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Sarasota Wednesday, Jul. 22, 2009 8 years ago

Profiles of Summer: The Science Muse

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

People notice Molly Demeulenaere. They notice her even when her hair is not dyed blue and styled in a mohawk. They notice her even when she’s dressed in a prim blazer and silk scarf.

They notice her because she’s got what Chris Menzies, president of G.WIZ Science Museum’s board of trustees, calls “command presence.” And, they remember her because she’s got a big smile, an unpronounceable Belgian last name and good ideas. That’s why, after working only three months in G.WIZ’s communications department, Demeulenaere, a 31-year-old retired ballroom dancer from Naples, was promoted to museum director.

“It was pretty amazing, actually,” Demeulenaere says. “I was sitting in a meeting where we were outlining our one-month strategic plan and it became apparent that I was asking the right questions. I can’t help it. I get really passionate when I’m involved. I can never take a backseat and just be quiet.”

Although Demeulenaere’s ideas seemed like common sense to her, they blew away the museum’s board of trustees, which has spent the last two years trying to pull the museum out of a fundraising rut.

Since longtime museum Director Elva Farrell resigned in 2002 at the request of the board, G.WIZ has weathered managerial conflicts, high employee turnover and crippling budget deficits.

In 2008, after a year of functioning as the museum’s interim director, former board President Cheryl Burstein was offered the position on a permanent basis. However, after only a year in office, Burstein — responsible for last year’s blockbuster exhibit “Bodies Revealed” — stepped down.

“The staff has been through a lot of turmoil,” Demeulenaere says. “I think we’re all happy to have a little stability back.”

Demeulenaere’s fundraising prowess was what made her the obvious choice. Traveling exhibits, even high-profile ones such as “Bodies,” weren’t generating long-term sustainability. And, although Demeulenaere didn’t realize it at the time, whenever she would innocently sound off on the importance of securing permanent exhibits and the power of collaboration, board members’ eyebrows would raise.

“She brings so much to the table,” Menzies says. “It’s like where do you even start? She’s got a personality that draws people to her. She walks into a room and takes control of a situation and people respect her.”

The board wanted a new start and they saw potential in Demeulenaere’s fresh, young perspective. Many boards shy away from change, but when Menzies offered Demeulenaere the job, he encouraged her to start with a clean slate.

For seven years, Demeulenaere worked as the director of development for The Sarasota County Arts Council, producing Arts Day, Arts Night and the Amazing Arts Race.

She was so savvy at pulling off creative large-scale fundraisers, that in 2006, she and friend Keren Shani-Lifrak formed Rambunktious Productions, an events-production company that produced parties from Naples to New York City, including G.WIZ’s annual Butterfly Ball.

“She can look at a situation and tell you where things need to go without creating animosity,” Menzies says. “She envisions something and people jump on board.”

However, as the economy started slipping, Demeulenaere was forced to plan more weddings than fundraisers, a reality neither she nor Shani-Lifrak were thrilled about, so, after accepting Menzie’s offer, Demeulenaere pulled out of event planning entirely.

“High-end weddings brought in good money and were fulfilling to the bride, but not to me,” Demeulenaere says. “I’d get home, exhausted and unfulfilled.”

G.WIZ is her No. 1 priority right now. Even eMerge, the art-advocacy group she organized with friends Michael Chokr and Dorothy Carlin earlier this spring, has been put on the backburner.

“I’m still a grassroots girl,” Demeulenaere says, smiling. “But don’t ask for my opinion on the sailor sculpture. I’m sick of it.”

Only 30 days into the job and already Demeulenaere has generated buzz. The first thing she changed was the museum’s dress code.

“It was moronic,” she says. “To expect everyone to wear G.WIZ polo shirts tucked into khakis. C’mon.
Everyone has their own style. It’s like, why force people into boxes? Regarding clothes, I’m more laidback.”

Regarding work ethic, though, she is more demanding than her predecessors.

“I’m tough,” Demeulenaere says. “I think everyone should work really hard when they come to work. I do.”

For 11 years, she was a professional ballroom dancer, a career she embarked on at the age 18, after graduating college early with a degree in biology.

Dancing allowed her to travel the world and brought her to Sarasota in 2001, where her old dance partner lived.

“I kind of fit in wherever I am,” Demeulenaere says. “My favorite parties are the ones where there’s a bunch of people mingling from different schools of thought. It’s more fun that way.”

She jokes that she’s a serial monogamist in both her professional life and personal life. She and boyfriend Marc Morgan, a bass trombone player with the Sarasota Orchestra, recently moved into a house in Arlington Park. They’re renting right now, but like all things in Demeulenaere’s life, the house comes with an option to own.

“I like long-term relationships whether they be boyfriends or jobs,” Demeulenaere says. “The thing that excited me the most about G.WIZ was that I could make this my career. I could be here 10 to 15 years. I could leave a mark.”

Hey, what’s up with the truck?

Has anyone else noticed that Molly Demeulenaere bombs around Sarasota in a white pickup truck with a curious cab on the back with double doors?

According to Demeulenaere, the back of the truck is loaded with scuba diving gear. Demeulenaere and boyfriend Marc Morgan, a trombone player with the Sarasota Orchestra, love to go diving on the weekends. The double doors make loading and unloading equipment easier.

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