After working at the Albany Insitute of History & Art for more than four decades, Tammis Groft knows what’s behind every wall of the museum.
The executive director started her tenure with an internship and worked her way up to chief curator, and then deputy director. She’s been the executive director since 2013.
“I’ve worn a lot of hats,” Groft said.
She plans to retire once the Institute appoints a new director, and she recently took the time to sit down with The Gazette and look back on the past 45 years, during which she helped curate more than 100 exhibitions, expand the Institute’s collection and raise funds to keep one of the oldest museums in the country running.
Before coming to the Institute, Groft studied at Hartwick College for her undergraduate degree and went on to specialize in American folk culture at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, which is affiliated with SUNY Oneonta.
She began interning at the Institute in 1976 and was later offered a job as the assistant curator of collections and exhibitions. During that time, she not only curated exhibitions at the Institute but also at the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection, which at that time partnered with the museum. It features work from artists of the 1960s and 1970s who practiced in New York and were particularly working in abstract expressionism, including artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly and Seymour Lipton.
It was during those first few years that Groft curated one of her favorite exhibitions, “Cast with Style: Nineteenth-Century Cast-Iron Stoves from the Albany Area.”
“I did that exhibit early on in my career and we continue to exhibit our 19th-century cast-iron stove collection, and it’s pretty remarkable the impact that the Albany and Troy stove industry had, providing warmth not only in this region but around the world,” Groft said.
After she became chief curator in 1987, her focus turned more on the Institute itself, which Groft helped undergo a complete transformation.
“The museum went through a renovation and construction project that was a huge change; we were able to build three floors of brand-new, state-of-the-art storage, add all of the appropriate temperature-humidity controls for the galleries and education wing, the gallery shop and café,” Groft said.
From 1998 to 2001, the museum was closed for renovations, and while most of the staff worked out of a satellite office Groft and a few others were at the construction site.
“We stayed on-site and we spent a year inventorying all the collections, making sure that everything was cleaned and dusted, getting everything ready to move into the new storage. . . . So I know what’s behind every wall in the Institute,” Groft said.
The museum’s collection has also evolved and grown exponentially during her tenure, in direct response to the changing needs and interests of the surrounding community.
“I would say our collection today is five times larger than it was in the year 2000. Since then, the Albany Institute has made a real priority of presenting one-person exhibitions of artists who live and work in our community or New York state,” Groft said. “We added many, many works to the collection. . . . We’ve done almost 50 solo exhibitions, and I think that has really strengthened the Albany Institute’s connection with contemporary artists.”
That includes artists such as Len Tantillo, whose breathtaking paintings of historical scenes were on display earlier this year at the Institute in a retrospective titled “A Sense of Time: The Historical Art of L. F. Tantillo.” In 2020, the Institute featured the work of Ruby Silvious, a Coxsackie artist who works with tea bags and other recycled materials.
“Contemporary regional artwork is a priority and remains [so],” Groft said. The museum offers a much larger exhibit space than most contemporary galleries, so artists can show more of the works in their catalogs than they normally would.
“I think it’s terrific for the museum, the community and for the artists. We’re very proud of that,” Groft said.
Beyond the retrospective shows, the Institute also has been very involved in the Mohawk Hudson Regional, an annual juried show that features works of local artists at different museums in the area, including at the Institute last year.
Groft has also helped the museum modernize its collection, bringing in objects from the 20th and 21st centuries.
“Our collections were very focused in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we wanted to make sure we were expanding to include the materials, objects, papers and documentation to the present,” Groft said.
That includes looking for materials and artifacts that reflect the diversity of the communities surrounding the museum.
“We’ve spent a lot of our time in all of our communities thinking about diversity, equity, access and inclusion. Museums have taken a hard look at collections to see where our collections are . . . and making sure we are reflecting the needs of the community,” Groft said. “We always strive to do a good job. There’s always more work to be done, and I think that’s what’s exciting about working in a museum where you’re working with objects, you’re working with stories, you’re working with community members — figuring out the best way to tell those stories — and sometimes it’s through objects, sometimes it’s through exhibits.”
Recently, curators acquired a dress from the 1950s that was made by Annabelle Heath, an African American dressmaker who designed and worked in Albany during that era.
“[We’re] making sure that we’re looking for dresses that are more contemporary and also reflecting the fact that there were a number of African American dressmakers in our region,” Groft said.
Another recent acquisition reflects the experiences of a family of Armenian immigrants who came to the region in the 1890s.
“This collection was quite wonderful because there were a lot of photographs from when the family lived in Armenia and when they moved to the Albany area,” Groft said.
Beyond photographs, there are records about how some of the family members suffered from the Spanish flu and spent time in the hospital being treated for it.
Throughout her years at the Insitute, Groft has also helped to bring relevant educational programming and to raise funds, the latter being one of the most challenging aspects of the job.
“In the role of the director, one of the key things you’re responsible for is raising money, not only from our community and businesses and individuals but also all of the grants that are available to museums, and in order to be successful at grants we need very talented staff. We need relevant projects, and I’m very happy to say that we’ve been very fortunate that we have been able to raise money from federal grants and state grants,” Groft said.
“But raising the money is critical. It takes the board, the staff and the community together to be able to maintain and keep your doors open, and certainly that has been challenging because of the pandemic.”
Throughout the past year, when the Institute had to close its doors because of COVID-19, curators maintained online exhibits and planned virtual programs and artmaking activities.
“Many more people have participated in our lectures and other kinds of programs because [they were] accessible by Zoom. I think that’s a pandemic positive. When we did the Mohawk Hudson Regional, instead of having 35 artists come in to the gallery and do gallery tours, which are wonderful, our education department created videos of each of the artists, which now are on YouTube — which is another pandemic positive,” Groft said.
Groft announced her impending retirement earlier this year and said the transition will be bittersweet.
“I’ve always loved my job. I will miss my job, but I’m looking forward to doing a variety of things that while you’re working you’re not always able to do,” Groft said.
Her career will be honored at the Institute’s “Work of Art” cocktail party and silent auction on Nov. 3. The event runs from 5:30-8 p.m. and will include an auction of works by contemporary regional artists, with proceeds shared between the Institute and the artists.
“Through her knowledge, experience and exemplary leadership, she built a strong foundation that has allowed the Institute to grow and evolve over the years, and she has well-positioned the Institute for success well into the future,” said F. Michael Tucker, President of the Board of Trustees. “Tens of thousands of visitors to the museum have benefited from her keen eye as a curator and committed leadership as our executive director. She exemplifies the passion for art and history that the Albany Institute of History & Art works to foster throughout the region and beyond.”
For information on the event or the Institute, visit albanyinstitute.org.
Albany Institute of History & Art
Year Founded: 1791
Areas served: Albany and surrounding counties
Mission: The Albany Institute of History & Art connects diverse audiences to the art, history and culture of the upper Hudson Valley through its collections, exhibitions and programs.
Quote from director: “Since it was founded in 1791, the Albany Institute has changed its name seven times, we’ve moved to different buildings seven times, all with the idea of being responsive to the changing needs of [our] community,” said Tammis Groft.