As MoMA moves ahead following a $425 million renovation, Ruth Kaplan is leading a communications effort that continues to win substantial media coverage despite a limited budget.
Ruth Kaplan was first "awed and mesmerized" by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) when she was 10 years old. She did not know that one day she'd helm the museum's worldwide communications efforts or help steer it through one of its biggest transitions - a move from Manhattan to Queens and back to accommodate its five-year, $425 million expansion and renovation.
"It was a challenge to orchestrate two separate, but related, PR campaigns - one to communicate the move to the temporary headquarters in Queens, the other to herald the reopening in midtown [this past November]," says Kaplan, MoMA's deputy director for marketing and communications.
"At nonprofits, ad dollars are not at the [same] level as large, for-profit companies when it comes to launching a new venture," she continues. "As such, we employed PR to our greatest advantage - not only here, but around the world. We wanted stories to be generated over time, at key points, so the messages could be reinforced and reach a crescendo at the museum's reopening."
The project was one of the biggest challenges of her career, and Kaplan is proud that it benefited the museum.
"She's done everything one could ask for," says Robert Menschel, president of MoMA's board of trustees and senior director, Goldman Sachs & Co. "I've never seen so many complicated pieces come together. When it's done right, you take it for granted, but it takes a lot of creativity. That's Ruth. Very few corporations, and I don't think any nonprofits, have gotten as much press. When was the last time a nonprofit [received] coverage in Newsweek?"
Kaplan was hired at MoMA in early 2002, but as SVP at Ruder Finn Arts & Communications Counselors (the museum's agency), she had been planning the communications strategy for the new building project since 2000.
"She so impressed me with the opening of MoMA-Queens that we brought her [in-house]," says museum director Glenn Lowry. "She has both sides of the equation - extensive experience in the not-for-profit world and at an agency. Everybody respects her."
Lowry says Kaplan is a "steadying force" and "always gives rock-solid advice." Menschel and Phillipa Polskin, president, Ruder Finn Arts & Communications Counselors, agree.
"It's amazing how calm she is," Menschel says. "I would have been a nervous wreak with all that she has on her plate. Glenn is a great leader, and Ruth is obviously a great right arm."
"Nothing terrifies her," Polskin adds. "She doesn't waste energy on that."
Kaplan had a "great experience" working with "great strategists" at Ruder Finn. She enjoyed helping clients from different cultural climates, but she did not like the lack of continuity in client relationships.
Before Ruder Finn, Kaplan had practiced PR at nonprofit arts and cultural organizations for more than 20 years - spending close to a decade heading PR at the National Gallery of Art.
"Going into an agency was interesting and rewarding," she says. "It was helpful to see the museum point of view - to see how the issues looked from inside. There are virtues at both [museums and firms]. Museum expertise ranges across many different areas. You're not just working with people who do PR. At an agency, you have a lot of expertise in PR. It's wonderful to have that, too."
Her career began in London, where she took post-graduate classes after receiving a bachelor's in English from Goucher College in Maryland. She liked England so much that she stayed, feeling fortunate to have gotten a job assisting a Labour member of Parliament, Hugh Jenkins, who later became minister for the arts. She also earned a master's in English and drama from the University of London.
"There was the obvious link between politics and PR, but also between Jenkins' involvement with the arts and my interest in the field," Kaplan says. "His life's work was dedicated to the public good - a philosophy that influenced the direction that my career took, primarily working for nonprofits."
Kaplan's work with Jenkins led to a job at the Royal Shakespeare Co., where she was hired as press officer.
"[That's where] I learned PR," she says. "My first boss, Peter Harlock, taught me a great deal about the basics - never pitch a story unless you have at least a 50% chance of getting it published, do your homework, read, and establish credibility with the media, as it is one of your most important assets."
Kaplan returned to the US when public TV and radio station WETA offered her a VP post in Washington, DC. She became involved with the National Gallery of Art when WETA produced Treasure Houses of Britain, a series that accompanied an exhibition, and director J. Carter Brown invited her to join his staff. Brown and Lowry - both "inspirational leaders" and very respectful of all media members, notes Kaplan - have served as mentors.
Kim Mitchell, MoMA's communications director, says it's wonderful to work for Kaplan. "She is a big-picture strategist, a savvy media relations pro, and an advocate for communications," Mitchell says. "She looks at things in a very holistic way. It's really effective for the institution as a whole."
Mitchell is also impressed by Kaplan's strong desire to keep learning. "We were on a press trip to Japan," Mitchell recalls. "She'd been there many times, but she said, 'I never get jaded. I never get tired of learning.' How wonderful to reach a senior level in your career and maintain a fresh perspective."
Kaplan enjoys going to museums, galleries, concerts, and theater performances with her family - husband Kenneth Cavander, a writer for theater and film, and their 14-year-old son, Alex.
"I've been privileged to carry out my interests in my work," she says. "I believe deeply in what the museum does. It's an environment where one is constantly learning."
The Museum of Modern Art, deputy director for marketing and communications
Ruder Finn Arts & Communications Counselors, New York, SVP
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, VP of marketing and communications
National Gallery of Art, Washington, PR head
WETA, Washington, VP for promotion and advertising
Royal Shakespeare Co., London, press officer