Our final Alumni Spotlight for this semester is Kent Michael Smith. Kent is both a successful artist and museum director. He gives great insight on the importance of museums as an educational tool. Museums have a great influence on our communities and play a big role in exposing a wide range of people to a variety of different forms of representation.
First, please introduce yourself and give us some background information on who you are and what you do.
Hi, my name is Kent Michael Smith and I am an artist and museum professional. My 20+
years of museum work has taken me from Kansas (where I was born and raised) to Ohio,
Missouri, back to Kansas, Texas, and now to Wisconsin where I am the deputy director at
the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Over the course of my career, I have
progressively held positions in registration, installation, education, curatorial, operations,
communications and marketing, and now I have the opportunity to both expand my role
and draw upon my past experiences to work with all departments of the museum as the
deputy director. As someone that has always been a voracious learner and one who loves
to try new things, I have found that a career in museums (preferably the contemporary art
variety) has been a perfect fit for me.
When did you work at the Kennedy and what did you do during your time here? What was your area of study at the university and when did you graduate?
Although it has been more than 20 years now since I first worked at the Kennedy
Museum of Art, I remember it very well. I even remember the fortuitous way in which
my career started. It was 2000 and my wife (only a year into our marriage at the time) and I
moved to The Plains, OH to prepare for my graduate studies in painting at OU. We
moved in early June because I wanted to feel settled before the rigor of graduate school
started that fall. I made an appointment to meet with Clair Carpenter who was the
Museum Administrator at the time. We met briefly but learned there was no room in the
budget to bring me on as a part-time employee. I left disappointed but had an interview at
the Ace Hardware in The Plains already scheduled for the next day. I was on my way to
that interview when Clair called me from the Museum. Unbeknownst to me, she had
reached out to the university’s financial aid office and found a way for me to begin
working at the museum on a work study contract. I still wonder how my career might have gone a different direction were it not for the initiative that Clair showed in finding a
way for a young Kansas transplant to start working at the Kennedy Museum of Art.
For the next three years, I completed my graduate studies, receiving an MFA in painting
in 2003. During this time, I took on roles at the Kennedy within the registration and
installation department; built the first digital records for the Museum’s permanent
collection; conducted research for the curatorial department; and completed a summer
internship with Sally Delgado and the education team working with the youth from
across Athens County. I recall having such incredible opportunities there. Opportunities
that shaped my thinking and demonstrated a career path in the arts that I had honestly
never considered as a possibility. To this day, my experiences at the Kennedy have led me
to advise young college students to keep an open mind and say yes to as many
educational opportunities as you can. The worst thing any student can do is to arbitrarily
close a door they may not have even realized was wide open.
What experiences have you had with the Kennedy Museum of Art? Do you have any favorite memories from your time at the museum?
My family and I love the American Southwest. We travel there as frequently as we can
and when planning summer vacations over the years, our daughter (now 16) would pass
up the oceans or Rocky Mountains to ask if we can go to Santa Fe… it has become a very
special place to us all. I can pinpoint the exact moment I began my love of this region and
the art that is born out of it. It was when I was pouring over all the amazing works in the
Kennedy Museum’s permanent collection while I was building the institution’s first
digital records. Having the opportunity to open cabinet after cabinet of some masterful
works in silver and turquoise, sifting through the massive collection of indigenous
weavings and textiles… I have no doubt this was the start of what has become a life-long
passion and educational outlet.
My favorite memories of the Kennedy are honestly the people. To a person, they were
warm and welcoming. Experts in their respective fields. I watched them in how they not
only went about their roles within the ecosystem of the Museum, but also how they
treated everyone equally. From Clair Carpenter (Administrator), Sally Delgado
(Education), Matt Leininger (Preparator/Registrar), and Jennifer McLerran (Curatorial)…
these are the people that made me want to work in this field.
How would you describe your creative process? Alternatively, how would you describe your professional activities.
I am a constant mix of intuition and rigorous research/planning, and I see absolute value
in both. Sometimes it is necessary to rely on your instincts to explain what you’re
experiencing. However, you can argue that your experiences and education inform these
instincts. I think you are in a good groove—both creatively and professionally—when
you don’t feel the pull in either direction, but your system is moving in harmony.
Who/What inspires you?
Art has the power to change the way in which we interpret the world around us… and in
turn, this interpretation can have rippling effects throughout society. I am inspired daily
by the faces of museum visitors that are transfixed by a work of art. By extension, I am
also inspired by the professionals that I am surrounded with on a daily basis. Of course
I’ve had opportunities to work with amazing artists from around the world—which is
something I deeply cherish—but my inspiration is often drawn from the hard work that
my colleagues and peers pour into their everyday tasks that I find most inspiring.
