A Life at the Museum

The Appleton Museum’s new director works under a king. Gustav V, Sweden’s monarch for most of the first half of the 20th century, stares down from a regal Arvib Nyholm portrait across from the art historian’s desk.


“Looking over my shoulder,” Dr. John Lofgren remarks with a laugh.


In fact, the painting was a welcoming gift from the Appleton staff to their new boss, who moved to the U.S. from his native Sweden at age 20.


“They found it in the collection and brought it out when I came here. I was almost brought to tears because there’s the old king, sitting in my office,” John recalls. “Actually, my dad played tennis against him. But he never beat him. You don’t beat the king. You know, Mr. Appleton was of Swedish heritage. His father came from Sweden to Chicago.”


This is John Lofgren — a veritable treasure of knowledge and experience and the best kind of smart, one whose knowledge is revealed slowly, layer by layer. The affable man who greets everyone with an enthusiastic handshake and a warm smile gives little immediate indication of his distinguished career. The truth is he’s extremely accomplished, though he’d never say as much, and a major addition to the Central Florida Community College museum.


“I started out hoping to be an artist,” John recalls, placing his elbows squarely on the round table by his office window. “After two years at the California College of Arts & Crafts though, I realized I really enjoyed talking about other people’s art. So I became an art historian.”


He graduated from the University of Oregon, the first person in the history of the state to earn a doctorate degree in art history, and took a position as a curator at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Nine months into his tenure, the museum’s board removed the director and asked John to take over. He accepted, marking the beginning of a 33-year career as executive director at museums across the country. During his 11 years in Minneapolis, the Institute boasted the second-largest membership of any cultural organization in the state.


Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa, California, was, by comparison, a small enterprise for John to manage but no less a challenge. He served at its helm for six years after leaving Minneapolis, tasked with the unenviable job of fundraising for a six-month-old museum during the economically bleak early-‘90s.


“Things were pretty tough, but it worked out,” John recalls. “The biggest single donation I’ve ever received came in Sonoma County.”


After Sonoma, he headed east again, accepting a position at the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette in Indiana. Lafayette being what he calls a “strong, blue-collar working town,” John worked diligently to make art more relevant to the lives of people in and around the city. Popular exhibits like the one he organized featuring original Mad Magazine artwork helped to that end. He hopes to do the same at the Appleton.


“We’re here to collect art for the community,” John explains. “We need to reach out and make sure the community knows more about us and feels strongly about being a part of this wonderful organization.”


The Appleton isn’t John’s first position at a Florida museum. From 1996 to 2004, he ran the Vero Beach Museum of Art, where he more than doubled the $2.8 million fundraising goal for facility expansion, increased the endowment from $600,000 to $5.7 million, and nearly tripled the annual budget. His most recent position, at the Hui No’eau Visual Art Center in Maui, also demanded much fundraising acumen. For 30 years, the Hui No’eau had leased its property, but in just six months, John was able to raise $5 million to buy it outright, a major triumph for the center.


At the Appleton, John’s most pressing goal is accreditation.


“We need to make the Appleton an accredited art museum according to the American Association of Museums standards. I’m a stickler for that,” he says. “Yes, it’s a lengthy process and fairly costly, but it’s very healthy because it’s a self-evaluation at the same time — a look at what we’ve done, where we’re heading.”


He is also intent on growing the museum’s membership, which he calls “the backbone of our organization,” and collaborating with other museums, such as Gainesville’s Harn Museum, to bring interesting exhibits to town and to send Appleton pieces out.


CFCC’s Executive Director for College and Community Relations Joan Stearns, who called John with the good news when he was selected for the position, says the historian’s experience with Florida museums and the accreditation process made him the ideal candidate for the job.


“He also has a very strong history of fundraising,” she adds, “and with state budget funds being cut, that ability will be vital to the success and future of the museum. The staff just loves him, and I think those people in the community who have met him are very excited about the energy he brings and the dream he has for the museum.”


It seems Ocala has proven very agreeable to the director personally as well. John and his wife, Inger, settled on a 53-year-old house in a quiet part of town and are currently “tearing down the kitchen” for remodeling. During his rare free time, John indulges his passions—reading, tropical gardening, and visiting his three grown children, two of whom live in Florida.


“This has been a wonderful move for us,” he reflects. “Ocala is one of the friendliest towns I’ve ever been to. People are very down to earth and extraordinarily generous in their support. Funny enough, we were going to move back to Salem, which is in Marion County, Oregon. So it was between Marion County, Oregon, and Marion County, Florida. Isn’t that interesting?”


He pauses and then breaks into a broad grin and a laugh.


“Just one story among many others,” he says. “The museum world is an exciting world.”


Want to Visit?
Appleton Museum
4333 E. Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala
(352) 291-4455
Appletonmuseum.org

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