Columbus Museum of Art's Nannette Maciejunes reflects on a tumultuous year and looks ahead

CMA's executive director finds inspiration in art and humanity as the financially beleaguered institution charts an optimistic path forward

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art

Last week, Columbus Museum of Art executive director Nannette Maciejunes sat in the museum’s mostly empty café and noticed a mother with her toddler. The little one was learning to walk, taking three or four steps, stumbling, getting back up, then trying again. Over and over and over. Watching the scene play out, Maciejunes couldn’t help but think about the struggles of the past year. 

"You don't have to encourage a child to learn to walk. It’s inborn. The mother was tired of cheering before the child was tired of trying. … This drive that human beings have to adapt and creatively solve problems is just amazing. There's been so much loss and so much grief, and yet human beings figure they've got to keep going. They've got to figure out a way to thrive,” Maciejunes said recently by phone. “That's the human story, and I think it's quite awe-inspiring that we manage to do it — to get through.” 

Early on in the pandemic, Maciejunes was focused mostly on the museum’s survival, taking whatever steps were necessary to keep the museum safe and financially sound. And while life at the museum isn’t back to pre-pandemic normalcy yet, the organization is also in a far different place than it was a year ago. For Maciejunes, it’s a good time for reflection.

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“What did you learn that you want to integrate into your practice in an ongoing way? I think that's where a lot of the thinking is right now,” she said. 

The museum is offering some in-person programming at the moment. Earlier this month, CMA brought back BAM (Bar, Art and Music) Thursdays, and tonight (Thursday, April 22) Art in Bloom kicks off, with a Friday "Art of Style" talk featuring Carson Kressley. Maciejunes looks forward to adding more events in the coming months, but she also said the museum will likely continue to integrate remote options.

“Online programming, which we knew was coming along, has taken a big leap into the future and isn't going to go away entirely. … I think this new blend of both remote and in-person is going to be something that has a lasting impact,” she said. “We want to continue to bring great contemporary artists here to Columbus. But also, having artists that might be willing to do it on a Zoom from their studio creates a much larger pool of artists that our audience can engage with.” 

After the racial justice reckoning in the past year, Maciejunes also has a new urgency around diversity and inclusion work at the museum. "We were already doing work that I'm proud of, but what hits you in the face is the urgency of this. No one has done enough,” said Maciejunes, who realized much of that work stayed bottled up in the museum’s education section. “The Learning Department, they were really on it, but it had not become institutionalized the way it should — moving from welcoming people to making sure people feel they belong at your institution.” 

“Everybody is exhausted, because you just feel like this year has been forever,” she continued. “But at the same time, there's this new capacity to address systemic issues and to approach them in new ways.” 

In that way, the museum’s current exhibition, “Raggin’ On: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s House and Journals,” couldn’t come at a better time (the show will remain on view through early October). "[Robinson] was an incredible artist. She asked us to look at so much. She asked us to reconsider our world again and again, believing that we could be a better country, a better world,” Maciejunes said. “Her work continually revisits that, and so to see this retrospective is extraordinary.”  

The pandemic pause also gave the museum the opportunity to reinstall some of its collection in a new way, providing a fresh look at the works, with new juxtapositions that will spark new conversations.  

For all the silver linings, though, Maciejunes doesn’t underplay the devastating impact of the pandemic. In the fall, the museum reduced its budget by a third, including layoffs of 40 museum staffers. And since June, the building has been operating at reduced capacity with social distancing measures in place. The museum’s fiscal year ends on June 30, and Maciejunes estimates CMA will be down about $2 million. In all likelihood, the financial aftershocks of the pandemic will continue.  

But the public still seems to value art. Recently, a museum member called Maciejunes to ask if even a $50 donation would help. (It would.) “Art can really play an integral role in helping us move forward as a world,” she said. “Artists help us ask the questions. Artists help us look at other stories.”