Jordia Benjamin, the opportunity-opener
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
What does it take to change how people think and feel about the arts? Perhaps a little bit of time? A little bit of energy? Without a doubt, it takes a lot-a-bit of Jordia Benjamin, the Mirken Senior Coordinator of Programs and Audience Engagement at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine.
A Bahamian in childhood and Floridian/Saint Louis-ian/New Yorker/Mainer thereafter, Jordia has traveled the world with her passions for art, art history, art education, and art gathering. From all of the places she has been and worked, Jordia has gained awareness of what the arts mean to different people and what they could mean to others. That awareness motivates her every day more to support, challenge, and equip young adolescents and professionals to make the arts something accessible and meaningful for all.
In her own experience, although the arts were something she studied as an undergraduate and was exposed to through her family (her uncle and aunt are both professional artists and grand-aunt is an art collector), she knew little of the possibilities and opportunities of what the museum sector entailed. It wasn’t until her junior year at the University of South Florida, when her painting class took a field trip to the University’s Contemporary Museum – which, by the way, she nor a few of her classmates knew existed –, that Jordia learned how empowering and uplifting simply feeling welcomed in a space dedicated to the arts could be.
Feeling welcomed in a space dedicated to the arts was important to her, especially as she remained on the outside margins of the sector until then. Realizing that, Jordia returned to the Museum and sought out mentors. With the help of those mentors, she wanted to make her experience finding peace and comfort in the Museum something that all students at the University of South Florida could find too. Event after event, and exhibition after exhibition, Jordia introduced her friends and peers to the Museum and saw it transform into a space for gathering and self-growth. When graduation finally came, she knew that she was not done transforming spaces and improving her peer’s relationships with the arts.
In the years that followed, Jordia went on to complete a master’s degree in Nonprofit Management with a graduate certificate in Public Administration from the University of Central Florida and a Certified Nonprofit Professional (CNP) by the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance while becoming the assistant educational officer (and later the education officer) at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. From there she continued to explore the sector and became the 21st Romare Bearden Graduate Minority Fellow at the Saint Louis Art Museum. She found learning opportunities in each experience and in each day. When the opportunity to return to a college art museum arose in 2016 at the Colby College Museum of Art, Jordia enthusiastically packed up her things and transplanted her life, herself, and later her husband, too, to the small town of Waterville, Maine. I first met Jordia at a Student Advisory Board meeting on one of her first days at the Colby College Museum of Art. Over the countless conversations and interactions that have since followed, Jordia has left a remarkable impact on me personally and I can confidently say the same is true for all those work with her, learn from her, and listen to her.
This February, while we were catching up, I asked Jordia if she would be willing to share her story and passions for making the arts something accessible and meaningful for all with Superstars of Culture. The generous individual that she is, she eagerly said yes. Here is a bit from the discussion that followed:
Your story with museums in many ways begins in undergraduate, if I recall. What was your first museum experience like? And why was it so impactful?
As an undergraduate I was a double major in art history and studio art. One day in my junior year, my painting class, we were going to meet in the Museum. I still remember I needed to ask around about said Museum. Honestly, I was like museum? What museum? So I met up with a few classmates who were in the same boat and we bounded together. When I walked in, the tour was led by the then Deputy Director, Alexa Favata. And she, well she just really drew me in. She spoke with such passion that immediately after that class I went back to the Museum and spoke with her. I told her I was a part of that painting class and that I didn't really know what they did there but that I wanted to be a part of it. And to my luck she took me under her wing. She made sure I applied and received a museum internship. I also had a work-study position and even volunteered a bit after graduation. In that work-study position -- it was designed like a program coordinator position --, my biggest goal was to bring more students into the Museum. That felt important to me as a student who was in the arts, studying the arts, and not even aware that we had a Museum. So I worked to find entry points across campus to funnel students to the Museum. I found creative ways for the Museum to be represented within the campus community.
What brought you to the middle-of-nowhere (relatively!) Maine?
After working in a national gallery, state museum, foundation and even for a brief time an art gallery/auction house, I started to reflect on my college experience, actually, and what drew me to the arts. That initial introduction to the arts and that initial "ah I found it, I found my niche." I realized I wanted to make sure other students found that too. I wanted to be able to introduce them to something that might be an "aha" moment for them. You know, someone gave that to me, and I would make it my mission to give that to others. So I affirmed that I wanted to work on a college campus and be able to interact with students while still working for a community base and have an opportunity for teaching as well. After applying to jobs that fit those criteria, Colby just happened to be on that list. And so I accepted to come to Colby and it has been everything that I could have imagined.
What is it like to work with the Student Advisory Board to the Colby College Museum of Art? Does it bring back memories of your own experience?
It totally does. The members of the Board are way ahead of where I was. I work with them and am like wow! They are so insightful. They are aware of opportunities and they are aware of ways to expand the Museum's reach... It is only more inspiring for me because if they know all of this it makes me think: how else can we make this experience enjoyable? Where else do they need to be pushed or challenged that they aren't thinking about right now? How can I make sure this Board is beyond their expectations?
If you could go back in time and tell yourself something about the possibilities in the arts and where your passions could go, what would you say?
It's more than what you think. That would probably be my line. I really had no clear expectations, or goals. Now I see that there is no roof, there is no limit. The possibilities are pretty much endless. So to my younger self I would say it's more than what you think. Even after 10 years working in the sector, there's still more out there. The concept of a museum, too, it's more than what you think. It's more than just a four-walled structure. It's more.
What has been the most rewarding part of working in the arts and mentoring others?
The best part has been traveling. Traveling and engaging with other artists and other educators. Seeing how they are with their communities. With their audiences. It has been rewarding to see what everyone else is doing. Exposure, it's just great. The more you are exposed, the more you are enlightened by what else is outside of your bubble, makes you more receptive to change, to different viewpoints, to different perspectives. It pushes you. And all of that trickles down to my work and to the community I serve.
What legacy do you hope to impart?
I hope to make the non-museum-goer a museum-goer. That they feel comfortable in an environment that they may have once thought was not for them. And getting people who may not necessarily have an art background to feel comfortable seeking out the arts. That has always been my goal and I have always measured success by that, even in college.
Superstar snapshot: Jordia Benjamin
Superstar strength: bringing communities together
Superstar secret talent: being a quiet observer
Superstar noteworthy quote: "let go or be dragged" (Jordia's personal work/life mantra)
(photo credits: Jordia Benjamin)