Alicia Thomas, the new executive director of the Virginia Quilt Museum, said she’s made just one quilt in her life, but she’s an avid embroiderer.
Thomas said she comes from at least two generations of quilters in her family: her mom and her grandmother. But as the new director of the Virginia Quilt Museum, who started in late September, Thomas, along with the team at the quilt museum, is betting that even those who have never quilted can learn valuable things about history from the museum.
“Once you’ve worked here for long enough, you know everything about quilting,” said Rachel Gregor, the curator on staff. “A lot of people will drive past a quilt museum and say, ‘That’s a museum of blankets.’ But a lot of people don’t realize the amount of love and story that gets passed through each quilt. When visitors consider how many stitches go into a quilt, and the time it took to make … you can see [their] faces light up.”
In addition to her family ties to fabric art, Thomas is a museum fanatic who has a background working in development and nonprofits. Thomas, who earned a bachelor's degree in American History from Michigan State University, said she developed a love of history as an undergrad after she “stumbled” into an introductory history class with Christine Daniels at MSU. After interning at the Charleston Museum, in Charleston S.C., during college, Thomas said she knew she wanted to do work that involved museums.
“I really like all of those lessons that you can draw out from objects and I like that it’s a way to teach history that’s not just through books,” Thomas said. “That’s one of the main things that draws me to museums ... it’s a more interactive and can be a more engaging way to teach our history. Reading is not accessible to everyone. I, myself am mildly dyslexic. It’s a way to reach a nonacademic audience and to help them access history in a way that’s better for them.”
After college, Thomas first worked at a rare book museum in Philadelphia called the Rosenbach. She worked her way into a development role, planning an annual gala held at the luxury Rittenhouse Hotel a few blocks away. Thomas said it was in that role she discovered she enjoyed development work. Prior to coming to the Virginia Quilt Museum as the executive director, Thomas worked as an operations manager for an environmental nonprofit in Washington, D.C. She said she was excited to return to the museum scene.
“[As an operations manager], I really missed having interactions with outside people. I come from being really involved in membership and events. I really wanted to come back to museums to have those interactions with a wider community and, in this position, kind of help grow and build that community,” Thomas said.
Thomas said she’s especially excited about joining the Virginia Quilt Museum because she said it has large gallery spaces on three floors of the building, an uncommon gift in small nonprofits. Also, Thomas said she’s excited the museum is located in the historic Warren Sipe House completed in 1856 since she’s a historic preservation buff raised on episodes of “This Old House,” when Thomas was growing up in Southern Michigan.
Thomas said she wants to expand the programming and event offerings at the quilt museum, assist in development campaigns and fundraising, with the goal of making the museum more accessible by continuing to offer virtual programming and also laying the groundwork for physical renovations to the Warren Sipe House so all three floors can become handicap accessible.
“She’s got a lot of those skills related to development and grant writing that will really help the museum move to another level of our financial viability,” said Sandy Maxfield, board treasurer. “A nonprofit exists to meet its charge. The mission of the museum is to share the quilting culture and the art with a broad audience. The goal is to do things that accomplish that mission. Another thing that’s unique about a nonprofit is we are supported by our members by our donors, we’ve worked more on getting grant funding. All the streams of financial support are what makes it possible to reach our mission. A hallmark of a nonprofit is that it exists because of the generosity of our supporters.”
Thomas said she’s excited to work with the current board of directors, who she said have a lot of members with backgrounds in nonprofit work.
“One of the really great things about the board here is that they’re very involved but they also have their own background in museums or art galleries so they really understand how nonprofits work,” Thomas said. “We're looking at probably a fairly substantial capital campaign in the next few years."
Members of the board of directors for the museum said they’re excited to have Thomas on board as the new director.
“We’re just thrilled to have Alicia as the new executive director,” Maxfield said. “She’s got wonderful background working with nonprofits and fundraising and community outreach and all sorts of things that are going to be wonderful for the museum as we come out of the COVID era. She’s very vibrant, full of energy and very organized so we couldn’t be more thrilled that she’s come to Harrisonburg and started the Quilt Museum.”
The board has future goals that are in line with Thomas’s.
“We’re really hoping to continue to present a rotating program that provides all sorts of perspectives on quilting from traditional to modern to art quilts. We also hope to begin outreach efforts to bring in a more diverse audience. We started during COVID doing more online programming and I think, after COVID, we will continue with online programming,” Maxfield said.