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Transformative Work

Ten years ago, Marise McDermott expressed confidence that the expansion project she and the Witte Museum were embarking on would be successful. “If you provide something that the community really wants, it will happen,” she told this magazine.

McDermott, who was and still is president and CEO of San Antonio’s oldest museum, was referring to the $100 million transformation of the venerable institution, involving 174,000 square feet of redesigned and newly constructed space. Today, much of the ambitious plan has become reality, and the New Witte is scheduled to open its doors to the public in early March. The guiding principle behind the entire effort was a desire to clearly define the museum’s identity as well as to accommodate growing numbers of visitors and enhance their learning experience. Another goal was to create an urban campus that connects the San Antonio River, which runs behind the buildings, with the Broadway cultural corridor.

“The Witte is where nature, science and culture meet,” says the amiable CEO, who has worked tirelessly to assemble the best professional team and raise funds for the huge undertaking. “The overarching theme of our exhibits is Texas Deep Time – Water, Land and Sky, with all galleries telling the stories of Texas, from millions of years ago to today.”

During a tour of the main building, ripe with workers in hard hats casually going about the finishing touches on the various installations, McDermott is proud to show off her prize. It’s a sunny day in late January, and there is still work to be done. Some installations seem pretty complete while others clearly need a few more days or weeks. The light fills the Valero Great Hall in the Dinosaur Gallery, which will probably fascinate children with its full-size skeletons of animals that inhabited this land many millions of years ago. Adjacent to it is the Texas Wild Gallery featuring lifesize dioramas of flora and fauna from the eight ecological zones of Texas, which is practically a 3-D geography and biology textbook
in one large hall. Upstairs, there is the equally detailed and well built exhibit focusing on ancient Texans, the Lower Pecos Indians, complete with 3-D hunting and gathering scenes and a typical rock shelter. The popular room with live critters has been recreated as well. All galleries have complementary labs where visitors can
learn through interactive activities. “This is where they find out how we know what we know,” says the CEO about the labs.

The expansion was planned in three phases. Completed in 2014, Phase I involved the transformation of the H-E-B Science Treehouse into the H-E-B Body Adventure, an interactive health-related permanent exhibit, and the development of the Robert and Helen Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center in the old Texas Centennial Building. Phase II includes the main building, outdoor gardens and water features and the Mays Family Center, an event facility that will also house traveling blockbuster exhibits during the summer months. Phase III will follow later.

McDermott must have given this same tour to many people, but she is just as enthusiastic every time. The museum is so much part of her life that she jokes about being incorporated into its walls. The chair of the Witte’s board of trustees, Don
Gonzales, said “The Witte wouldn’t have become the New Witte of today without Marise McDermott. She was the catalyst and the leader who spearheaded the transformation.” He went on to praise her for having the wisdom to develop the staff, the board and the plan for the New Witte before starting the massive fundraising push. “She knew which critical elements had to be in place to make sure that the vision could be realized, and she led us all along the way,” he said.

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Museums Tell Stories

It all started more than a decade ago when Mc-Dermott was hired to develop a strategic plan to guide the beloved but aging museum into the future. She had worked at the Witte before for several years before following her husband, Hollis Grizzard, to Iowa where she spent six years at the Cedar Rapids History Center, learning the ins-and outs of running a non-profit. One of the first things she did upon rejoining the Witte was organize a series of meetings with various constituencies to get a sense of “the stories that this community wanted the museum to tell.” Water resources, science and Texas land and history emerged
as main interests. After taking over as CEO, she was instrumental in organizing two “prototype” exhibits, The Wild and Vivid Land- Stories of South Texas and World of Water which embodied those themes and attracted record numbers of visitors. In addition to the three “umbrella themes,” San Antonians also expressed the desire
to see the big blockbuster shows that other cities were seeing. “All of that helped us formulate the conceptual structure for the expansion,” notes McDermott. “At the same time the Broadway Corridor was starting to grow, so we decided to do it big.”

For years she lived in the River Road neighborhood within walking distance to her job, but the Grizzards eventually moved much farther north to a larger residence with a pool to accommodate visiting grandkids, who are, technically speaking, her
step-grandchildren. “I’ve been married to Hollis for 37 years, so I consider his children (from his first marriage) and grandchildren mine as well,” she says. The youngsters love the Witte and have attended “museum school” there. “They want to know everything that’s going on at the Witte,” says the proud grandma. She is also
proud of her own, now adult offspring, James and Julia, for choosing professions that focus on the environment and education, respectively. “These are such important issues. Wow! That’s so inspiring to me that they chose these career paths.”

They certainly had a role model in their mom. Does she see herself as such? I ask. She hesitates a bit. “Well, I have a lot of experience and I want to share what has worked in my experience. I love sharing,” she explains. “Because of my age and my long tenure in nonprofits, I can see a longer trajectory than younger people can. So
that’s a help for my younger colleagues. (My advice has been), just keep moving forward; as long as you have a strong strategic base and great energy, you just have to determine the incremental steps that will take you to your goal.”

Her leadership style is collaborative, she says, emphasizing teamwork in making decisions. She repeatedly praises her co-workers in addition to giving credit to the trustees, especially Peggy Walker, for raising the money to make her vision possible. Many minds working together deal with challenges better than a single person, and there were many challenges along the way. “I can’t even remember when I last had a full night’s sleep,” she quips. “When you are working on something transformative like this, high anxiety is part of the deal. We had to be loyal to the legacy of the Witte while also being adventuresome and creating something new. That was a huge challenge.” Furthermore, Chairman Gonzales points out that McDermott had to run a working museum while also dealing with architects, contractors, preservationists, donors, the city and a myriad of other things. Challenges indeed! “I learned a lot and am still learning every day,” is how McDermott puts it.

Before she got into museum work, McDermott was a journalist and editor at the former San Antonio Light, which, in her opinion, is a wonderful background for a museum administrator. “Writers understand the power of storytelling,” she notes, “and the Witte tells a lot of stories, from the artistic narrative of rock art, to a scientific narrative or a forensic narrative, stories that help people learn and be transformed by that knowledge. Interestingly, and increasingly, I am meeting museum directors who are writers. I am so pleased by that. I love gathering the narratives of so many scholars and then figuring out how to create an effective layered learning environment.”

She plans to return to writing someday to document the Witte’s story from where founder Ellen Quillin left off, namely from 1960 to the present. But that has to wait until things quiet down a bit at the museum. What she looks forward to in the immediate future is welcoming San Antonio and other Texans to the New Witte. “I am dreaming of visitors, lots and lots of visitors, coming through our doors,” she said.

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By Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photography by Janet Rogers