The arts have been a fundamental part of Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, Claire Orologas’ life since childhood. “My mother was a ballet dancer. Our house was always filled with music. My father had a wonderful voice,” she remembers. Claire was born and raised in Warren, Ohio in a portion of the state known as the “Steel Belt.” After living in Greece for a few years, the family moved to the St. Petersburg/ Clearwater area in the 1970s. She grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church surrounded by Byzantine art and said of her time spent living in Greece, “I was able to experience the rich artistic history of Greece first hand. It was incredibly inspiring.”
Her profession comes honestly to Orologas. Not only were her grandparents “gifted in creative endeavors,” a relative on her maternal grandmother’s side was the amateur archaeologist to first discover the Minoan ruins of Knossos in Crete. “Sadly, all of his records and specimens were destroyed in an uprising against the Ottomans, but he is given credit for his work before Sir Arthur Evans carried out the important excavations for which he is so well known,” she explained.
At Miami of Ohio, Claire studied studio art (drawing and painting) and art education. She went on to receive her master’s degree at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Orologas later pursued her graduate studies in art history while working in the curatorial department at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida.
The Right Fit
Claire Orologas has been the Executive Director and Chief Curator for the Polk Museum of Art (PMA) for just over seven years. She received a call about the position while working at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington DC. Claire said, “I had been thinking about moving closer to my family by that time, but I also wanted the position and the institution to be the right fit. It certainly has been.”
Her job entails a little bit of everything – financial management, program guidance and oversight, staff support, fundraising, donor cultivation, strategic planning and management, working with their Boards, advocacy and community relations. Claire explained her delight with her career, saying, “There is nothing like working with the right people in a productive and healthy work culture that is focused on making life better for others.”
Also impactful to the executive director is seeing the mission of “making life better for others” be carried out through visual arts. Claire elaborated, “When I see people become curious, moved, thrilled by, learn from, or somehow affected in ways that are expansive and meaningful through their engagement with works of art and our programs, that is what means the most to me.” One example of this was an exhibition at the museum years ago about the passage of time. A couple sat and observed the exhibition knowing that the husband didn’t have long to live. A poignant story, Claire said, “They shared that experience with me and it was beautiful.”
The museum recently had a program based on the exhibition SUN + LIGHT, Charles Edward Williams’ works based on the civil rights mug shots of the Freedom Riders. “It was incredible to experience personally, but also to observe our visitors taking in what the artwork meant and the experiences that the Freedom Riders went through to create a more just society for everybody,” she said.
Outside of the Museum
When she isn’t curating an exhibit or managing the museum, Claire loves driving back roads, hiking, and clearing brush and planting gardens at her family home in rural North Central Florida. She says, “One day I’d like a couple of donkeys, some chickens, and probably some goats to keep the brush on our property in check.”
She also loves exploring Greece and is interested in “issues of leadership and workplace culture.”
Art, the Economy, and Education
The arts aren’t just stimulating and enjoyable, they are vital. They have a direct impact on the local economy and education says the PMA executive director. Citing an economic impact study carried out by Americans for the Arts and the Polk Arts Alliance last year, Orologas explained that the arts generate $46,589,847 in Polk County annually.
The return on investment of the arts in Polk County is $9 to $1 return to local and state treasuries.
Engagement in the arts leads to higher graduation rates, general academic achievement, and greater development to “creatively work through problems, and are better prepared for the workforce,” she explained. “It is also important to acknowledge that the arts are unique in stimulating the kind of curiosity in us that helps us learn; helps us to expand our understanding of the world; challenges us to reconsider deeply seeded assumptions; moves us, and makes us more empathetic toward one another – all of which strengthen our society,” said Orologas.
What is something you would like the community to know about PMA?
“Everyone is welcome, and thanks to the generosity of our Strategic Partners, there is no charge for admission. I know our community is proud of our museum. What I would like everyone to know is that those who visit from outside our community recognize something very special about it too. From museum professionals to artists who work with us, they see a quality and a caring that they believe to be rare. That comes from our team and our entire community.”
How can people support the museum?
Claire says, “Become members. Give through sponsorships and annual appeals as you are able. Businesses can partner with us to attract greater tourism. Attend exhibitions and programs. Vote for leaders who commit to funding the arts. Advocate. Volunteer. Remember us in your estate planning. Introduce friends and neighbors to the Museum and all we offer. Take a class.”