Staff Spotlight: Zinnia Willits

Gibbes Director of Collections, Zinnia Willits

Our next Staff Spotlight features Zinnia Willits, the Director of Collections and Operations!

Name: Zinnia Willits

Title: Director of Collections and Operations

How long have you been at the Gibbes?

I joined the Gibbes as the Collections Manager in March 2003.

Zinnia Willits showing visitor the painting storage racks

Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections and Operations, shows a museum visitor the painting storage racks.

Describe your role here at the museum in a few sentences.

VERY briefly, I manage the museum’s permanent art collection and oversee museum operations as well as logistics for its active exhibition and loan programs.

What brought you to the Gibbes? Tell us about how you ended up here!

In a nutshell, school brought me to South Carolina, my husband’s job brought me to Charleston, and I found my own way to the Gibbes. I have an undergraduate degree in Anthropology from the University of Illinois. That’s right…I am not originally from Charleston and do not come from an art background! I grew up in Chicago and thought I wanted to be an archaeologist and knew museum work was for me. Graduate school brought me to the University of South Carolina where I earned a Master’s Degree in Public History with a concentration in Museum Studies. After grad school I worked with collections at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University and then the Augusta Museum of History until my husband was offered a job at Charleston Day School. We left Georgia and headed back to South Carolina. Once in Charleston I worked for a time at the College of Charleston as a contract archivist for the Jewish Heritage Collection and eventually pursued an opportunity to join the Gibbes staff. Managing an art collection was new for me but I learned the ins and outs of art shipping, insurance, storage, exhibitions, loans…all of it…at the Gibbes!

What is your favorite work in the collection and why?

Mrs. Robert Gilmor, Jr. (Sarah Reeve Ladson) by Thomas Sully

Mrs. Robert Gilmor, Jr. (Sarah Reeve Ladson), 1823, by Thomas Sully (American, 1783 – 1872); Oil on canvas; 35 5/8 x 27 5/8 inches; Gibbes Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Leila Ladson Jones; 1942.010.0003

Hmm…I think my favorite work in the collection is the portrait of Mrs. Robert Gilmor Jr. (Sarah Reeve Ladson), 1823 by Thomas Sully (American, 1790-1866). I love all Sully portraits but this one in particular seems to effortlessly convey Mrs. Gilmor’s elegance, refinement, and place in the society she lived in. I also have an affinity for this portrait because I have accompanied her (as a courier) to many museums that have asked to borrow her. We have been to Shanghai, New York, Palm Beach, and Atlanta (to name a few) together over the last few years. She is a wonderful travel companion!

Tell us about an interesting project you’ve worked on during your time at the museum.

Probably one of the MOST interesting projects I have worked on during my time at the Gibbes has been the packing, storage, return and reinstallation (in galleries and storage) of our collection of 10,000+ pieces of art during the museum’s recent closure, renovation and expansion. I planned and managed the budget, schedules, logistics, security, packing, shipping, and all of the contract crews for this entire process as well as negotiated spaces (and prices) for museum-quality storage. It’s impossible to convey the magnitude of this project in a few sentences, but it was a career-changer. (Read more about the process of packing up the collection in Zinnia’s account: Part I and Part II on the blog!)

Besides the Gibbes, where do you take friends and family for the quintessential Charleston/Lowcountry experience?

I ALWAYS bring (or send) out-of-town guests to the Aiken-Rhett House, which is run by Historic Charleston Foundation. This “urban plantation” is truly a unique experience as the house has been preserved, rather than restored. Layers of history are visible in the many levels of exposed paint and wallpaper and convey a sense of how the house was used and lived in by each generation. As for restaurants, I like to bring people to my favorite places off the beaten path…and away from the well-trafficked downtown areas…so…I’m going to keep those to myself 🙂

Exterior of the Aiken-Rhett House

The Aiken Rhett House is a must-see in Zinnia’s guide to Charleston.


Top Image: Zinnia Willits gives visitors a unique view of the collection in a behind-the-scenes storage tour. 

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