museum,” Sigman said in a press release announcing her selection by the board of directors. “Jennifer has the leadership and vision to successfully guide the museum into the future. She is deeply committed to the Alaskan community and has a proven track record of leading organizations focused on growth and long-term sustainability.”
Gibbins grew up in New England in Litchfield, Connecticut, but also lived in South Carolina, where she attended the University of South Carolina. She has a bachelor of arts in art history from the University of South Carolina, but spent her senior year at the University of Kent, Canterbury, England, United Kingdom.
An Alaskan since 2004, when she moved to Cordova, Gibbins has an eclectic background working for everything from the National Wildlife Federation to the Cordova Times, a paper she bought after being its editor.
Her museum experience began at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a job she started just after June 1989 when the Corcoran cancelled the controversial exhibit, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment.” A retrospective of the late photographer’s work, it included Mapplethorpe’s sedate still lives as well as homoerotic and sadomasochistic photographs. The touring exhibit drew the ire of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms and other conservatives in one of the first battles of the President Ronald Reagan era culture wars.
“That was an interesting time to be at the museum,” Gibbins said. “It brought to the front a lot of internal issues.”
The aftermath of cancelling “The Perfect Moment” affected the Corcoran. It exposed a divided board, a building in bad repair and an institution in financial trouble. Gibbins said she came out of that experience with new wisdom.
“That stayed with me — the importance of coming together as a team,” she said. “… I learned so much in D.C., in my life, and use it to this day.”
From D.C. Gibbins came to Alaska. Later working for the National Wildlife Federation, a conservation organization, she led a tour to Cordova of the President’s Council, a group of NWF major donors.
“While I was there I thought, ‘Holy smokes. Alaska is so beautiful and compelling,” she said. “Within three months I was living in Cordova.”
In Cordova Gibbins first started working for the Eyak Preservation Council, an organization protecting wild salmon habitat and indigenous Eyak Alaska Native culture. She also was the Prince William Soundkeeper, a sister role to that of Cook Inletkeeper. After writing for the Cordova Times, she later became its editor.
“I didn’t have a background in newspapers, just, ‘I live in a small town and can write these stories,’” Gibbins said.
She wound up buying the Cordova Times after its owner, Alaska Newspapers Inc., announced it was selling out. Another ANI newspaper editor, Alex DeMarban, suggested she buy the Times.
“I felt very strongly this is a community paper and it, number one, needs to continue and, number two, it needs to continue in the community,” Gibbins said.
Gibbins owned and ran the Times from 2011 to 2016, when she sold it to the Native Village of Eyak. In 2016, she moved to Seward, where she worked as director of marketing and communications at the Alaska Sealife Center. Most recently she has been director of community relations and director of leadership programs at the Alaska Humanities Forum in Anchorage. There she helped run the Alaska Salmon Fellows program.
“I feel like this combination of experience in Alaska is really going to benefit me,” Gibbins said. “Having both the experience of being in rural Alaska and in Anchorage are beneficial.”
Gibbins takes over the Pratt after several years of transition as Homer’s community museum abandoned its dream of a new building and instead did a major redesign. That meant moving exhibits and its collection into temporary space and closing the museum down last winter as renovations were made to improve the flow of the building and make it handicap accessible. The Pratt reopened in May with a new exterior, a new porch and major changes to its galleries. Despite a year of change, it has emerged stronger, Gibbins said.
“The Pratt is in such a wonderful position,” she said. “The renovation is completed. There’s a great staff. … We’re close to ending the year in the black. … Everyone has really stuck with the Pratt. They’re supportive. They were excited — I think people were excited to have the museum back.”
As she settles into her new role, Gibbins said she plans to get to know on a personal level the staff, the board and donors. She credited Sigman with guiding the museum as interim director and how curator of exhibits Scott Bartlett has done “a fabulous job,” she said.
“I think one of the most challenging things right now, there is so much excitement,” Gibbins said. “… The most important thing right now is to wring that excitement and apply it in the right places.”
In her new home, Gibbins’ personality shows through in some of the artifacts of her life: original art by Alaskans, a collection of beachcombed natural objects, a pair of binoculars for bird watching and books in a state of being re-shelved. There’s a small pile of tomes on leadership theory by the front door, but Gibbins said one of her guiding principles comes from something she learned from a professional basketball player.
“First, you imitate,” she said. “Then you replicate, and then you innovate. I think this is a good philosophy going forward.”