Vision 2019 | SAMA director sees ‘cultural shift’ for the arts, gender opportunities

Vanessa Houser, executive director of Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, shows "Franklin Mills," a watercolor by B. Strank Zivkovich, from 1978, at the museum on Jan. 23, 2019.

When Vanessa Houser took over the top leadership position at Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, she knew all eyes would be on her.

The first female executive director in SAMA’s 42-year history, the Loretto resident said she is dedicated to raising awareness of the arts within the community and enhancing art education outreach programs in local schools.

“It’s neat to be a part of the cultural shift,” the 33-year-old said. “Certainly there’s room for improvement, but there are a lot more women moving into leadership roles in the workplace.

“It’s also not lost upon on me through my daily and weekly phone calls with Michael Strueber, who is director emeritus now but was the first executive director of SAMA, who makes me very well aware how important this role is because it is a daunting task to run five art museums across four different counties.”

Houser said since coming into the position in August, she has received a tremendous amount of support from the community and SAMA trustees.

“Everyone has offered me so much guidance and patience as I learn the art world,” she said. “I’m getting that hands-on, day-to-day experience as we go through different exhibitions and different opportunities within the museums.”

In May, the museum opened its fifth location in Bedford in the historic Anderson House on East Pitt Street.

That moment marked SAMA’s first expansion in two decades since SAMA-Ligonier Valley opened in 1997.

The five museums – Altoona, Johnstown, Ligonier, Loretto and Bedford – represent the longest-running museum system in the country.

“This has been a transformation year for SAMA, with the opening of SAMA-Bedford, and we’ve just watched that grow and flourish and become such a successful fixture in the Bedford community,” Houser said. “It has been a tremendous addition to the SAMA family.”

In the fall, the museum received the Community Involvement Award from Preserve Pennsylvania for the project and the partnership between SAMA and the community of Bedford.

“Since the beginning, SAMA-Bedford has offered a robust schedule of community-involvement events, programming and world-class exhibitions,” Houser said.

She said there have been staff changes with positions evolving in order for SAMA to continue to grow across all five museum locations.

“We’re able to move forward and offer more robust programming, workshops and event schedules – so that we’re able to bring the community in and really experience SAMA and the artwork and everything that’s taking place here,” Houser said. “We want people to understand and discover the opportunities that exist within the art community.”

Houser wants to see SAMA become more of a pillar within the communities it serves.

“I want us to expand our PCA (Pennsylvania Council on the Arts) program, doing more residencies and offering the community more opportunities to engage with us and for us to help them find outlets for their creativity,” she said. “With so many changes in school funding, I see SAMA playing a very integral role in picking up that ball and moving it forward.”

She added that she wants to create additional opportunities for people to come to the museums and make their experience more interactive.

“We’re not going to be integrated into the community unless the community is able to interact with us,” Houser said. “That’s really how I see SAMA moving forward, and I think that’s really the only way SAMA is going to succeed in the future.”

Prior to coming to SAMA, Houser served as the lead on fundraising activities for the western region of Children’s Miracle Network at Geisinger Health System.

She is a graduate of Bishop Carroll High School and received a bachelor of arts degree in journalism and public relations from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Houser and her husband, John Paul, have two children, Adelaide, 4, and Sebastian, 7.  

Kelly Urban is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. She can be reached at (814) 532-5073. Follow her on Twitter @KellyUrban25.

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