HER take on branching out: A conversation with Brucemore's Tara Richards

Tara Richards
Tara Richards

Branching out into new territory can be intimidating, especially when you work at a 133-year-old landmark. This month, we talked to Tara Richards, director of community engagement at Brucemore, about trying new things and making room for new initiatives at work.

The staff at Brucemore has been branching out since the mid-1980s when they decided to start giving tours of the estate.

“Brucemore was never built to be a museum; it was built to be a home,” Richards said.

Margaret Douglas Hall bequeathed the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1981, intending for it to serve as a community resource with a meeting space for nonprofits.

“Margaret never thought anyone would want to know how she lived, but the tours are what bring the building to life,” Richards said. The standard mansion tour has remained fairly consistent for the last 30 years, but recently, specialty tours have been added that bring the building, and the past, alive in new and different ways. “We have so many stories to tell. Specialty tours allow guests to dive deeper into themes,” she said.

Margaret Douglas Hall may have found the popularity of one recently added tour particularly surprising. The Hired Help tour delves into servant life at the mansion, giving visitors a chance to envision life in the early 20th century for those who worked at Brucemore. Another new tour, called Music in the Mansion, utilizes something you might not expect to find at Brucemore — technology. Through the push of a button, one of over 2,000 songs can be played on the recently restored 1929 Skinner player pipe organ.

Finding a balance between new and old is a key part of branching out, according to Richards. In addition to tours, Brucemore hosts a variety of events — some of which have been occurring for many years.

“Events have a life cycle, and you have to have room to nurture new ones,” she said. With just 12 full-time staff members (including four who are focused on maintaining the 26 acres and seven historic structures), some events had to be cut to make room for new ones.

Richards and her team asked five questions about each existing event to determine if they were still viable. To make the cut, events had to be financially healthy, mission-driven, serving a sustainable audience, part of a healthy, active partnership, and differentiated, meaning that it benefited from the unique nature of the estate.

Analyzing existing events has helped Brucemore stay nimble.

“Branching out is about being responsive to the community need, which is what Brucemore is all about,” Richards said.

Some staff recently participated in the Intrapreneur Academy at NewBoCo, which helped prepare them to try new things.

“We learned how to make small changes, like little tweaks to tours, so it wouldn’t be as scary when we added a brand new one,” she said. Richards also has found ways to make her staff feel included when things are changing so they don’t feel out of the loop. “It’s important to take a moment to explain the purpose, and to give people insight and an opportunity to ask questions,” she said.

Richards says the trust Brucemore has built with the community helps give them room to experiment.

“If people come to Cabaret in the Courtyard, they know it’s going to be good.” Last summer, staff experimented with a new theme, Guitar Heroes of the Dance, which was a hit with visitors (although it was not related to the similarly named video game). Richards hopes to continue adding more live music events, although the layout of Brucemore might force her to get creative.

“It definitely wasn’t designed as a concert venue, and there’s no rain back-up,” she said. One thing that sets Brucemore staff apart is that the team loves what they do, so they’re motivated to find creative solutions with limited resources, Richards said. “We work really hard, and we love trying new things.”

Quotes on Branching Out

“If you don’t accept failure as a possibility, you don’t set high goals, you don’t branch out, you don’t try — you don’t take the risk.” — Rosalynn Carter

“When you go out of your comfort zone and it works, there’s nothing more satisfying.” — Kristen Wiig

“When you try new things, you will make mistakes. That’s OK.” — Anne Wojcicki

Books on Branching Out

Mental Toughness: A Bold Guide To Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone, Create Good Habits, Build Resilience And Become An Unbeatable Leader by Charlie Holl

The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life by Shawn Achor

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.