Published in the summer 2012 issue of MyLIFE magazine
Since being founded in 1929, the mission of the Heard Museum—the world’s premier museum of Native American art—has been to educate people about the heritage, arts and cultures of the indigenous people of the Americas, with a special focus on American Indian tribes of the Southwest. For more than 80 years, the Heard has been recognized as having the world’s largest collection of Native American Art, and for its annual schedule of innovative programs, world-class exhibits and unmatched festivals and concerts. Together, these activities attract more than 200,000 visitors annually to the Heard’s two Valley locations.
Copland: We all know that we are slowly recovering from the recent financial meltdown, but what do you feel is the most pressing issue currently facing America?
Chambers: Education—nations that are going to be great, leading nations, are those that have a highly educated population. We are entering a time of knowledge-based economies, yet we are now facing legislatures that want to cut education and a Congress that is cutting educational funding, even though education is clearly America’s best hope for a strong future. If we don’t change this, and quickly, America will not be global leader, as it needs to be—and we certainly won’t solve the current debt crisis by cutting education. America needs a highly educated populace to compete and lead.
Copland: Thirty years ago, the United States was a manufacturing leader. Today, however, with a population of 315 million people, we provide fewer than 10 million jobs in the manufacturing sector. Where will those who do not aspire to a college education find well-paying jobs?
Chambers: There are two thoughts I have on this issue. First, we did not provide policies that encouraged manufacturing jobs to stay in the U.S. In fact, our tax policy encourages companies to do the exact opposite, by outsourcing jobs to other countries, and this is a huge mistake. We have a tax code that seems to be geared to what’s best for the top-tier capitalists and the company’s bottom line, as compared to what’s best for the country as a whole. As a result, we have seen millions of jobs disappear offshore. If we are to bring those jobs back, we will also need an educated workforce to do those jobs—more so than we did 15 to 20 years ago. There used to be a corporate ethic. For example, [General Motors] used to say, “What’s good for GM is good for the country.” They were creating jobs, creating good products. Funds were staying inside the country, as were taxes. They were putting more Americans to work. However, not so today, because there is a huge disconnect, and with it are the government policies that allow American companies to slash jobs, go overseas and keep the profits offshore. Things have changed dramatically, and everyday Americans are not benefiting from these practices.
Copland: What key lesson or core principles did your parents teach you that you feel was important and that you still incorporate into everyday life?
Chambers: My parents instilled in me the need to leave every place you touch a better place, and the need to leave the world a better place, and I have really lived my whole life and my career that way. When I worked in the Senate, some of the laws I worked on pertained to the Pell Grant program, which has helped untold millions of students go to college. In 1996, when I was nominated by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate to be a U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly, once again I felt that I was involved in something that had a larger purpose, and I have the same feelings about my tenure with the Heard Museum.
Copland: What was your vision when coming to the Heard?
Chambers: My vision focused on a few key areas. The necessity of preserving the arts, cultures and life-ways of native populations—this is something that is very important for all Americans. It was also my desire to create a greater harmony and synergy among the Heard’s staff. I wanted to continue our reputation for delivering world-class exhibits, both now and into the future. And I am proud to say that many of our future exhibits will be simply spectacular. I also wanted to inspire our annual visitors by better communicating the stories we are trying to tell through the exhibits and art that we showcase. And through these initiatives, it was important that I increased the awareness and reputation for this great institution. I feel that I have put the Heard Museum on a new trajectory—so, in a roundabout way, my mission—instilled in me by my parents—was again to leave the Heard Museum in a better place. I sincerely hope that those around me will feel that I successfully accomplished this objective.
Copland: What challenges did you encounter when first assuming your role of president and CEO?
Chambers: When I came to the Heard Museum, I did so with a personal goal of making a difference. However, unbeknownst to me, the real challenges I faced upon arriving came from the realization that much of the Heard’s infrastructure had fallen into disrepair—the building itself, the campus, the HVAC, burglar and fire alarm systems, right down to the business and IT systems—just about everything wasn’t working right. So, although I arrived thinking I was going to do great things from an exhibit and marketing perspective, a major part of my duties have focused on making sure that the Heard Museum would remain functioning—and be capable of standing tall for another 100 years. Therefore, a great deal of my time has been spent with infrastructure; however, I am proud of these accomplishments and also feel it important to acknowledge the great commitment and dedication of the entire Heard staff, who worked with me to complete these tasks.
Copland: What is your vision for the Heard Museum over the coming years?
Chambers: We need to keep a balance at all times in the museum between exhibits that are historical in nature and those that are driven by presentation of culture and art. We have to maintain the heritage of the past as we move forward into the future. It’s a balance of emphasizing the history of contemporary arts with traditional arts and pop arts. Our exhibits are well-known for capturing the imagination of our visitors and locals alike, and they tell great stories, and we intend to keep this focus. In 2013, we will have a painting exhibit on Kachina dolls that Georgia O’Keefe did, which we will pair with the Heard’s renowned collection of Kachina dolls. And this fall, we will introduce a fabulous exhibition on the legendary Code Talkers of World War II. So, our future exhibits are guaranteed to be historical, educational and very exciting.
Copland: Do you have any closing remarks you would like to share with our readers before you retire?
Chambers: I first visited the Heard Museum as a child and was very taken by the art that I saw. It led me to become a collector of art, which I feel is very important for all people, as art reflects on history, culture and people’s heritage—and for me, it’s my Native American roots. It has stayed with me for life, so somehow my coming back to the Heard Museum seems like a natural path for me. It has been a great privilege for me to have been able to work at the Heard Museum. We have an exceptional group of dedicated, hard-working people here, a great team of highly skilled individuals who make the Heard what it is—a world-class institution. I have thoroughly enjoyed my tenure over the past three years and have done my very best to leave the Heard a better place for all to enjoy. I feel that many great accomplishments have been made. However, it is with bittersweet feelings that I came to this decision [to retire], but after a lengthy and varied career, I am looking forward to my retirement and enjoying more time with my family.
Interviewer’s note: Midway through the interview, Dr. Chambers shared with me that the last few years had taken a toll and that she would be taking an early retirement and heading home to Santa Fe, N.M., where she hopes to spend more time with her husband and family. All I can say is that every time I came in contact with Dr. Chambers, she made me feel like I was the only person in the room. She is a person of great character who has a lot of compassion and superb people skills—attributes I’m sure her parents also instilled in her. She will be sorely missed. I have no doubt that Dr. Chambers has accomplished great things at the Heard Museum and that the museum has greatly benefited from her passion and amazing stewardship.