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Outside the Box: Mark Leach

Mark LeachWhen Mark Leach, Ed.M.’87, took the helm of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, N.C., three and a half years ago, he knew it was only a matter of time before he’d need to think out of the box.

As executive director of SECCA -- a non-collecting institution that aims to enhance perspectives, inspire community, and ignite new ideas -- he faced the task of heading a museum undergoing extensive restructuring and renovations. The latter would leave the museum without a building for 18 months. Not having gallery space for such a prolonged period raised questions about how to exhibit art and educate the public without a traditional programmable space. For Leach and staff, it meant stepping out of their comfort zones.

“We had to find other ways to continue to be who we were without a building,” he says. “There is this kind of stability that you lose by becoming something that you weren’t designed to be, but it really stretches the boundaries and creates opportunities.”

If anything, the lack of space made Leach and his staff reevaluate the purpose of the institution, how to serve the public in a variety of ways, and the different ways that education plays a role in the museum. “Education is the key to our success,” he says. “If we don’t use a smart strategy on the street, then we may as well be talking to ourselves…. If we don’t take the time to create the conditions that catalyze personal and interpersonal discovery in a meaningful way, then we are only doing it for ourselves.”

Leach relied on the keen insights of his highly trained staff to think creatively and focus efforts on getting back to a “grassroots” level. He looked at different forms of art such as performances and temporary sculpture installations, and reached out into the community – an effort which had some unique results. Art can and will resonate differently, he says, when, for example, the staff mounted an art installation at a historic property and involved the community in a nontraditional setting.

In the 18 months without a building, SECCA’s staff forged 19 different community partnerships and launched six public art projects. In one successful installation during the renovation, museum staff went door-to-door in the neighborhood collecting ladders. Ultimately, they borrowed 170 ladders that commissioned artist Charlie Brouwer used to create a house-like sculpture in Old Salem. The resulting sculpture, Rise Up Winston-Salem, raised discussions about what can happen when people band together. At the same time, in addition to the installation, a variety of public programming reached out to children about using language to speak about aspirations and dreaming about one’s future self.

As a child growing up in Pittsfield, Mass., Leach’s own aspirations often revolved around art. By third grade, he had drawn a mural attracting much of the town and was even fortunate enough to pose for painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell. Not surprisingly, Leach pursued art as an undergraduate focusing on ceramics. After graduating from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, he settled into the profession as a curator and resident artist at the Paris Gibson Square Center for Contemporary Art in Montana.

Several years later, Leach was eager to broaden his own education and study arts administration when his friend and fellow HGSE alum Peter Koenig, Ed.M.’71, introduced him to the Ed School. At the time, the nonspecialized program at HGSE offered a myriad of experiences and opportunities for those seeking master’s degrees focused not solely on education. In fact, through the program, Leach could study art 50 percent of the time, but also education and nonprofit management – something that appealed greatly to him as an arts administrator. “Leadership requires a lot of experience in other areas and this program allowed me to sample and immerse myself in different types of study,” he says.

His time at HGSE still resonates today in his job as a leader of a museum.

“I found the training invaluable not only for myself but it did a remarkable job prepping students for the profession,” he says. “You think you know what you are capable of but it wasn’t until my first semester at Harvard that I realized so much more…it helped me stretch in ways that I was unable to anticipate.”

While his museum work has taken him around the world, he insists that education is at the heart of his job. “I believe that education and curating are two sides of the same coin,” Leach says. “Curating is about developing and illustrating an idea utilizing art works in an exhibit display, but educating is about involving the public in and promoting discovery of the ideas contained therein.”