Spotlight Interview: Phil Archer

Phil Archer: Program & Interpretation Director, Reynolda House

Winston-Salem, NC
WFU Class of 1995
Major: English
Minor: Philosophy

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Phil Archer speaks to us from Reynolda House, where he serves as Director of Program & Interpretation. Although he joined the museum immediately after graduation, Phil did break up his undergrad experience to live in Australia for a spell. We asked him to regale us with the story of his journey at and after Wake.

 

DeacLink: Tell us about your current role at Reynolda House, and what it entails.

Phil Archer: The title is the Betsy Main Babcock Director of Program and Interpretation. It’s a lot to say, and actually Tava Smiley while interviewing on her show said, ‘You Wake Forest people need to shorten your titles!’ My position is endowed with a gift from the Babcock family, hence the name.

I supervise the exhibitions that the museum presents, and the way we tell stories based on American art and the historic site. It’s a hybrid museum which tell both stories side by side to a diverse range of audiences. This can span from the general public to school groups, to our university audience and more. 

DL: How did you come to this position since leaving wake?

PA: I technically went straight into a job with Reynolda House upon graduating. Although I entered as part of the class of ‘95, my family moved to Melbourne, Australia midway through undergrad. I chose to take time off and make the most of that opportunity, coming back to graduate in 2003. 

I had a brief stopover working in the campus bookstore before the Reynolda House position, which is common among English majors. I had a former professor and mentor Edwin Wilson, who was on the board of the museum and also knew Nick Bragg (WFU ‘58). They knew a lot of what I did extracurricularly could translate and continue in a museum setting a Reynolda House, and that I wanted to keep learning and be productive. I started in a different role but soon got into public programming presenting poets, musical performances, and theater at Reynolda. 

I also did a graduate degree in management at Wake’s business school which was very useful for me. Another important mentor in this time was John Anderson, Calloway’s vice president for finance and administration. He said that although I wanted to do non profit, the managerial training would be largely beneficial. I completed that degree in 2006 and moved from public programs into the director of the division in 2016, so my current role is still very new to me.

DL: What changes have you seen take place since coming on board at Reynolda?

PA: The biggest project I worked on was our expansion, with the addition of Babcock Wing which opened in 2005. We didn’t have a head curator at the time and I was appointed by the board and John Anderson to be the owners’ rep for the museum on that project. For a few years I worked with the architects in New York and the contractors in Winston, liaising between staff, board members and builders. I had to ensure everyone’s dreams for the building and its various educational and program spaces came true. 

Since the expansion we’ve been bringing in exhibitions from large metropolitan scale institutions, like the recent Georgia O’Keeffe show. We had to get creative with our space constraints, and presented the 190 objects throughout the rooms of the historic house. It broke every crowd visitation record which was really positive. The size of exhibitions we can bring in or generate ourselves has changed which is really exciting.

Lastly, a big change that’s still happening has been uniting the garden, village and house in their storytelling. For the visitor from Ohio passing through on her way down to Myrtle Beach, we want the story to be a single piece as she goes throughout. There’s more unity around visitor experience now, and the interpretation of the history makes the village a place that isn’t just pretty, but somewhere you can still learn from while having lunch, for example.

DL: How did your time as a Wake undergrad shape or drive your career path?

PA: I was very active extracurricularly, so my time creating projects and events with classmates and mentors was very influential. A group of us students revived this 19th-century debate society under the leadership of Joy Goodwin, forming an interdisciplinary arts club. We had film screenings, festivals, readings, and created a journal for essays and creative writing. I also worked on Wake’s student magazine and helped with a humor mag called ‘Jambalaya’.  

I was also part of a group who started this house on Polo Road which was a pretty special place. We had cookouts, living room concerts, painted murals on the walls and built treehouses. Interestingly it wasn’t all arts majors- for some reason a lot of biology majors! It sort of balanced their lives between schoolwork and home life, and gave us this creative environment to live in together. We had a slightly bohemian existence but of course kept up with our homework, too.

DL: What is the creative and cultural scene like in Winston right now?

PA: The repurposing of the old factory buildings downtown is really exciting. Innovation Quarter and Wake’s downtown campus are adding a lot to the area. Seeing all of these reclaimed buildings and the park spaces in between, you get the feeling it’ll lead to more restaurants and galleries which are both blossoming scenes already. We lost some performance spaces downtown but with the incoming student presence and the professors on campus, this aspect will make a resurgence as well.

DL: What’s the best piece of advice you can think to pass on, or currently go by?

PA: There’s an Eleanor Roosevelt quote that goes, ‘The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’. I think this applies to so many different things. We are all susceptible to the contagion of others’ enthusiasm… we all have our own dreams. So instead of trying to convince others to share theirs, just believe in your own and through that it might inspire others to follow suit. You have to make your fascination contagious to other people.