What does it mean to be innovative? Robin Waites, Executive Director of Historic Columbia for the past 15 years, makes innovation and engaging leadership look easy. Under her leadership, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home property underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation and is now one of the first museums of its kind to deeply examine the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of freed slaves. Waites has also encouraged renovation of the historic grounds, creating beautiful and intelligent gardens in the heart of downtown. Counting diversity as a centerpiece of her directing, Waites has chartered new community programs that reach out to young people in the justice system, the elderly in a neighboring assisted living facility, black people, white people, gardeners, and first graders. All these accomplishments are not so surprising, however, after I meet her and hear her story.
Waites lounges on a bench in the shady garden of the Seibels House on Richland Street. She is cleanly dressed in a pantsuit, her neat short-clipped silver hair in perfect order. She exudes quiet surety as we talk about her past and career, one that starts with her grandfather in Armenia and continues to her career in museum curation at Historic Columbia.
Waites grew up in Columbia with her parents and sister. She describes her family as “civic-minded,” something that greatly impacted the trajectory of her life toward serving the community. Her mother was on the Richland County Council and was elected to the State House of Representatives. Community and the politics therein were part of an everyday routine. A generation before that, Waites’s grandmother, a New Yorker-turned-atypical-southern-lady, was an active member of the League of Women Voters.
After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont with a double major in Art History and Russian, Waites returned to South Carolina to earn her Master’s in Art History at USC and stayed on in her hometown. Like a lot of ambitious young southerners, she wanted to get out of the south. At Middlebury she describes training herself to speak without her southern accent in order to escape the ire of her schoolmates. (Even today, her accent is nonexistent.) Since that time she has developed a love of Columbia and has called it home for decades. Recently married to her longtime partner Michelle, Waites has accomplished much for herself and seems to have built her ideal South Carolina around her.
The family legacy of art and curation in South Carolina extends back to Waites’s grandfather, an Armenian immigrant who came to the U.S. during one of several periods of violence in his country of origin. After living in a close-knit community of Armenians in New England, her grandfather moved to USC to become director of the art program there. “Art is in my DNA,” Waites explained, “My grandfather would give us his paintings for gifts instead of toys.”
This love of art led to Waites’s employment at the SC State Museum. Work there was tranquil and predictable; she enjoyed curating art but eventually found herself becoming antsy, wanting to work in a place with broader reach and impact. Cue her switch to Historic Columbia, where she worked for two years in marketing before being promoted to the role of Executive Director. Historic Columbia held the promise of opportunity to work more closely with the community. This appealed to Waites who, with no previous directing experience, was promoted and given her chance to get “beyond basics” and move the foundation to really reach out to more neglected parts of the community.
Historic Columbia is a foundation that contracts with the city and county to manage historic properties in downtown Columbia and is charged with conducting public educational programs based in the appreciation of history, South Carolina, and the arts. The field of museum curation is a fairly closed one and largely controlled by men outside of the state. Within South Carolina, however, there is a solid feminine bias in the directorship of museums and historic properties. Waites is just one piece of this infrastructure of female leadership.
Her directing style is based on her commitment to simply doing things well. As a Buddhist, Waites avoids confrontation and seeks diplomatic solutions to disputes. She radiates quiet confidence and assurance and is occasionally termed as intimidating because of her reserved and quiet demeanor, something she finds surprising. “I just don’t see that in myself!” she cries. Around the office, Waites feels a need to never be above the basics, which can mean anything from picking up trash as you go into the building to being available for anyone to come to with a problem or question. What’s most important, Waites says, is that the foundation serve the community, highlight preservation, and tell the stories of the place we live, whether they be difficult, unflattering, or perhaps amazing for creating a community that cares and is aware of itself.
What does the future hold? With luck there will be more programs like popular, youthful Palladium Society events, such as Jubilee, that focus on raising money while providing a fun and social atmosphere. More programs like the transcription of stories from seniors living in government housing, who were then each presented with a book bearing their photos and stories. More investment in renovation and reframing history in the context of the repressed. Perhaps also continued work on additions to the world of southern plantation accounts that are too often white-washed. In short, along with the rest of the staff at Historic Columbia, Waites is working to rewrite a more just and representative history of South Carolina and the men and women who have and continue to live here.
by Jenn Summers