For years, Dennis Kois has toiled to help increase crowds at places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution.
Now, he’s looking for a little space.
That’s just what he’s getting in Williams Bay, where Kois has spent the past seven months as executive director for the Yerkes Future Foundation and Yerkes Observatory. In this capacity, he is charged with preserving the iconic facility and its rich history while returning it to its former glory as a tourism and education destination.
In addition to The Met and Smithsonian, Kois also has held leadership positions at the Milwaukee Public Museum, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Boston and others. A 1987 graduate of Whitefish Bay High School, Kois holds a bachelor’s degree in museum design from UW-Milwaukee and a master’s in museum studies from New York University.
“I barely graduated from Whitefish Bay High School,” Kois said. “I was a terribly bored student. The best part of every school year were the days we’d take a museum field trip.”
Personally, Kois and his fiance, Kelly Gauthier, are living a real-life “Brady Bunch situation” raising their five children: Olin (15), Violet (13), Phoebe (6), Molly (6) and Louise (4). The family rounds out with house cats Wilson and Ziggy Stardust.
To learn more about Kois and the Yerkes Observatory, visit YerkesObservatory.org or search for the observatory on social media.
1. What inspired you to apply for the executive director position at Yerkes? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set the vision and be a part of creating an institution that is going to truly be world-class and hold special meaning for generations to come. How cool is that?
2. You have held various positions with institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and the Milwaukee Public Museum, to name a few. How do these experiences benefit you as the new head of the Yerkes Future Foundation? In two ways, I think. First, just like a museum, the observatory is a complex organization—fulfilling a mission to advance culture, serve the public, operate as an effective business, educate families and children and more. Second, the Met, the Smithsonian, the deCordova Sculpture Park in Boston—these are internationally famous institutions at the top of their games. I think Yerkes will join that same club in the coming years.
3. Famous names such as Einstein, Sagan and Hubble all have visited Yerkes over the years. How do you capitalize on the facility’s history to steer its future? While it’s true Albert Einstein only visited, scientists such as Edwin Hubble, Carl Sagan and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar—who won the Nobel Prize—all worked for years or decades right here in Williams Bay. The legacy of discovery, curiosity and wonder that drove these incredible scientists is what we can tap into as we think about what Yerkes will be for future generations.
4. Share something about Yerkes that people might not be aware of. Even though it spent 125 years as part of the University of Chicago, Yerkes is in many ways a start-up organization at this point. Whether thinking about what it can be and do, starting over with new staff, leadership and board, or rebuilding the landscape and facility to prepare for the next 125 years. We’re the oldest “newborn” you’ve ever seen.
5. People would be surprised to know: That I have always enjoyed relaxing by driving autocross—a low-budget form of racing that’s incredibly fun. When you work on projects that go on for decades, doing something where you know if you’ve done well or poorly immediately is definitely therapeutic. Maybe that’s why I like cooking, too?
6. Do you have a specific interest in astronomy, or will you be learning more as you go in your new position? I’ve always enjoyed leading organizations where I’m not a content expert. I’ve led art museums, yet I’m no art historian. Sculpture parks—ditto. I’ve run major science museums doing active research in biology, zoology, paleosciences and environmental science, but I’m not a scientist. What I am good at is learning quickly, finding talented people and respecting what they do, and synthesizing complex problems to take organizations in unexpected directions. That and being open to knowing I’m usually going to be the dumbest person in the room.
7. Do you collect anything? I’ve managed to divest myself of a lot of possessions over the past couple of years, which has been mentally freeing and has lightened my load. Though I still have a soft spot for books of all types—old books, art and design books, obscure books. If I’m not careful, I’ll build a collection right back up.
8. When it comes to leadership, what do you consider to be your greatest strength/weakness? I started out as a designer, and I still think like a designer—testing out possible solutions, not being afraid to fail and eventually landing on the creative solution that can scale up in an unexpected way. I see that as a strength. Others might beg to differ.
9. When you go to the grocery store, what goes into your cart whether you need it or not? Tortilla chips, specifically El Rey spicy lemon chips. Made by hand right in Milwaukee.
10. You have two hours of free time. What do you do? I go to a museum—any museum. Museums help us understand our own stories and shared histories, they help us empathize with the lived experiences of others and they open our eyes to seeing the world in a new way. I’m a curious person. I find all of that immensely enjoyable.
11. Your background includes teaching in the graduate program for museum sciences at George Washington University. Did you enjoy teaching, or did it help you decide you wanted a more direct role within a museum setting? I was doing both at the same time—chief designer at the Smithsonian and teaching museum ethics and design. I loved spending time with grad students. I always found it kept me from getting too set in my own ways.
12. Describe your first-ever museum experience. Where was it? It was at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Seeing the dioramas and dinosaurs, I thought, “Somebody must make all this. I want that job!”
13. What has been the most gratifying thing you have accomplished during your career in museum work? I think establishing the first truly embedded preschool at a contemporary art museum in the United States, which I did while I was at the deCordova Sculpture Park in Boston. Harvard’s Project Zero ended up studying it as a model for family and childhood arts exposure that has real impact on cultural take rates over time.
14. Is there a museum you have not yet visited that is on your bucket list? So so many. I’ve been to literally hundreds of art museums, but for whatever reason have never ever been to the Prado in Madrid.
15. What is your favorite food, and where is your favorite place to get it? I have a love of street food and a high tolerance for eating questionable food that somebody is selling out of a cart. Generally, that’s paid off for me—though one time in Mexico City I came to regret (and I mean really regret) buying some soup a guy had mixed with an industrial concrete mixer and was selling out of a 5-gallon construction bucket.
16. How people learn about history or interact with it has changed in the age of the internet. What plans do you have to promote Yerkes in this regard? That’s all just par for the course. We’re headed for a re-do of our website, which will be driven by our social media streams. If we want to have folks know who we are and what we’re up to, social media isn’t optional.
17. Can you name a popular TV show you either have never seen or that you don’t understand why it is popular? “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” in the ’90s. Somebody explain that to me, please.
18. Which do you dislike more, mowing grass on a hot day or shoveling snow in freezing temperatures? Wait ... does anyone ever answer they like shoveling more? For real?
19. Of the museums you have visited, which has been a personal favorite? If someone is deep into museums and what they do, I cannot recommend the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A. highly enough. It’s a hard-to-describe storefront museum, a piece of performance art about what’s true and false and a magic show—all in one. If it tells you anything, the guy who runs it has won a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and one of his top donors is the magician Penn Gillette of Penn & Teller. Utterly fantastic. And the Museum of Old and New Art (MoaNA) in Tasmania. Look it up. It’s awesome and hilarious.
20. If you weren’t involved in the field you’re in, what do you think you would do for a living? I would kill—kill—to be an art conservator. It’s the perfect blend of art and science. But what college freshman even knows that’s a career?