A small portrait of Daniel Foster sits on a windowsill in his office. The painting depicts the current executive director of the Oceanside Museum of Art during what he describes as his "bohemian hermit artist" years, with a 16-inch goatee jutting down from his chin. In the portrait, the very tip of Foster's facial hair is on fire, but he doesn't notice because he's intensely focused on a floating egg-like object in front of him.
"My interpretation is that the artist was showing how my head is often up in this ethereal, philosophical space," Foster says. He's a man who wears his theories on his sleeve and likes to hand out a double-sided sheet titled, "What is Art?: Philosophies and Values by Daniel Foster" along with a scholarly article about the real-world success of a group of nonprofits that abandoned their individual agendas in favor of a collective approach.
Foster says his head is so regularly up in the clouds, pondering possibilities and big ideas—notions that he ends up realizing more often than not—that he's sometimes unable to smell the smoke or see the fire burning right under his nose. It helps make him the type of person who gets things done with little regard for the huge amount of effort a task might require.
The metaphor helps explain Foster's June announcement that he'd be leaving the museum (OMA) after less than two years at the helm and his second announcement, two weeks later, that he was withdrawing his resignation. In this case, the fire that started burning Foster's chin is his 3-year-old son. The divorced, 57-year-old father found himself working seven days a week, and he says he suddenly realized he'd let his passion for his career get in the way of being a good dad. He found what he thought was a simple solution, a job that would require less time. So, he announced his resignation, but he immediately felt a deep regret.
"Life sometimes just is not simple and sweet and easy," Foster says. "It's hard, and that's the way it is, and it doesn't mean you jump. You just—you endure and you fight . I realized I can't walk away from this. I've got to figure this out."
When Foster joined OMA in 2012, he laid out an ambitious plan for the museum's future, which included taking a more scholarly approach to programming by putting together a top-notch curatorial team. The team is charged with helping piece together a clearer picture of the region's art history.
On a quick tour through one of the museum's current exhibitions, Spitting in the Wind—mid-century works by Richard Allen Morris, John Baldessari, Bob Matheny and Russell Baldwin—Foster says he thinks the show is one of the most important the museum has ever done. That's partly because it demonstrates the significant impact of Morris, Matheny and Baldwin— three artists who never got the credit they deserved for helping spearhead the contemporary and conceptual-art movements in San Diego, he says. Dave Hampton, the show's curator, is now officially part of OMA's curatorial team. Longtime San Diego art critic Robert L. Pincus is also on the team, as is well-known art critic and professor Peter Frank and local artist and urbanist James Enos.
Foster says that in the last two years, OMA membership has risen 35 percent and revenues are up 55 percent. He attributes the institution's success partly to his collaborative approach. One of the first things he did as executive director was to reach out to Oceanside's community and business leaders by creating the Oceanside Cultural Consortium, a group that meets monthly to discuss a vision for the future of Oceanside, especially the city's downtown redevelopment. One idea that emerged was a monthly first-Friday art walk (oceansideartwalk.org), which kicks off from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1. So far, 18 venues, including the museum, are participating.
"This is an important time of development for Oceanside," Foster says. "And why can't an art museum act as a catalytic visionary agent for the future of a community? That's at the top of my list of what impassions me is the power of art and artists and art institutions to create transformative changes in communities and individual lives."
Foster's also been reaching out to the broader North County arts community. The new group of leaders has met twice so far and, apart from just getting to know each other, they're talking about banding together to pursue funding opportunities. They're interested in a joint marketing effort to brand themselves as a burgeoning arts scene.
"Historically, it's a group that's never come together and talked to each other," Foster says. "But it's happening."
Part of Foster's outreach includes his initiative to set up satellites galleries. He's established one so far—a gallery inside a mixed-use project in Del Mar—and he's looking into other prospects. The edgy and interesting "Exploring Engagement Artist-in-Residence" series, an initiative funded by the James Irvine Foundation that asks the museum to engage audiences in new ways, is another of Foster's pet projects to help OMA reach more people and further connect the North County community.
"I actually feel like I wear three hats in my day," Foster explains. "It's running a regional arts museum. It's helping catalyze a transformation of downtown Oceanside into an arts hub. And it's being a team member helping to convene our North County arts community for the first time."
It's wearing those all those hats that got Foster into trouble. But he says his resignation and withdrawal helped him learn to set firmer boundaries between life and work and ask for help.
"I'm notoriously a yes' person," Foster admits. "So, maybe I've just got to be more judicious about what I say yes' to and give some soft no's or a maybe three months from now' kind-of-thing
. Mostly, I have to learn how to ask for help
. We know our vision is greater than we have capacity to achieve right now, so, actually, quite honestly, I am looking at our community and saying, If you like what we're doing, step up and get onboard and help us.'"