How One Museum Transformed Constraints Into An Award-Winning Exhibition


Springfield Museum of Art


Community Engagement
Local and Global Issues

The Opportunity

Springfield Museum of Art (SMoA) in Springfield, Ohio, is led by a team of only 4 full-time and 10 part-time staff. But Jessimi Jones, Director, believes their smaller size and the constraints that come with that have enabled them to take advantage of new opportunities and think differently about what it looks like to share institutional authority with the community.

This shift in thinking opened the doors to a 2021 state-wide award for Best Exhibition from the Ohio Museums Association, new corporate partnerships, and new opportunities for the museum to put its values around community collaboration into practice.
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The (Shared) Vision

The idea for the award-winning 2021 exhibition BLACK LIFE as subject MATTER II did not come from Springfield. A point that Jessimi Jones takes pride in. 

The SMoA team develops and seeks out exhibitions on its own, but with such a small team, they are also open to taking proposals from the community. And in 2020, Jessimi and her team received a proposal for Willis “Bing” Davis’ BLACK LIFE as subject MATTER II. Davis, a celebrated Ohio artist, educator, curator, activist, and community leader had submitted the proposal to every museum in Ohio. SMoA is the only one that responded. Davis’ exhibition views all aspects of the Black experience- joy, pain, sorrow, visions, and hopes for today and tomorrow-  as valid subject matter for creative expression. The SMoA team knew this work was critically important and wanted to create the space and the platform to amplify these stories.

The Process


Sharing Power

The Institute for Museum and Libraries (IMLS) issued a report on Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills Though produced over a decade ago, this report deeply resonated with Jessimi, mainly emphasizing the impact of co-creating content and of sharing power and authority in communities. She wanted to operationalize this idea in her team’s work with Davis. So what did it look like to share power?
  • Instead of hosting all meetings with Davis at the museum and asking him to come to their office, Jessimi and her team traveled to his studio and gallery . 
  • Jessimi and her team deeply engaged Davis as the leader in this process from start to finish. They developed outcomes together, asking him, “What would make you feel proud when this is complete?” And they worked with him to generate programming that could complement the exhibition.
  • After completing the exhibition, Jessimi’s team sat down with Davis to gather feedback about his experience and what would have improved it. They have since applied those lessons to other projects. 
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The Exhibit

The exhibition featured 59 works by 32 African American artists across Ohio. Each piece of art provides insight, understanding, and appreciation of Black life as a worthy subject matter for artistic expression. 

The curation of the exhibition also provides insight into Jessimi’s commitment to shared power. The 32 artists showcased in  BLACK LIFE as subject MATTER II represented a range of ages and years of experience. Other museums might have chosen to curate more selectively to maintain a more traditional or institutional sense of “quality,” but Jessimi and her team valued and respected that Davis selected each piece for important reasons.. Additionally, Davis believed the artists’ statements should be in the artists’ voices and not a curatorial interpretation. Some museums might have pushed back on this, but the SMoA team was committed to supporting Davis and his vision and strongly agreed this was an important feature of the exhibition. In a literal response to valuing each artist’s voice, the team recorded willing artists and provided QR codes in the gallery, and on the city bus ads, for the exhibition so visitors could hear the artists speak about their works.
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Alongside the exhibit, SMoA launched a Community Conversations series that brought people together to reflect on and discuss the topics of race and bias that emerged from the exhibition. The sessions leveraged the Talking about Race website from the National Museum of African American History & Culture. For each event they included an artist from the exhibition, a community leader and a humanities scholar to help facilitate dialogue. Over 200 people attended these conversations and came from all over Ohio.

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The Results

The exhibit itself was a massive success. BLACK LIFE as subject MATTER II was awarded the 2021 Best Exhibition in Ohio from The Ohio Museums Association. Museums from all over the state sought to bring the exhibition to their museum, which was thrilling to Davis and the SMoA team, whose goal was to amplify Davis’ story and vision.

This exhibition also opened the doors to new partnerships and opportunities for SMoA. One of the Community Conversations series attendees was a leader in the design department of the beauty care division of Procter & Gamble. After her experience, she wanted to bring this conversation to her team, which led to a more significant collaboration and workshop with P&G, Central State University, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Cincinnati. 

Another attendee was a young entrepreneur who wanted to host a museum event celebrating black creativity and excellence. The event was so successful- bringing together more than 150 people- that SMoA has partnered with the young entrepreneur to host the event for a second year which brought in over 350 attendees, and now that entrepreneur has been  appointed to the Museum’s board as a trustee beginning in 2024.

Jessimi Jones was thrilled about the exhibition’s success for Davis and her team. But what was most exciting to her was the prospect of putting values into practice- sharing power, rethinking the museum’s role in the community, and transforming constraints into opportunity.
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The Toolkit

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Talking About Race

The National Museum of African American History & Culture partnered with Smithsonian Institution to generate a robust toolkit focused on supporting communities in having difficult but important conversations. Check out the Talking About Race resources.

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21st-Century Museums

IMLS Report on 21st-century Museums, Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills, had a significant impact on the way Springfield thought about innovating their organization and their programming. Read the report here!

We’d love to hear from you!

Do you have a powerful story of successful community engagement or hiring and onboarding? Do you want to connect and learn more about community engagement resources and supports?

Reach out to your National Outreach Manager. They’d love to connect and share ideas!
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