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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Bernie Herman is departing as executive director of the Bakersfield Museum of Art.

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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Bernie Herman is departing as executive director of the Bakersfield Museum of Art.

To say that Bernie Herman leaves the Bakersfield Museum of Art in better shape than he found it more than eight years ago is an understatement.

As of Friday, his last day as CEO and executive director, the museum was debt-free; its annual budget is about $800,000; and many new programs have been introduced, such as Altares de Familia, which drew 4,000 people to the stunning downtown museum in November.

It was a different story in 2004.

When Herman came on board, the museum owed $1.1 million on a construction loan.

"We had far more debt than money," he said in a recent interview. "Our accreditation had been withheld because we had no financial plan for getting out of debt. Your financial sustainability impacts everything -- without that you can't do the things you want to do."

His initial goal was to find a way to pay down the debt -- to "burn the mortgage" as he puts it. That goal was achieved with several major fundraising events and a campaign to create a donor wall with contributions starting at $5,000 for each plaque. The wall is now an attractive structure that separates the lobby area from the Dezember Gallery.

Before taking the museum position, Herman had spent 14 years as head of Mercy Hospital, which at the time was a five-hospital regional organization with an annual budget of $500 million. So it would be reasonable to assume a bit of a culture clash, transitioning as he did from the medical world to one inhabited by artists and art lovers.

But he quickly found the key to working with people who by their very nature are more interested in abstract concepts than the dollars-and-cents of things.

"I love working with creative people," he said. "My philosophy is to create an environment that encourages them to do the very best they can."

At the same time, he admitted that it's wise to be flexible. Having a sense of humor helps too.

"What you do with artists is give them a long leash, let them run with it and see what they come up with," he said. "Of course there are times when you have to pull it in a little -- but not too much."

Among his achievements Herman lists the development of a strategic plan; grants totaling more than $575,000; installation of new vaults; a permanent collection that has tripled in value; increasing outreach with the use of social media and a newly designed web page.

Several exhibits, events and educational programs over the past few years have helped to deepen and broaden the BMOA audience.

To list a few: Winescapes, exhibits featuring the art of China and Japan, "Go West Day," "The Freedom Trunk," Artworks, an instructional program for high school students that includes a day-long trip to the Los Angeles Museum of Art, and classes and activities for adults like First Wednesday.

Not to be overlooked is Via Arte, the popular sidewalk art festival held at The Marketplace each October.

"We have expanded Via Arte significantly the past few years to involve many more high school art students, local and professional artists," Herman said. "And our children's (Bambino) squares have increased to record numbers."

Herman, who will be 62 in April, and his wife, Joan, a counselor at Foothill High School, have purchased a home in Murrieta. They won't be leaving Bakersfield until about June, however. And Herman said he'll be "in and out" during that time.

Meanwhile, he has high praise for his successor, John Lofgren, whose first official day as executive director is Monday.

Herman predicts the museum will thrive under Lofgren on account of his record of successful management, leadership and fundraising for other cultural organizations.

"And," Herman said, "his whole (educational) background is in art history."