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Emily Zimmern to retire from Levine Museum of the New South

Emily Zimmern, the president of the Levine Museum of the New South, is retiring after 20 years.
Emily Zimmern, the president of the Levine Museum of the New South, is retiring after 20 years. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

She called herself the unconventional candidate. But, then, it was an unconventional job.

Emily Zimmern got that job in 1995, as president of the fledgling Levine Museum of the New South, and she led it for 20 years, through award-winning exhibits on race, culture and class, and recognition by the White House.

On Friday, Zimmern announced she will step down Nov. 1 as the leader of the Levine Museum, the museum on Seventh Street that has redefined how Charlotte gets to know itself.

Zimmern turned 66 on March 12, the day before her 20th anniversary at the Levine. She admits to mixed feelings about her decision.

“You know it’s the right time, the right thing,” she mused. “But it’s like your child leaving for college. It’s bittersweet.”

Sally Robinson, 81, is the Charlotte native and community activist who founded the project that became the museum in 1991 and who hired Zimmern to carry it forward in 1995.

“She was great when we hired her,” she said. “But she’s fantastic now. She is at the peak of her ability.”

Zimmern and the Levine Museum found each other at the right time in 1995: The museum had spent almost five years as “a museum without walls,” just a series of exhibits around town and a shared vision from local organizers.

The idea for the museum actually came from Sally Robinson’s eighth-grade teacher, Ann Batten, a member of the Charlotte Historical Association. Batten called Robinson with the idea of starting a new museum.

“When your old eighth-grade teacher tells you to do something, you say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”

‘We knew she’d be good’

Robinson told Batten she would do it on two conditions: The museum had to concentrate on history after the Civil War, to stay out of the way of the Charlotte Museum of History. And it couldn’t have a building for at least five years.

Robinson had been on an Arts & Science Council task force that had dealt with the issue of cultural groups that have to spend too much of their energy on capital campaigns and building projects. She wanted the new museum to figure out what it wanted to be before it built a building.

For the first few years, it was led by Robert Weis, from the Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. But Weis was a curator at heart. When it was time to put walls around the museum, Weis wasn’t interested in becoming a director.

Robinson was searching for a director when civic leader Marcia Simon suggested she meet her friend, Zimmern.

Zimmern interviewed for the job in a very Charlotte way: She sat on Robinson’s couch for an hour, having a chat. They hit it off.

“She was the only candidate we really got excited about,” Robinson remembers. “We knew right away she was dynamic, smart, visionary. We knew she’d be good. What we didn’t know was that 20 years later, the Levine Museum of the New South would be so highly respected.”

Staff historian Tom Hanchett was originally involved as a scholar who helped with the original grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He returned in 1999 to work for Zimmern.

‘Make history interesting’

The Levine’s mission, he says, is unusual among museums. Instead of looking back, it looks at the recent past and the present to put the future in context. “What the museum does is use history to build community,” he said Friday. “When you say it that simply, it doesn’t sound as radical as it is in the museum world.”

When Zimmern got the job, she was a onetime history major who had never worked at a museum. She had spent several years traveling the world working for Jewish organizations, including the United Jewish Appeal, and she was looking for a job that would let her settle down at home in Charlotte and spend more time with her kids.

Her status as an outsider in the museum world may be part of why she has been effective, she agrees. She understood the guiding principles.

“How do you make history interesting and compelling to so many people who aren’t from here?” she said. “What does the New South mean, this whole notion of looking to the future instead of the past.”

Over the years, while the museum found a home and then rebuilt that home into the now-familiar space on Seventh Street, Zimmern guided it through an $8.2 million capital campaign and two Excellence in Exhibition Awards from the American Alliance of Museums. In 2006, it become the youngest museum to receive a community-service award at the White House from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The museum has brought national speakers, including Duke University historian John Hope Franklin, and put up exhibits such as 2004’s “Courage: The Carolina Story that Changed America,” on school integration.

Zimmern uses the word “dialogic” – getting people from diverse sections of the community together to talk and find understanding.

“We help the community address tough issues,” Zimmern said. “And I believe that.”

The museum has already announced that Peggy Brookhouse, a board member and president of Luquire George Andrews, will lead the search committee to look for Zimmern’s replacement. Steve Bentley, the Levine Museum chief operations officer, will serve as interim president.

Zimmern plans to spend time with her family and her grandchildren. But she admits she won’t be out of the community eye.

“I think I’m going to be a granny activist,” she says.

Purvis: 704-358-5236

Pivotal Exhibits at the Levine Museum of the New South

1994: “The Most Democratic Sport: Basketball and Culture in the Central Piedmont, 1893-1994.” Held in a pavilion at Seventh and Tryon streets when Charlotte hosted the NCAA Final Four.

1994: “Before M*A*S*H: Charlotte’s 38th Evac in World War II.” The exhibit on a locally formed medical unit that served in North Africa and Italy, it put a replica of a World War II field hospital in the First Union bank Atrium.

2004: “Courage: The Carolina Story that Changed America.” Told the story of the DeLaine family and the struggle to desegregate schools in Clarendon County, S.C. The exhibit later toured the world, including a stop in South Africa.

2009: “Changing Places: From Black to White to Technicolor.” An exploration of the cultural diversity of immigrant communities across the Piedmont, it included community videos and models of an Indian kitchen, a Mexican tienda and a collection of hot sauces.

2012: “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.” Used graphic images from photo postcards from the Jim Crow era. The museum hosted the traveling exhibit’s last stop before it settled in a permanent home at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

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