Photos by // Michael Gleason Photography
Upon his 1996 appointment, Henry’s vision, shaped by the suggestions of staff, board members and patrons, created the FIA of 2017.
Over two decades ago, the museum needed creative reimagining. Manufacturing, once the backbone of the U.S. economy, had continued to decline, as an industry and source of steady employment, in Midwestern cities. While some, like Toledo, had already begun their new-millennium metamorphosis, Flint, along with its art museum, had not yet chosen a path for its future.
Enter John Henry. The challenges the museum and its city faced, although daunting, were opportunities for a man focused on possibilities, not problems. Former FIA board president and attorney Mike Behm says an innovator like Henry was then, and remains, the leader the FIA needed.
Responsible for both a major renovation, and an expansion of the museum and its Art School in less than 15 years, Henry’s prescience reinvigorated Michigan’s second-largest art museum, which had seemed at rest – like the city of Flint itself. Renewal is nothing new for Henry, whose planning and building skills are evident in the Mississippi Museum of Art as well as the Vero Beach Museum of Art, his previous professional homes.
As he did in Vero Beach, where John Henry was involved in nearly every aspect of museum operations, he touches each part of the FIA, from its collection to its Education Department, its Art School – now among the 15 largest art schools in the United States – to its special events. His two decades of transformation exhibit innumerable high points: a 40% increase in the museum’s world-renowned collection; nearly tripling the FIA’s endowment to over $28 million and the on-time and under-budget 2009 expansion, which brought eight new galleries, a state-of-the-art theater and a sculpture garden to mid-Michigan.
With arts funding in public education dwindling since the early 1990s, Henry has also focused on the accessibility of arts instruction. The FIA Education Department serves 30,000 children and 17,000 adults yearly, and he has fostered innovative partnerships with the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Kettering University, Mott Community College and Baker College, adding to the museum’s reputation for collaboration, scholarship and innovation.
Henry’s desire to innovate, Behm says, defines the FIA’s executive director. “When I think about working with John, I remember his openness to new ideas, his ability to simply say, ‘Sure. Why not?’”
Behm recalls multiple moments in Henry’s leadership in which his can-do spirit created new happenings, such as the Flint Print Fair and the Art of Collecting exhibit, both of which foster connoisseurship and art collecting. Behm also points to the expansion of the FIA Art School, in square footage, curriculum and class offerings. Spreading out – whether in terms of the building’s physical space, additions to the collection or FIA’s reach into the community, through special events and programming – has always been at the top of Henry’s mind and in his strategic plan for the museum.
Like Behm, Louis Hawkins, HAP community relations administrator and longtime Community Gala chair, has been on hand as Henry’s farsightedness has initiated countless diversity programs to bring all members of the Flint community into the FIA. “During his entire tenure at the FIA, John has actively sought to increase the utilization of the FIA by those who have historically underutilized it,” Hawkins says.
Henry’s vision helped create the Community Gala, which coincides with the museum’s first large-scale exhibition of each year. This year’s exhibition, Women of a New Tribe, displayed not only the work of an African American photographer, Jerry Taliaferro, but it also emphasized the physical and spiritual beauty of Flint’s African American women. Although Taliaferro’s work has shown nationwide, the scale of the Flint exhibition was larger than anywhere else, partly because of Henry’s ability to actualize the needs of this vibrant, multicultural region. The Gala celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017.
Current FIA board of trustees president Dean Yeotis, an attorney as well as the owner of Flint’s Totem Books, recalls that when Henry arrived 20 years ago, the FIA had potential to become a superlative museum, but myriad factors impeded it. Under Henry’s leadership, Yeotis says, the museum actualized itself. “True leadership is timeless. John has that quality – the drive to excel, the desire to make the museum the best it could be.”
That vision everyone seems to mention when Henry’s name enters the conversation is what Behm and others connected to the FIA see as his greatest gift to the museum. “With almost any idea…John is willing to try it,” Behm says. “Where can you do that? Not at work, not at any other museum. That’s what makes the FIA so special, and John Henry so important – it’s his vision. The museum, its collections, its members and our city benefit from that vision every day.”