Jessimi Jones strives to lead the Springfield Museum of Art with a community-focused mindset

Jessimi Jones took on her role as the new executive director of the Springfield Museum of Art in January 2020. 

She didn't know it at the time, but she'd only have about seven weeks in her new position before the COVID-19 pandemic would halt her plans and give her more time to establish what direction she really wanted to lead the museum.

That direction includes ensuring the museum feels welcoming, community focused, and intentional.

"One of my big hopes is making sure museums are a place where anybody who wants to come and visit can come; they can feel welcome," Jones say. "I want everyone to be able to have a meaningful moment and find something that connects to their own life and see the world in just a little bit of a different way."

Jones, who is originally from Bellefontaine, says she's always had a passion for art, which she originally pursued through art classes. 

In high school, she experienced her first visit to an art museum - The Toledo Museum of Art

"That moment, my first visit to an art museum, was when I fell in love with art museums," she says. "And what spurred that was when we walked in, there on the wall was this painting that was an impressionist painting - it's a scene of Venice. I was struck by it because it was a poster that was in our art classroom, so I would sit in the art classroom and look at it ... and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to go to Venice some day.' And it was that moment that made me realize that art can transport you to places you've never been before and make you see your dreams and open the world in a way you hadn't considered. 

"I thought, 'This was a poster in my art classroom, so it must be an important work of art.'"

Jones says that moment had a huge impact on her and led her to go to the University of Toledo for Art because the art school is connected to the museum. 

Eventually, Jones transferred to Kent State University and realized her love of art ran deeper than only creating it. 

"I wanted to be involved in the arts but making art was not the driving force for me," Jones says. "But being around art and involved in art mattered, and it's something that fueled me."

She says she found herself gravitating toward art history classes and changing her major to Art History. 

"I was constantly on this course to find how I can be involved in the arts and how I can be employed in the arts," says Jones, who started taking art education classes and volunteering in for an art class at a local school. "As a junior in college was the first time I knew art education was even a career."

And she realized she wanted to spend her life teaching others about art and promoting the importance of art.

Following college, Jones started working at the Columbus Museum of Art, where she stayed for 12 years and was able to develop the Art Teacher in School programs and help the museum's Center for Creativity.

"While I was there I really fell in love with the role that art plays and how artists think and how artists approach the world in different ways," Jones says. "No matter who you are and what you do, there's value to being a creative thinker in the world today. And that's so important.

"How can we help make creativity more accessible to everyone? No matter who you are or what you do, we all have our own creative ways of approaching the world, and we need to find how we can celebrate that."

While with the Columbus museum, Jones earned a masters degree and had the opportunity to study with and learn from other art educators and professionals in New York. She says it allowed her to build a strong network within her field.

She eventually moved into role of Director of Education at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okalahoma, where she stayed for more than six years. 

"That was another incredible experience. I got to work under really interesting and visionary leaders and great colleagues," Jones says. "I was able to broaden my thinking of museums and how we engage others and the world around us. There was a lot of focus there on public engagement."

Each year at the Philbrook Museum, programming would be provided for about 70,000 visitors. 

"A big part of what we were doing was trying help change the way people think that an experience at a museum might be like," she says. 

Though her parents provided cultural experiences when she was younger, Jones says those didn't include visiting art museums. And she thinks that is common for many families.

"When I started going to art museums, I both fell in love with them and felt intimidated by them, and I know that's the case for a lot of people," Jones says. "A lot of people feel a little skeptical about art museums. 'I don't know anything about art. If I go to an art museum, what am I supposed to do when I get there?'"

That's a feeling Jones adamantly hopes to change in her position here in Springfield, where she moved with her husband and daughter when she took the job last year. Her husband, Graham Davis, works for the City of Springfield and her daughter attends Ridgewood School.

The stereotypical concept of a stuffy museum where people are supposed to be quiet and have to be serious all the time isn't the mark Jones is trying to hit. 

"Museums can be that, and they can be so much more," she says, explaining that while she sometimes goes to a museum to enjoy the solitude and a quiet moment to look at something other than her phone, she also wants to enjoy museums in a different light.

"Now that I'm a mom, and I have a 3 year old, there are times I want to go to a museum, and instead of spending two to three hours there, I want to spend 30 mins and take my daughter and find all the animals we can find," Jones say. "Because I want to make sure when she's growing up that museums are a place she feels comfortable going."

Jones wants to change the perception some people have that the museum is not for them. She wants people to feel like the museum is all-inclusive and truly a place for everyone.

"Come as you are to a museum. I've gone to a museum dressed up, and I've gone plenty of times in jeans and a T-shirt, and that's OK," she says. "We want you to come in. We want you to be comfortable."

Joining in community events and being a literal open door has been has been a positive starting point, says Jones. As public events have been reestablished this year after many not happening in 2020, Jones has made an effort to ensure the museum is participating. 

From something as small as being an open location with air conditioning and public restrooms during the recent Rotary Food Truck Competition in Veteran's Park, Jones says the Springfield Museum of Art welcomed hundreds of visitors, many of whom had never taken the time to visit before.

The museum also recently partnered with Envelope Date to host an Art After Dark date night and will be partnering with Equality Springfield to host an outdoor movie night on Oct. 16. 

"That is one of my goals - to try to provide experiences that will serve as a driver for people to come to the museum," she says. "My hope is to provide more opportunities like that, that are fun and social to raise awareness of the museum and engagement with the museum."

The museum has also worked to eliminate barriers for visitors by offering free visits for anyone 17 and younger and by accepting SNAP and WIC. 

"We are working to change these real and perceived barriers at the museum here, and that's one of the things I'm most excited about," she say. 

Jones is also excited to be able to work back in Ohio. 

"For me, coming to Springfield, it really does feel like I'm home," she says. 

After starting in Springfield, she was asked to write the annual membership letter, in which she told the story of her art class poster and Toledo Museum of Art visit inspiring her career. 

The letter made its way back to her high school art teacher - who began as a teacher in Springfield years ago but now lives in Arizona. 

Jones - to her surprise - soon received a package that included the same poster from her past (complete with push pin holes on its corners) in the mail. Her teacher had saved the poster that started it all and sent it back to Jones to bring her passion for art full-circle. 

"She said, 'When you're having a hard day, never forget that you never know when you can change someone's life,'" Jones says. "I have it framed and in my office now, and it's a constant reminder of the work that we do here. We do have the possibility to help change people's lives or maybe even just make their day a little bit better.

"I really do believe that museums can be incredibly powerful places, and it's just such an honor to be able to be here and to be able to do that every day." 

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.

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