by columnist Madeline Karp

Welcome back to Dispatch’s on-going series Meet The Museum! This week we are talking to Hollis Bowe, Major Gifts Coordinator at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC. Hollis is a passionate advocate for big cats’ rights and a graduate of Tufts University!


Hi Hollis. Thanks for taking the time to talk. Tell us about Ford’s Theater. What do you do there?

I work in the development department as the Major Gifts Coordinator, which means I am responsible for all institutional and individual gifts over $5,000. On a normal day, I am writing proposals for grants. Additionally, I am responsible for all the reminders, appeals, and acknowledgements associated with major gifts, and entering them into our database.

It seems like you have to have a head for numbers to work with donations and grants. Is the work you do very math-specific?

Yes and no. You aren’t doing complex equations, but you do have to understand grant funding parameters, such as matching requirements and how to keep track of pledges – how much has been paid and how much is owed. I’d say the most important “math-specific” work I do is keeping track of grant deadlines and pledge dates.

Ford’s Theater has a mission that relates to Abraham Lincoln. How do you keep from getting bored if you’re always talking about the same person, time period, or idea?

What Ford’s does is so much more than just study Abraham Lincoln – we explore how his ideals and legacy resonate and connect with issues today! The vision Lincoln had for this country is still being realized. Our fall theatrical production in 2012 was Fly, which told the story about the experiences of the Tuskegee airmen in the military during World War II. By telling these stories, we celebrate Lincoln’s vision for an equal country and remind ourselves how much still needs to be done. It was a fantastic production that provided us with the opportunity to bring in actual Tuskegee airmen to connect with our audiences and make the story real for students. Talk about bringing history to life (or keeping it alive)!

You mentioned that there has recently been a departure in your department. What’s that been like? How do you stay motivated or on task without a direct supervisor to help you?

A little over a month after I was hired, the Director of Development accepted a position at a different organization and my supervisor hadn’t yet been hired. It was definitely challenging coming into a position without any direct guidance, but everyone in my department really stepped up to help me as I learned during the process. There are still tough days where I wish I had a partner to collaborate with, but we just hired a new Development Director so I know it won’t be long until my supervisor is here. In the meantime, it’s been a great opportunity to shine and play a “major” role in the success of the organization. I’ve been able to make a name for myself and get to know senior staff in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. In the really challenging times, I try to keep reminding myself of that.

You went to Tufts for graduate school. How on earth did you end up in Washington DC?

This one is easy-I grew up here! The real question is how in earth did I end up at Tufts? I went to college in Colorado and graduated with a BA in History, and took summer internships at historic homes and museums in DC. It was a wonderful surprise to realize how much I loved them – and that there were programs out there that catered to my professional interests. The best two museum programs out there are GWU and Tufts. I knew I would end up in DC, but at Tufts I could get an MA in History and Museum Studies. The choice was obvious. And I briefly flirted with the idea of staying in Boston, but I did ultimately end up back in DC.

Following up…is there anything from your graduate program that really stuck with you? Anything you learned that you use on a regular basis?

The resources available to young museum professionals, writing skills, the importance of arts education, museum education, and handling old objects – the list goes on! I don’t think I could do this job without everything I learned at Tufts. It’s not just one thing; it’s the other entire sense of the museum world and the big picture lessons. Every job is so specific and I didn’t take a development class, but it’s interesting to see how lessons learned in each of my classes have appeared to some degree in my job thus far.

You found a full-time job within a year of graduating school. Do you have any advice for new graduates and job-hunters?

At first you’re incredibly polite networking, but after sending out your zillionth job application and receiving no response, something snaps. You turn to shameless self-promotion – and this is what works. Looking for a job isn’t embarrassing, in fact it’s a very honorable effort, and everyone has done it.  Don’t let your pride get in the way of putting yourself out there. Talk to anyone you can, go to any event. I actually got my job applying for a different part-time at Ford’s Theatre. That job ended up being a temporary opportunity, but I was asked to interview for a full-time position that hadn’t even been advertised yet. Sometimes, you just have to try.

Do you think that museums in Washington DC have a specific personality? Are they fundamentally different from museums in other cities or regions?

Overall, museums here are all about the “American” experience because they are in the nation’s capital. DC museums are so different from others in the world because the majority of them are part of the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian is an incredible institution (yay free museums!) but there is a lot of bureaucracy there and everything is so formalized. That isn’t to say I don’t like SI – the Natural History Museum is my favorite (Dinosaurs! Whales! Diamonds!) – but it does make it harder for smaller, non-Smithsonian museums to compete. Sometimes, you just crave a small local museum when you see the curator walking on the floor and can ask them a question, or not to have so many people around. But on the other hand, three days a week I take my bag lunch and eat it in the atrium of the National Portrait Gallery, which is pretty awesome.

We understand that you take issue with the panda exhibit at the National Zoo. Could you talk a little bit about this?

In the interest of transparency, I am a big cat person. The Zoo’s big cats are exotic, reproduce, and are named by the DC people (we get to vote for each new cub!) They bring in tons of tourists, attention, and most importantly – money. And what do they get? Tiny pens next an exceedingly noisy merry-go-round. I wanted ear plugs after five minutes, so I can’t imagine how the big cats feel. The pandas can barely move around, don’t reproduce, and come pre-named, but they get acres of lush enclosure and special trail pathways catering to them. It’s simply unfair. Granted, the pandas are a popular attraction and bring in money to the Zoo, but I think the Zoo should invest in animals that are contributing to its future financial and breeding success. If I say anymore, I’ll just sound spiteful.

Any last thoughts?

If anyone is interested in working in DC, please be in touch!

Thanks Hollis!

Got a question for Hollis? Post it in the comments below!