Mary Platt

The way Mary Platt sees it, the world is her toy box. Chapman University’s Director of the Hilbert Museum and former Director of Communications and Media Relations wakes up every morning to a new day buzzing with myriad possibilities. For Platt, there’s no such thing as the road not taken—for if she sees a tempting path, she ventures down it. And those paths have taken her on one adventure after another.

“About 15 years ago, I woke up one morning with the wacky idea to play the bagpipes,” says Platt, who proceeded to find a bagpipe teacher and learn how to play. That decision took her on a journey that included joining the Westminster-based Nicholson Pipes and Drums and traveling to Glasgow with the group for the world championship in bagpipe playing.

“We ended up placing halfway down the list of the 400 bagpipe bands from all over the world,” says Platt. “Competing at the championship was an experience of a lifetime.”

For Platt, who knows seven languages, hobbies offer her a window into the world and inspire her. She also attends Comic-Con conventions, is a fan of Sherlock Holmes and paints, draws, is a photographer, makes jewelry and writes.

“My philosophy is why not?” she says. “If you like listening to a certain instrument, try playing it. If you enjoy art, pick up a pencil and draw. Rather than putting false limitations on yourself, follow your interests.” 

Michigan Beginnings

Platt grew up in the Michigan countryside on a large property with a pond and orchards. In addition to being surrounded by nature, she became immersed in music.

“My dad had a huge collection of records—everything from jazz, to British marching music, to classical selections and songs by Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. I’d put on the headphones and listen for hours, and on Saturday mornings, dad would blast us out of bed with bagpipe music. Although my siblings disliked being awakened that way, I loved it. I’d run downstairs to breakfast and revel in the music.”

In junior high, Platt became enamored with Herb Alpert’s trumpeting, so she decided to play the instrument.

“The school’s band director visited kids at their homes to recruit them,” she recalls. “When he came to our house and I said that I wanted to play the trumpet, he suggested the clarinet, but I wouldn’t budge. My father got me a trumpet, and I played throughout junior high, high school and college. It was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made.”

When she attended Michigan State University, Platt passed the demanding audition to join the school’s award-winning Spartan Marching Band. During her time in the band, Platt noticed that while the football team got a lot of publicity, the band didn’t.

The Power of Public Relations

“Initially, I thought reporters should automatically know about the band, but then I discovered you have to go out and get publicity, so I taught myself to write press releases and contact the media,” says Platt. This skill came in handy in 1988 when the team and band went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 22 years.

“I wrote a press release about the band that I gave to the NBC commentator,” she says. “During the parade, he read the press release verbatim. I realized that reporters are just people doing a job, and if you can be helpful and get the information they need into their hands, you’ll get better coverage. It was a valuable lesson in PR.”

While at Michigan State, Platt majored in art history, earning her undergraduate and master’s in the subject. She had the opportunity to study overseas in Florence, Italy and in Germany, and to travel throughout Europe.

After graduation, Platt worked at Michigan State’s Wharton Center for Performing Arts prior to landing a public relations position at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (OCPAC, which is now the Segerstrom Center for the Arts).

“I’d been trying to get back to California ever since the Rose Bowl,” says Platt, who in 1991 packed everything in a U-Haul and drove across country to work at OCPAC. “I loved experiencing the arts at the performing arts center, including their world-class dance season. I met so many memorable artists, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, the 20th century’s greatest male ballet dancers.”

Platt also enjoyed working for Richard Bryant, who hired her for the OCPAC position and with whom she’s worked on many occasions over the years. Bryant is currently Executive Director of Chapman University’s Musco Center for the Arts.

“Mary is a good friend and has assisted me immeasurably over the years, including recently helping to launch Chapman’s Musco Center for the Arts,” says Bryant. “She’s deeply knowledgeable on so many subjects. I don’t know anyone else with such a wide-ranging worldview combined with incredible ability. She has an ineffable curiosity and the persistence to tackle any challenge you give her. In her new position at the Hilbert, Mary is putting the museum’s wonderful collection of California Scene paintings on the map.”

Joining the Chapman Family

Platt came to Chapman University as public relations editor in 2004 after working for a time as a producer at Cox Communications during the dot.com  boom on what was probably Orange County’s first online newspaper, and at the Getty Center as a public relations and communications specialist.

For two years, she edited Chapman Magazine, and then rose to Director of Communications and Media Relations, a position she held until January 2017 when she was appointed Director of the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University.

“It’s been wonderful working at Chapman all these years,” says Platt. “I live in a beautiful Craftsman cottage restored by the university, and it feels like I’m almost living on campus. My prior position as PR director was multifaceted. I worked on everything from community relations to the public relations surrounding the opening of 14 buildings. I also had the privilege of working with Jim Doti and Daniele Struppa, who are both such brilliant leaders.”

President Emeritus Jim Doti comments: “Mary is a jewel and an unsung hero of Chapman. I consider her the university’s storyteller. She’s the one who gets the remarkable story out there so everyone knows what their favorite university is up to. Now she is telling the story about one of my favorite places on campus—the Hilbert Museum of California Art.”

When the opportunity to lead the Hilbert came up, Platt jumped at the chance. “With my background and degrees in art history, my work in PR and my love for California, the museum position was a perfect fit,” she says. “California’s regional art, as a whole, is underappreciated nationally. A recent exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum on the ‘American watercolor movement,’ for instance, didn’t include a single work from any California artist. The emphasis tends to be on the East Coast and the Midwest, and they neglect to recognize the superb works created here on the West Coast in the same era.”

At the Hilbert, they’re out to change that myopic view. “This collection of California paintings assembled with such care by our founders and donors, Mark and Janet Hilbert, is a phenomenal gift from them to our university, our students, our community, the state and to art-lovers everywhere,” says Platt. “It’s an outstanding opportunity to position this museum as a leading institution showcasing the works of the masterful California artists who portray our beautiful, multi-faceted state.”

Platt counts herself lucky to walk by inspiring paintings done by great California artists like Millard Sheets, Milford Zornes and Mary Blair on the way to her office every day. “You never know where life will lead you when you follow your muse—so never stop learning,” she says. Platt’s latest passions are to visit Iceland (so she’s learning the language), and she’s teaching herself to play the Irish whistle.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Julie Bawden-Davis, Photograph by Jeanine Hill

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