Susan L. Talbott, who was tapped to be director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum after the sudden death of founder and guiding light Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud in 2015, will be stepping down at the end of September.
Talbott arrived on an interim basis in January 2016 after retiring from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., where she had guided a $33 million renovation and reinstallation of the venerable museum’s collection.
“I really intended to retire way, way back when I left the Atheneum,” Talbott, 70, said recently. But her long friendship with Stroud led her to Philadelphia for what she anticipated would be “a few months.” Stroud founded the workshop in 1977 and built it into an unusual institution featuring artists in residence, exhibitions, and eventually a growing collection.
“I did it really in Kippy’s memory,” Talbott said. A month after arriving, she decided to stay, and now, after more than three years at the helm, the time to retire has come again, she said.
“I think the Fabric Workshop is in a place of real stability,” Talbott said. “Not only is it stable but recognized nationally and internationally. We’ve just hired our first curator. Attendance is up. I think I’ve accomplished all that I need to accomplish.”
Maja Paumgarten, Fabric Workshop board president, said that Talbott brought structure to an institution that had been run by its founder in a very personal way.
“Susan brought a needed structure,” Paumgarten said. “The way it was run — that couldn’t happen unless Kippy was there. She wore so many hats and there is no one who can do that.”
Talbott added some positions and made the institution, on the 1200 block of Arch Street, more accessible.
“I empowered department heads to really run their departments and not rely on me to micromanage,” she said.
Talbott recently hired the FWM’s first curator, Karen Patterson, who has been senior curator of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis. Patterson will take up her duties in July.
“The FWM is unique [on] the institutional landscape, integrating a workshop and artist residency program with an exhibition program and collection," Paumgarten said in a statement. Talbott, she said, "guided FWM to a place of greater strength and recognition.”
During Talbott’s tenure, FWM has mounted a number of high-profile exhibitions, including last year’s Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling, which Inquirer art critic Thomas Hine deemed simply “extraordinary.”
On view now through Aug. 4 is Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know, an evocative exploration of the little-known Confederate Flag of Truce.
The von Rydingsvard exhibition is currently on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. “It’s become a kind of blockbuster for them,” Talbott said.
FWM is also working at getting the Clark exhibit to other institutions as well.
“This is the first time we’ve had traveling exhibitions,” Talbott said.
Talbott has overseen or curated nine exhibitions during her tenure, and FWM has seen its attendance nearly triple, from 11,414 in 2014-15 to 26,757 in 2017-18.
Talbott said she worked hard to publicize artists’ shows and residencies and to expand FMW’s programming. Her plan to stay on until the end of September should leave enough time for the board to complete a search for her successor, she said.
Paumgarten said that the arrival of a new curator and director will “open up an opportunity for change.”