Jessica May: ‘Art is how you know you’re in community’

photo by Krista Photography

Kemper Museum’s new executive director is committed to making connections

Funny how the future drops its hints. More than a decade ago Jessica May, then curator of contemporary and modern art at Maine’s Portland Museum of Art, first visited Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City. She was struck, she said in a recent phone interview, by the distinctive architecture of the Gunnar Birkerts-designed building, where “seeing that wall of Lois Dodd paintings was a fall in love moment.”

Organized by then Kemper curator and executive director Barbara O’Brien, “Catching the Light” was the first museum retrospective of the postwar American plein air painter Lois Dodd, who is still going strong well into her 90s. The exhibition traveled to May’s museum in Maine, a comparable mid-sized American museum equally important to its local community. And so, the Kansas City love connection was established.

Fast forward to January 2024 and Jessica May has been announced as Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art’s sixth executive director, following an international search for the position. May brings substantial curatorial experience from postings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. She holds a Ph.D. in art history, criticism and conservation from the University of California, Berkeley, where her scholarly interests focused on the medium of photography.

Over the course of May’s decade-long journey back to Kansas City, as she put it, “I had all the jobs around museum leadership,” before stepping up to a challenging parallel leadership role that pushed her outside her comfort zone. As artistic director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum west of Boston, she cared for a 30-acre site, with a permanent collection of nearly 60 outdoor sculptures by major 20th-century artists, while commissioning contemporary artists to design site-specific projects for the venue.

That wasn’t all. Her larger statewide role was managing director of art and exhibitions for the Trustees of Reservations, a non-profit land conservation and historic preservation organization serving the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In this role, “the world got so much bigger,” May explained. She quickly learned to contextualize the role of museums within a bigger organization with an expanded mission touching on ecology, agriculture and horticulture. The through line in her dual leadership role was the importance of creating programs that engaged the community in meaningful ways.

Her time in Massachusetts got her thinking deeply about the importance of place; however, May missed the scale and function of a traditional art museum. Over the years, she had made a few more visits to Kansas City with her family, always appreciating the beauty of the city, its restaurants, its park system, and, of course, its art scene. Colleagues advised her that KC’s reputation as an art city was rising, and that arts professionals on the coasts, and in the middle, were paying attention.

View of “Sarah Zapata: So the roots be known,” Kemper Museum’s 8th Annual Atrium Project, curated by Krista Alba assistant curator, on view through July 28. (Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art)

So what attracted her back to Kemper Museum? Why now? “The collection aligns with my curatorial interests, and the Kemper’s exhibition history shows that it was key in many artists’ careers,” May explained. “The Kemper has done a great job acquiring from those exhibitions.” The permanent collection currently numbers more than 3,000 works.

Not to mention, Kemper is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. “How wonderful to join now, looking back, looking forward, learning the collection, creating an embraceable future,” she added. In her first week on the job, May was pleased to realize that the Richard Estes painting hanging in her office was in fact the same one she had previously borrowed for an exhibition. It must be a sign.

May has quite a to-do list. Near the top is the opportunity to hire a senior curator, whom she envisions as “a partner in artistic vision for the site.” Although she’s an art historian, May recognizes the recent shift in the role of art museums from object-centered to audience-based. In the wake of the pandemic, complicated by various social, technological and economic ruptures, audiences are asking museums to demonstrate their social benefits in a new way.

“How do we take an extraordinary building and turn it inside out?” asked May. She speaks about Kemper Museum in terms like “warmth,” “welcome,” “easy,” “fun,” “appealing to audiences” and “creating access at all points.” Her vision is about making connections, looking to connect the near and the far, to connect things happening in the broader world to the local community. In the meantime, she’s looking forward to meetings with artists, collectors, funders and fellow arts leaders across Kansas City and beyond.

As if that weren’t enough, May has co-authored an upcoming book and co-curated an accompanying exhibition, “Second Nature: Photography in the Age of the Anthropocene,” with Marshall Price, chief curator at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. She describes the project, a first of its kind in the 21st century, as “a show of international photographers globally documenting a fundamentally transformed earth.”

When asked about artists currently on her heart-mind, May mentioned Jean Shin, a cultural producer who specializes in artist relations, especially emerging and underrepresented creatives. She also cited textile artist Sarah Zapata, who is currently exhibiting “So the roots be known” at Kemper through July 28. Some key works from the permanent collection jump out, particularly Kemper’s Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell paintings, both considered giants of postwar American painting. She’s bullish on what art museums have to offer people. May stated that, for her, an art museum is “a place apart from everyday life, that makes me feel NOT alone in the world. Art is how you know you are in community.”

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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