The Maryhill Museum of Art has chosen Amy Behrens, executive director of Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens in San Clemente, Calif., as its new executive director and chief executive officer. Monday morning’s announcement said Behrens will join the museum in August.
She’ll replace Colleen Schafroth, who announced in March that she would retire this year after 37 years with Maryhill, the destination museum that sits high on a bluff overlooking the Columbia Gorge and Oregon from the Washington state side of the Columbia River, near the town of Goldendale and about a hundred miles east of Portland.
Behrens’ hiring represents a generational change and a desire to broaden and update the museum’s reach, board President Laura Muehleck suggested in a museum news release, noting Behrens’ experience in “elevat[ing] interpretive dialogue among diverse audiences.” The new director will preserve the museum’s permanent collections and “broaden our programs with a rich array of exhibits and enrichment opportunities that will engage new audiences and cultivate multigenerational membership commitment,” Muehleck added.
Behrens is credited with invigorating the Casa Romantica center, a historic site that includes art and education programs and botanical gardens. Over four years she more than doubled membership, tripled cultural programs to almost 150 a year, increased the annual operating budget by almost $500,000, and guided the center through Covid disruptions and, this spring, the challenge of a major landslide.
“I was drawn to Maryhill Museum of Art because what can be imagined and created here, alongside the striking rugged beauty of the Columbia Gorge, can be realized nowhere else – innovation here is a product of the place,” Behrens said in the museum release. “… My priorities … are to deepen our educational programs which are the heart of our mission, renew connections with our Gorge communities, improve our historic infrastructure, and strengthen the financial sustainability of this wonderful museum.”
Schafroth, who became executive director in 2001, began her 37-year tenure at Maryhill as its curator of education — a major position at the museum, which offers regular programs to schools over a wide geographical area. The most recent education curator, Louise Palermo, left earlier this year to become executive director of the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson, Wash., and was replaced at Maryhill by Sorcha Meek Paul. Steven L. Grafe, the museum’s curator of art, and Collections Manager Sarah Purdy remain as key artistic staff.
During her years as executive director Schafroth played a key role in making renovations to the museum’s historic building and in 2012’s addition of a much-needed physical expansion, the Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing, and an expansive outdoor plaza. She also was key in negotiating the development of energy windmill farms on the museum’s large acreage, an arrangement that has contributed to the museum’s financial health, bringing in more than $100,000 a year since 2009. “It has been my great honor working for Maryhill Museum of Art for the past 37 years, a place that will always be in my heart,” she said.
Behrens also has experience managing commercial art galleries in Los Angeles, has held management positions in marketing and branding, and has a fine arts degree in visual communication from Laguna College of Art and Design.
And she has recent crisis-management experience: In April of this year she was walking through the grounds of Casa Romantica when she heard a rumble, looked up, and realized that part of the sandstone cliff that held the center was crumbling and falling to the beach below. “I watched the bluff erode right in front of my eyes,” she told the Los Angeles Times. The landslide, one of hundreds this winter and spring caused by heavy rains in Southern California, took parts of Casa Romantica’s terrace and walkways with it. A month later much, but not all, of the center reopened on Memorial Day weekend, LAist reported.
Behrens will become the newest leader of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most intriguing arts institutions, a cultural mecca many miles from the region’s large population centers. In addition to exhibiting contemporary works, it has an unusual variety of permanent collections that includes, among others, Rodin sculptures, North American Indigenous objects, historical American realist paintings, a rich array of Orthodox icons, furniture designed by Queen Marie of Romania, intricately designed chess sets, and a collection of model tableaux of high-concept fashion designs that helped the Paris fashion industry bounce back after World War II.
The museum building was designed in 1914 as a concrete mansion for the entrepreneur and road builder Sam Hill, who decided three years later that it should become a public museum instead. It sits on 5,300 acres of land that Hill originally envisioned as an agricultural community, and that also includes a replica of Stonehenge that Hill commissioned as a memorial to the area’s World War I dead, and which opened in 1929. The main building was dedicated as a museum in 1926 and finally opened to the public in 1940. Its early champions and donors included, besides Hill, his friends Queen Marie of Romania, the legendary dancer Loie Fuller, and San Francisco socialite and philanthropist Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, who was instrumental in getting the museum opened after the deaths of Hill, Marie, and Fuller.