Beyond the Boardroom: Elizabeth Sutton of the Spurlock Museum | People
A fourth-generation Californian who returns “as often as possible to visit the Pacific Open”, ELIZABETH SUTTON is far from my home.
But of all the scenic settings she’s turned up at for work since earning three degrees at schools in the University of California system — the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the History Museum Santa Barbara Museum, Union Station Museums in Ogden, Utah – “it’s the best job I’ve ever had,” says the director of UI’s Spurlock Museum of World Cultures.
“Even on bad days,” says Sutton, “I am so grateful to work with this group of colleagues and stakeholders and to be part of the museum’s mission.”
An avid gardener and hiker, Sutton settled into life in the Midwest with her husband, two sons, and two pet projects — “the restoration of our John Replinger home and the 1974 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.”
Sutton, who five years ago last month was cast as Spurlock’s manager, took the time to answer editor Jeff D’Alessio’s questions in the 141st episode of our weekly quick read spotlighting the executives of large and small organizations.
My philosophy on meetings is… be ready. And if the meeting is going to be long, whoever calls the meeting is responsible for providing snacks to the group.
The last luxury I allowed myself was… buy a bag of peaches at Curtis Orchard. They are literally the best. Life is far too short to eat mediocre peaches or apples.
I also just bought a bunch of new pens from Art Coop because nothing proves you’re a professional more than taking notes at an important meeting with a pen topped with a hedgehog or a flamingo.
I can get by with normal pens, but I’m so glad I don’t have to.
The hardest thing about being a leader is… it took me a long time to learn how to balance leadership with my head and my heart. I haven’t mastered this art yet, but I’ve improved a lot over the years.
My favorite moments in this job occur… each day. My colleagues and the community have brought so many wonderful changes to the museum and are creating so many incredible programs and exhibits filled with compassion, empathy and wisdom.
I can’t live without my… family, friends, boba tea and Post-it.
The three adjectives I hope my staff would use to describe me are… thoughtful, transparent and collaborative.
On the walls of my office you will find… a poster from an exhibit the museum opened in 1982, a framed Balinese lampshade with intricate shadow puppet detail donated to the museum by a longtime volunteer, and an Audubon print of parrots that reminds me of home and the wild parrots in Los Angeles that used to wake me up screaming every summer morning around 5:30
When it comes to a professional model… I don’t believe in models. Nobody is perfect. I learn something valuable from everyone who comes into my life.
Sometimes I learn behaviors to emulate, and sometimes I witness actions that teach me what never to do. These are just as valuable.
I aspire to be the best version of myself possible and am committed to always continuing to learn and grow.
I’m thrifty in this… in my forties, I learn that my time is very precious. I’m getting a lot better at not letting people waste it.
If I could swap places for a week with someone else in town, I wouldn’t mind switching with… a teacher. Before going to graduate school, I taught high school in La Puente, California. There are days when I really, really miss teaching.
If any local high school English teachers want to swap roles with me for a week, I’m all for it.
My one unbreakable rule in the workplace is… just be a decent human being. If you do that, everything else can be forgiven.
I relax after work by… eating popsicles on my back porch with my kids and walking barefoot in the grass.
As for the most beneficial college course I have taken… I love to learn and do graduate school, but to be honest, at graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I learned a lot more from my fellow students than I ever learned from classes and teachers.
My fellow students helped me understand how to navigate the university and its policies and procedures, they helped me complete the fieldwork required for my research, and they also helped me realize that if I were to leave school, I could go on and have a fully fulfilled life. and a happy life doing something completely different.
I’m up and at them every day by… mostly 6am, but that’s usually up to my three year old to figure out.
My exercise routine consists of… chasing after my kids and scheduling campus meetings for the chance to get out of my office, walk around, and learn where the buildings on campus are.
I’ve been at UIUC for five years and I still don’t know where all the buildings are.
When it comes to the worst job I’ve ever had… my doctorate is in anthropology and archaeology. During my graduate studies, I once had to do an archaeological survey at a water harvesting plant / stray cow ranching area on the central coast of California.
It involved trudging through a reclaimed swamp of water while trying to dodge rotting cow carcasses. At some point during that week, every member of the team fell face first into the mud, including myself.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the impact of the pandemic has been… an 8. This past year has been really tough. I felt a lot of pressure to get all museum programs, events and operations back to a pre-pandemic “normal”.
But that’s just not possible. We have all been through a lot of trauma, loss and change over the past few years. We live in a very different world from the one that existed a few years ago.
I continue to worry about our health as a community, and not just because of COVID. I’m lucky to work with students every day because they are amazing and give me hope for the future.