In a letter to museum supporters Tuesday morning, Charlotte Museum of History board chair Dee Dixon announced that Adria Focht, who took over as president and CEO at the museum in November 2017, will be leaving at the end of this year to pursue the study of permaculture design through an international program by Oregon State University.
In her four years with the museum, Focht has worked to share the broader aspects of Charlotte’s history, including previously untold stories of local indigenous tribes and Black residents. She has also brought the Save Siloam School Project, which aims to relocate one of Charlotte’s last remaining Rosenwald-era schools built for Black children in the early-20th century from its original site in University City to the museum property in east Charlotte where it will be used as an educational site, to new heights.
Two of the museum’s current exhibits serve as an example of how Focht has tried to make the museum more appealing to younger Charlotte residents while also sharing the stories of cultures that would all too often go ignored before she started her tenure. Charlotte: Signs of Home features unique and historic signage from businesses and institutions like Eastland Mall and Penguin Drive-In, while The Language of Clay features dozens of clay pottery pieces created by artisans of the Catawba Indian Nation from the 19th century to the present that represent various Catawba traditions and legends.
“While we will greatly miss Adria’s leadership and her passion for preservation and history education, she leaves behind a better Charlotte history museum for everyone — one that is more accessible, more inclusive, and financially stronger than ever before,” Dixon wrote on Tuesday.
She added that the museum is launching a national search for its new president and CEO, and will name an interim director in the coming days to manage operations while a new leader is sought.
“Given Charlotte’s reputation and the museum’s strengths, we expect to attract an impressive and diverse slate of candidates,” Dixon wrote.
Focht attended college at UNC Charlotte, with a double major in arts and anthropology. She later completed her graduate studies at East Carolina University, where she worked at the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Laboratory, studying and preserving artifacts from Blackbeard’s infamous flagship.
Focht’s post-graduate work only got more interesting, as she helped restore and reopen Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, then oversaw a secretive Washington D.C. warehouse that held the entire collection of National Park Service artifacts from the region that were not on display.
In November 2017, after a successful tenure as executive director of the Kings Mountain Historical Museum during which she doubled the attendance there, Focht took the job as president and CEO at Charlotte Museum of History. Then 35 years old, she was and remains the youngest person to ever head up the museum.
Queen City Nerve caught up with Focht following Tuesday’s announcement to discuss why she felt the time was right to step down, her legacy at the museum and her plans for the future.
Do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do at Charlotte Museum of History in 2017?
Absolutely, and then some. I don’t think when I started in 2017 that we could have predicted what would come with a pandemic and the types of leaps that we would take in virtual programming and how that expanded our reach and accessibility. None of that could have been anticipated. But looking back on it, it is kind of amazing to me what we have been able to accomplish in the last four years.
I would have loved to have completed the move of the Siloam School, but I’m looking forward to seeing that move forward. I’m really pleased that we were able to raise two-thirds of the money we need to move forward with that project. I’m feeling pretty good about where the museum is in general and feeling like this is the perfect time to pass the torch for the next chapter. We’ve completed a new strategic plan, so it feels like we’re on solid ground. The museum’s doing really well and in a good place for both parties to start a new chapter.
What was your priority in helping to form that strategic plan?
Certainly moving forward with codifying and solidifying the museum’s commitment to social justice and to equity and inclusion and diversity in our programming and in our audiences. That was a big part of the strategic plan from top to bottom, and a big part of what I hope my legacy will be in the institution is that we really just expanded the stories that we tell and the audiences that we’re reaching.
What aspect of your tenure at Charlotte Museum of History are you most proud of?
One of the things that I think is probably the most profound change is the experience of the museum today. The museum certainly didn’t look anything like what it looks like today when you went through it four years ago. That’s one of the things I was most proud of because it was part of what I as a visitor to the museum had hoped to see was more exhibits; I want to see more of Charlotte’s history, I wanted to see the museum full of stories that really connect to our visitors today. I think it truly looks different and the visitor experience is completely refreshed for today’s visitor.
Why permaculture design?
It feels very urgent. It is fairly niche at this point and a lot of people aren’t really familiar with it as a concept or design methodology, but it feels urgent to me and since I was a child I’ve always had these parallel interests in natural and cultural resources, and I followed my intuition into this field. I literally followed a person who was wearing overalls and covered in clay and carrying a bucket full of metal scraps, and I was like, “What are you doing? That looks interesting,” and that was how I got into the art department — art and anthropology and museum studies, all intuition.
So for the past couple of years I’ve noticed that in my spare time I wasn’t studying history so much anymore but spending time learning about permaculture and thinking about how I could live more sustainably and what I could do to reduce my impact on the environment and hopefully change my mental and physical health by living a more sustainable, regenerative lifestyle. So I’ve been studying this sort of tangentially for a while and just recently really feeling this pull. But during the pandemic the museum was in uncharted territory and on uncertain ground and I wanted to make sure they were fully stabilized and fully ready for this next post-pandemic step before I took a leap into the unknown. But it feels like now is the time.
Will you be leaving North Carolina?
It’s an international program and it’s remote so I will be here in North Carolina and will continue to be in the Charlotte region. I live in south Gastonia, and we purchased a property here early this year and are planning to develop it in a sustainable way and use the design principles that I’ll learn through this program to do that.
Do you see yourself continuing to have a role with the Charlotte Museum of History?
I absolutely will still do everything I can to cheerlead and champion the museum and will probably still be involved in any way that I can. In particular I’m very passionate about making sure that the Save Siloam School Project comes to fruition as soon as possible, so that’s something I will definitely volunteer my time to.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated that Adria Focht launched the Save Siloam School Project, which was actually launched by her predecessor Kay Peninger. Before the museum took on the project, the Black-led Silver Star Community Inc. group had been advocating for Siloam’s preservation and were the museum’s original partner on the community project. When Focht came on board in Nov. 2017, the project had raised less than $5,000. The fundraising now stands at $660,000 total raised toward the $1 million goal.
Become a Nerve Member: Get better connected and become a member of Queen City Nerve to support local journalism for as little as $5 per month. Our community journalism helps inform you through a range of diverse voices.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.