Has living through a pandemic changed your career, creative processes or education?
Make no mistake, the pandemic has been extremely challenging. I have witnessed many
amazing colleagues lose their jobs during this time as museums around the world
struggle to adapt to a new era of fundraising challenges. However, where there is strong
leadership, I have seen museums pivot and begin to flourish during these unprecedented
times. I also think there have been a couple positive shifts that have risen within
museums over the course of the past two years. The first is a renewed empathy and care
for your coworkers. The museum industry consists of a lot of late hours and tireless
pursuits of research and professional outcomes. However, over the past two years I have
witnessed an increase in policies and mindsets that allow for heightened protection and
care for staff members—not just from an obvious physical health perspective, but far
more in favor of mental health as a result of this ongoing pandemic.
The second positive shift is one that has risen out of the unthinkable tragedies that we’ve
witnessed in the continued murders and mistreatment of individuals of color in this
country, often at the hands of those that are to protect and serve. As a result of these
social injustices, I have seen a much overdue shift in museums with regard to policies and
practices in response to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Clearly there is
more work to be done and we are nowhere near the finish line on any of this, but I do
believe we will all emerge more humane and more committed to positive change for
having experienced all that the past two years have presented us.
In your experience what roles do museums play in their communities? How do you think the community benefits from the museum?
I think every type of museum offers something different to the community or
communities they serve. While a local/regional history museum may be best at offering a
heightened appreciation and understanding of where you are from or where you are
visiting, a contemporary art museum (the sector I have spent the bulk of my entire career)
is ultimately a conduit of connection and communication between the artists exhibited
and the community the museum serves. As a contemporary art museum, the dialogues the
exhibiting artists present are often a reflection of what is happening in the world around
you at that very moment. I think that is what I find so exciting about these museums, your
experience within a contemporary art museum actually informs your personal perspective
of the world around you… today! Following these past two years, I think it is absolutely
critical that museums offer a safe and accessible space for all people—regardless of race,
color, national origin, religion, sex or gender identification, age, disability, and social or
economic status—to contemplate the information and experience that the exhibiting
artists are offering.
How have your experiences of working either with one or multiple academic museums helped you give back to your community?
The Kennedy Museum at Ohio University provided me such a great opportunity to
understand the dynamic of an academic museum’s role within the larger community.
With the fiscal support of the university, there is a great deal of good that an academic
museum can achieve. My early experience of a summer workshop organized through
Sally Delgado’s education department was honestly one of my most impactful moments
while in Athens. For several weeks we welcomed dozens of youth from across Athens
County (often underserved) to Siegfred Hall on campus for a series of art projects and
lessons. For many of the participants, it was their first real experience with art as the
curriculum continues to be cut from schools across the country. What I saw was raw
excitement and eagerness to experience and experiment. I remembered questioning at the
time if these kids would have the same enthusiasm if it were simply a history workshop.
Nothing against history, but it can be intimidating if a child struggles in any way with
things like reading or has difficulties sitting still for long periods of time. For these kids,
the creative arts offered an even playing field where they all could eagerly learn about the
“Memory Jars” that we were constructing while teaching them about the role these jugs
played in Appalachian History. To this day, I am an adamant supporter of S.T.E.A.M.
(scientific, technological, engineering, ART, and mathematical skills) over the currently
preferred school of thought that eliminates art from the equation, known as S.T.E.M.
(scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical skills).
What is your favorite object that is a part of a museum’s collection? Feel free to pick one from the Kennedy’s collection, a different collection, or both. Why?
I think this textile by Hosteen Klah is one of my favorites from the Kennedy Museum’s
permanent collection. I have so many wonderful and still surreal memories of being in
the Museum’s spacious vault with the impressive collection of Southwest Native
American works of art. It has shaped not only my personal interests and collections, but
my family and I have grown to appreciate and support this culture in a way that likely
never would have happened without my early experiences at the Kennedy.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I really appreciate this opportunity to reminisce about my time at the Kennedy Museum. I truly
hope that Ohio University students take advantage of the endless opportunities the museum can
offer to expand your educational experience in a way that you may not yet have considered
possible… I’m certainly glad that I did!
See a similar weaving displayed in our galleries in the new exhibition Night Skies: Navajo Textiles Depicting Sandpaintings. Find more information about this exhibition on our website.
To learn more about the Kennedy Art Museum please check out our website at https://www.ohio.edu/museum. Here you can check out our collection and current exhibitions. To check out other blog posts go to https://kennedymuseum.blog. Finally, feel free to follow us on Instagram at @KennedyMuseumArtEdu or our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/KennedyMuseumofArt .
Tristen Luken, Academic Programs Assistant