BY KATHY MATTER
PHOTO PROVIDED BY CHRISTINE PETKOV
Who or what do the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette and the Boy Scouts of America have in common?
The answer to this puzzler lies in the upbeat personality of Chris McCauley, recently hired in a regional search for the executive director’s position at the Art Museum.
McCauley fits the scout motto of “Be Prepared,” which means one is always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do one’s duty. And after eight years of “doing his duty” on the organizational level of the Boy Scouts of America, most recently as the district director for the Algonquin and Pioneer Trails Districts of LaSalle Council of BSA, he brings a polished skill set to a different venue in 2022 – the arts.
If you’re having a hard time imagining the connection between starting campfires and preserving, growing and exhibiting consequential art works, it helps to know that McCauley’s not-so-secret passion lies in creating art.
“I love oil painting,” he professes, but that’s not the only art form that captures his attention. There’s woodworking that he learned from his grandfather and dad, photography, mixed media and visual design as well as poetry, songwriting and screenplays. Oh, and he did teach a class in basket weaving to the scouts.
Raised in the tiny farming community of West Branch, Michigan, almost three hours north of Detroit, McCauley had little access to art outside of books, which he devoured. His family’s values were high on social justice, and thinking outside the box was encouraged — two things that shaped his career path in the long run.
“It was an eclectic path,” he says. “As a kid I loved Frank Lloyd Wright and kept drawing terrible A-frame houses with a river underneath. I thought, ‘This is not it’.” Community college classes opened his eyes to a variety of art forms and at Ferris State University he ended up majoring in graphic design and marketing. One particular professor introduced him to art history and the impact of modern artists. “I just ate it up,” he recalls.
As he thought about careers, “I really wanted to make an impact, more than just myself.” Life took him first to Maurer Publishing where he put his degree skills to work. That desire to make an impact led him to join Kiwanis, the Lions and other community focused organizations. It led him to scouting as well.
He worked at leadership levels in the scouts for eight years, and his main duties included membership growth, volunteer engagement and recruitment, fundraising and community engagement. McCauley’s duties extended to advanced project management, leading teams of volunteers in developing and implementing plans for growth. He was also in charge of multiple special events or campaigns throughout his years there.
Just as he was getting the itch to move in a new direction, he saw the job posting for the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette. What McCauley discovered during the interview process was a museum that was financially sound, had an impressive collection, an active board; a museum that had benefited greatly from informed leadership provided by Kendall Smith, Mona Berg and others. But everyone saw a need for younger leadership going forward.
“There was no one in the wings. They needed to bring in people to curate the next generation, to hand down the knowledge, passion and love for the museum,” he says.
“Providing that next generation of commitment is a huge piece of what I want to do.”
Although he and his wife, Kate, have been here less than six months, McCauley says, “Lafayette has a collective consciousness that makes it a wonderful place to be. We found a niche here right away.”
Reaching out and making connections throughout the community tops his to-do list. Beyond that he’d like to see the museum “bustling with activity” by expanding class offerings – ones with appeal to a younger generation such as tattoo design, digital animation, henna, set design – along with a new look at workshops and artist talks. And at the same time, he’d like to take art outside the museum walls. “I want the community to have touch points with art, make installations out and about in the community.
For the first time in 2022, the Art Museum served as coordinator for a favorite community festival, Art on the Wabash. McCauley feels it imperative to build on that and find more ways for the museum to give back to the community and enhance the quality of life in Greater Lafayette.
Making sure the museum continues to be a place where diverse voices can be heard and celebrated is also important to him. “I want to drown out any voices that say, ‘We don’t want you here’.”
Former director Kendall Smith gave birth to the idea of building an expanded museum campus on the banks of the Wabash River in West Lafayette. That goal will move to the back burner for a couple years while McCauley enthusiastically builds support.
“I want there to be a community outcry for a new museum,” he says. “That’s a really big moment for the community, and we’ll be ready when the time is right.” ★