Jessica Levin Martinez, the new Johnson Museum of Art director, among one of the building’s many displays.

Jessica Levin Martinez, the new Johnson Museum of Art director, among one of the building’s many displays. 

One of the area’s most prominent museums, the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, has a new leader as Jessica Levin Martinez arrived in July with goals of using the museum as a platform for community and relationship-building.

According to a press release at the time of her selection, Martinez is the fourth head of the museum since it opened in 1973. She is succeeding Stephanie Wiles, who left the post in July 2018 to take a job at the Yale University Art Gallery. Martinez has a full background of art and museum experience, as she has worked as an educator and administrator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art before moving back to her alma mater Harvard University to oversee teaching and research operations in museums on the campus.

“I think everything that we do here at the Johnson Museum of Art is really about teaching, learning and outreach,” Martinez said. “If you take that perspective on the collection, really bringing it to life and putting it to work for everybody, then it’s a place full of great works of art that are also incredible teaching tools.”

To use the art as teaching tools, Martinez said, is to use it as a spring board for new questions and discussions. She sees the Johnson Museum as a place that can serve plenty of different roles in the community, eschewing the stereotype of stuffy, staid art museum. In so many words, Martinez seems to believe that the Johnson Museum can be whatever the person who is visiting wants it to be.

“I see the museum as a place for research, but also for respite,” Martinez said. “It works on two vectors. It’s a place for deep thinking and critical looking at works of art. But it’s also a place for delight and discovery, seeing new things and meeting new people.”

It’s the variety of work in the Johnson Museum that seems to appeal most to Martinez; she said her favorite aspect of walking through the exhibits is the “serendipity” of stumbling upon something unexpected and having it impact her in a new way. Her philosophy on youth involvement might ensure the frequency of that feeling, as she believes that engaging students is crucial to keeping the museum fresh. She emphasized that much in her introductory statements, where she talked about promoting inclusivity of voices that might not normally be listened to in the typical museum environment.

“Museums are changing rapidly, they’ve changed more in the last five years than in the last 50,” she said during an interview. “If we’re really going to get the future of museums right, we’re going to have to listen to what students want from museums and the kinds of tough questions they’re asking of museums.”

Part of that is going to be stepping aside, Martinez said, and letting younger people set the tone at times so they can take some ownership of the experience. 

Currently, the exhibit Martinez is most excited about is a video installation called “Vertigo Sea,” part of “how the light gets in,” which looks at global migration through the eyes of nearly 60 different artists, ranging in ages and backgrounds. 

The entire exhibit can be seen on Sept. 12 at the museum’s opening reception for the fall season, held 5-7 p.m.

In order to show the installation, Martinez said the museum constructed its own mini-theater for viewings. It’s a taste of some of the African influences that surely permeate from Martinez’s background in that genre, though she is sure to reiterate that she wants to embrace art from anywhere in the globe.

Of course, there are slightly different demands for museum educators when on a college campus, especially as those venues tend to cater to a very wide audience: students, teachers, community members, etc. That means there’s a balance that must be struck to appeal to all sides, something Martinez hopes to achieve by fostering the museum as a place where the community can come to not only maintain their previously-formed relationships (with each other or with the museum itself) but build new ones as well.

“Museum educators think about communities broadly defined,” Martinez said. “So we want the Johnson Museum of Art to celebrate those relationships and be a place where the community can come together.”

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