After conducting a nationwide search for a new director of Yountville’s Napa Valley Museum, the board of trustees picked a woman from down the road in Napa.
Kristie Sheppard, who has been director of the Napa County Historical Society for the past five years, will take charge of the little independent museum located on the grounds of the Veterans Home of California.
“I’m really excited,” Sheppard said. “This museum has so much potential.”
Sheppard, who has a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Leicester and a bachelor’s in anthropology from the University of Central Florida, moved to Napa from Philadelphia five years ago with her winemaker fiancé. She quickly found a post directing the Historical Society, where she infused the venerable organization with youthful energy and professional direction.
Under her leadership, the society has gained public visibility, hosting an expanded program of events and shows that Sheppard coordinated with a team of interns and volunteers. The latest show on exhibit at the society headquarters in the historical Goodman building in Napa is “From Battleships to Apron Strings: How WWII created Napa’s Swingin’ ’50s.”
A strong proponent of collaborative efforts, Sheppard curated “Portals to the Past” at the Napa Valley Museum several years ago. In 2009, she became managing director of Napa County Landmarks, an organization that preserves historical buildings, which is now also located in the Goodman building.
This immersion into the history of Napa County will be an advantage in her new position, said Gary Grace, president of the board of the Napa Valley Museum. Sheppard has “a wealth of experience in several areas,” he said. “She has knowledge of the Napa Valley and has forged many relationships within the community. She will be a great asset in helping to lead the museum in a positive direction.”
Founded in 1972 in St. Helena, with a mission of “promoting the cultural and environmental heritage of the Napa Valley,” the Napa Valley Museum moved to a new building on its present site in 1998. With about 1,000 members and a staff of three full-time and three part-time employees, the museum has a main gallery that stages a changing roster of art shows, a permanent history exhibition and a traveling trunk show that brings history programs to local schools. Some 4,000 historical items that had been donated to the Historical Society were moved to the museum in 2003. “We don’t have room to store these things,” Sheppard explained.
Despite its highly praised programs, the museum has endured some recent rocky times with financial challenges compounded by a changing roster of board members. A planned expansion to build a $20 million new facility in Napa collapsed. In 2009 the museum was nearly evicted from its Yountville site by its landlord, the Veterans Home, when it was discovered the museum had not been paying rent for several years.
A new and energized board has straightened out the financial problems, Sheppard said. “It’s on solid ground now. They have a clear and realistic vision.”
Her work will be to build on the foundation they’ve created, she said. “I want to raise awareness of the museum. It should be an icon. Every visitor to the valley should go to the museum.”
Serving the county she noted, is a challenge.
“Napa is the oddest place I’ve ever lived,” she admitted. “This community is so diverse. It’s a combination of a small town, rural community and national destination. You have people working as bussers in restaurants to make a living and people whose multi-million dollar houses are one of eight or nine homes they own all over the world.”
This diversity of both the museum and residents makes her new job all the more appealing, she said.
“That’s what I’m really excited about,” she said. “The array of disciplines in the museum — art, history, the environment — all reflect the cultural diversity. I want to continue to integrate all these different aspects.”
The museum staff, which has been without a permanent director for about a year, said it is looking forward to Sheppard’s arrival.
“We’re ready to strike up the band,” said membership and volunteer coordinator Georgene Larsen.
Sheppard said she would be willing to help orient whomever is hired by the Historical Society and Napa County Landmarks to replace her.