August 4, 2007
By EZRA R. SILK, Courant Staff Writer
Debra Petke, a 15-year employee of the Mark Twain House and Museum, is stepping down as executive director after only two years to become president of the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme.
"I wasn't expecting to leave - the job found me," she said of the new post. "If this was a year ago, I wouldn't have been comfortable leaving. We've definitely had financial problems."
The current deputy director, Jeffrey Nichols, will take over as acting executive director of an organization that has been strapped for money recently.
To pay for the $18 million visitor center erected in 2003, the Twain House accrued $11 million in debt and was forced to cut revolving exhibitions, travel, subscriptions and a marketing position.
Last year, however, the organization received a $3.5 million grant from the state and refinanced the $7.5 million in unpaid debt.
"The major thing is we had an issue with debt, but that has largely been resolved by refinancing, and we have cut the debt in half," Petke said. "Now we are beginning a new capital campaign."
Petke, a former professor of art history at Central Connecticut State University and the University of Hartford, is looking forward to what she predicts will be a smooth conversion to the role of art college president.
"The two roles of both a museum director and a college president are to fundraise and to raise the profile of an institution," she said. "I think it will be an easy transition, and I'm pretty excited to go back to the art world."
Petke is sad to leave because she sees the Twain House, and Hartford, reaching new frontiers.
"One of the things that's so bittersweet to me is that I'm leaving at a time right as the Mark Twain House becomes a national institution and as Hartford is really turning around," she said. "I've seen tremendous growth in Hartford."
Petke takes pride in the role she played in helping the Twain House capture greater attention.
"Over the 15 years I've brought some folks like Frank Rich, Frank McCourt and Spike Lee to the museum," she said. "We've brought the museum to a more national prominence. Eighty percent of our visitation comes from outside of the state."
Ten thousand of the annual 65,000 visitors to the museum are from other countries, Petke said. She believes the international draw has brought money and attention to Hartford. A state survey has confirmed that, she said, concluding that Twain House visitors spend more money than visitors to any other attraction in the state.
"We have the highest percentage of national and international visitors," she said. "It's people who are going to stay overnight and eat in the restaurants and shop in the area."
Petke, who lives in Burlington, will be moving to the Old Lyme area, near the Lyme Academy, which was founded in 1976.
"It's a school that focuses on the traditional methods of teaching the fine arts," she said. "I've wanted to go back to the art world and academia for a long time, now. It's hard for me, though. It's been very bittersweet."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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