Spencer native heads National Art Museum of Sport

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2011

By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — Elizabeth Varner has gone from the Rowan Museum to the Smithsonian, all the way from Stanly County to Nepal. And now, at the age of 31, she heads the National Art Museum of Sport in Indianapolis.
In 2003, Varner, who is from Spencer, got her start as an intern at the Rowan Museum with her mentor and the museum’s director, Kaye Brown Hirst.
“Kaye is just amazing. I love her. She is a dynamo of energy and knows so much,” Varner said.
Varner has been in the position since November, a few months after taking the N.C. Bar exam.
“It’s very exciting. It really combines sports and art,” Varner said.
Varner’s Rowan Museum internship gave her a solid foundation for her career.
“I sat down and talked with her and she really showed me the ropes,” she said of Hirst.
Hirst taught her about professionalism and the “day-to-day, … how-to-do-it” types of things, Varner said.
Varner even called Hirst when she took a job at the Stanly County Museum and the museum had an electrical fire.
“It was midnight. I called her. I was like, ‘Kaye, what do I do,’ and she knew what would happen for me in the next few days,” Varner said.
Varner said she also learned a lot from Mary Ellen Fowler.
Hirst recalled when Varner began with the museum in 2003.
“She had a quest. She is a young woman who sets goals and sets out to accomplish them,” Hirst said.
Varner is an “unbelievably personable young woman,” Hirst said.
She also remembered getting that phone call from Varner about the fire.
“She had it under control. It wasn’t a massive fire. I had a great feeling that I was able to share with her,” Hirst said.
She said she knew Varner would go far in life.
“She is a very dedicated and responsible young woman. I knew whoever got her would have a jewel,” Hirst said.
As executive director of the National Art Museum of Sport, Varner, handles the budget and marketing, curates exhibits, works with fundraising efforts and the museum’s website design.
“I have a plethora of people helping me,” she said.
The museum is on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Varner’s is the first full-time position at the museum in 18 years. The position was previously staffed by someone from the university.
The museum’s mission is to introduce “art to the world of sports and sport to the world of art.”
Indianapolis is the host city for the 46th Super Bowl and the museum hopes to use that as a platform to teach sports fanatics about art and art enthusiasts about sports in the art world.
Varner obtained an art history degree from the University of North Carolina. She also obtained a master’s degree from the Smithsonian Institute-Corcoran School of Art & Design.
She interned at the Smithsonian and the U.S. Treasury Department. She also worked at the National Art Museum in Nepal, South Asia.
Varner graduated from Tulane University with a degree in law.
Varner took the bar exam in July and was sworn in last year by Judge Charlie Brown. She applied for the job at the museum of sport in September and by November, she had the job.
The former director retired, and Varner worked with that director to transition into the position.
Varner realized her law degree would only strengthen her job as director.
There’s a lot of contracts with the museum work and being able to understand them and even alert the museum’s legal team about certain aspects is an asset, she said.
“It’s very useful for me,” Varner said.
She has also had others mentor or show support during her career including Salisbury attorney Cecil Whitley, who sponsored Varner for the swearing-in ceremony.
“He was such a bastion of support and gave me excellent advice and help,” she said.
Varner has tried to encourage those who are just starting their careers in the museum field.
“People come in and I try to see their interests and work with them from the beginning to the end,” she said.
Varner said there are some seemingly glamorous aspects of the job, but there are some not-so-glamorous duties.
“I try to make sure they get a little bit of everything,” she said.
Varner wrote a paper on cultural property law that is being published in the Creighton University Law Review. She presented the paper at a law review symposium in Nebraska earlier this year.
Her parents, Pam and Kelly Varner, still live in Spencer.
Varner returns every so often for a visit, she said.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.