Instilling Resilience Through Art at Colby College
Introducing: Jordia Benjamin. She’s the Mirken Senior Coordinator of Audience Engagement at the Colby College Museum of Art.
What’s in the job description, you ask? Jordia focuses on the museum’s public programming—the many events and outreach opportunities that get planned, offered, and coordinated every year. Some of these are what might be expected, such as talks, tours, and openings, while some are more innovative approaches designed to make the museum a true community asset.
In other words, Jordia Benjamin is in the business of making connections. The goal? For the Colby College Museum of Art to be interactive—in-touch in a meaningful way with its two main audiences: the academic community of Colby (including students, faculty and staff) and the greater Waterville community. With Jordia and her team on the job, the museum is not an isolated and remote entity. It is part of a strong network, alive with teaching and learning opportunities.
As you can imagine, this work has taken on a new life since COVID-19. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we all interact and gather. Luckily, and with foresight and good sense, Jordia has been creating resilience in the museum since starting at Colby in 2016.
In the pre-pandemic era, she was busy laying the groundwork for the museum’s current outreach programs. She focused on making and strengthening connections with local community members, small business owners, and folks in other towns around Maine.
Simultaneously, she was ahead of the curve when considering online programming, designed to reach a wider audience. Recognizing that the museum’s location in Waterville made for a long commute for many potential visitors, she aimed to expand the reach of the outreach.
Being a liberal arts college in a rural Maine town meant getting creative when it came to engaging people and weaving together the area’s co-existing communities. Inspired by Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, Jordia has been devising ways to entice people into the museum, especially people who might otherwise not have felt connected to the institution.
One example of this expansive approach is the Let Art Inspire wellness initiative. It promotes events like Artful Movements, a collaboration with School Street Yoga that provides free yoga classes inspired by artworks in the museum’s collection.
Jordia has also coordinated movie nights at Railroad Square Cinema, working with the theatre staff to choose films that reflect themes presented in the museum’s exhibitions. And there’s the popular multimedia program Visual Art + Conversation, engaging museum staff, faculty members, and guest speakers to discuss a variety of fascinating and contemporary topics with their audiences in innovative ways.
While the movie nights have been postponed for now, the rest of the programming has turned towards virtual connection. October’s Artful Movements has over 7,000 views online, for example. And the Colby College Museum has been working with Waterville Creates!, the Kennebec Montessori School, and Waterville Public Schools to make Art Kits for All, an effort designed in response to the pandemic to help keep families engaged and entertained at home by providing free art supplies and instructions for art projects.
In the midst of such challenging times, Benjamin is asking hard questions about what it means for an art museum to be truly engaged with the local community. She told me, “Museums are often seen as the cultural gatekeepers, but when we let that role go, we’re able to work on the same level, be united, and be more effective.”
Art is in Jordia’s DNA. She was born and raised in the Bahamas, and her aunt, Dionne Benjamin Smith, and uncle, Jolyon Smith—both artists—were influential. Her childhood was spent in fascination of the paintings and sculptures hung throughout her grandfather’s home.
When we discussed the Venn Diagram that exists between her birthplace, an archipelago that many would call an “island paradise,” and her current home in Vacationland, she said, “There are more similarities than differences . . . There is town knowledge, and the pride that folks have in their local surroundings. The ability to know everyone and build these close networks of support—I understood that language immediately.”
She continues, “There’s a saying on the island, ‘We live where you vacation,’ and it’s the same thing here. It’s resilience. Even though we’re in much different places [in relation to the equator], nature can be grueling. It’s got gorgeous benefits and breathtaking scenery, but it also has a harshness to it. On the islands, we have hurricanes year after year. That’s when you see the overwhelming strength of unity. And here in Maine when the power is out or the snow is up to the top of your door, you need to depend on others to shovel you out. We all need one another, especially in times of crisis. No one is an island.”
It’s from this perspective that she aspires to bring local knowledge, history, and culture into the museum, tipping her hat towards greater Waterville’s tapestry of multicultural heritage, which includes a strong lineage of Wabanaki, Franco-American, and Lebanese peoples.
Before coming to Maine, Jordia was awarded a fellowship at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2014. It was there that she worked with Renee Brummell Franklin, the renowned Director of Audience Development. Through this mentorship, among others, Benjamin honed her knowledge of how to create bridges with the community and fresh, inviting entry points into the art museum. She connects with people who may not yet feel a strong pull towards the arts or the museums that house them.
This work means weaving together a constellation of ideas, activities, and forms. Are you interested in activities relating to health and wellness? Perhaps you’d like your yoga with a side of Surrealism. Do you enjoy canoeing? Fashion? Jordia coordinated a Wabanaki led canoe trip and a fashion show, both events to coincide with the museum’s 2019 exhibition, Wíwənikan . . . the beauty we carry, which featured contemporary art by First Nations people of Maine and Maritime Canada.
In addition to the planning and coordination of events and outreach, Jordia has been helping to instill resilience in the student body of Colby College. As a mentor, she sees students who come to the museum with light, dedication, and passion—qualities that Jordia calls the “secret sauce.”
She’s the staff advisor for the museum’s Student Advisory Board and teaches a course titled “Citizenship and Community.” Through the lens of art, students are learning to engage with their community. They create partnerships and work collaboratively in Waterville, and, as they move on to new locations, they will have the foundational wisdom to consider who is already a part of their new community, what groups might be reached, and the benefits of inclusiveness.
In Jordia’s world, these skills are profoundly related to the role of art and artists during this tumultuous social and environmental landscape. As she put it, referencing Nina Simone, “An artist’s duty [. . . ] is to reflect the times. It’s their choice, but I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty.” And she sees that the museum can amplify the work of the artist and be relevant and essential, as we deal with the most pressing issues of our time.
Museums in general are shifting towards a more expansive future and away from an archaic past of stolen artifacts and misrepresented histories. A recent Colby Museum exhibition of Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke featured art that deals with issues of the environment, globalism, and colonial histories, while taking artistic form as beautifully ornate sculptures, paintings, drawings, and installations. Jordia said about the topic, “Art can ignite conversation. It can break down our subconscious walls which limit us from interacting with or getting to know others from different backgrounds.”
For all of this dedicated work of spinning intricate webs of connection and opportunity, Jordia is finding inspiration within Maine. She celebrates the work of Indigo Arts Alliance in Portland, an organization that supports artists of color in a city that has an increasingly diverse population. She also recognizes Wabanaki REACH, which advocates for Wabanaki self-determination by strengthening the cultural, spiritual, and physical well-being of Native people in Maine. On the national stage, Jordia is looking at socially engaged artists like Theaster Gates and Maya Lin, both of whom have had a relationship with the college in recent years, and organizations like For Freedoms, MassAction, and ChangeTheMuseum.
Jordia Benjamin’s own “secret sauce” does not go unnoticed. Her colleague Miriam Valle-Mancilla, the Linde Family Foundation Coordinator of Academic Access at the museum, wrote, “Jordia embodies #BlackGirlMagic; in my eyes, she’s one of the most influential beings I have encountered in Maine. . . She is a visionary and really exemplifies leadership in a motivational and inspirational role, not only for me but also for other young people of color.”
Jordia radiates a warm, confident, and inspiring presence, even from under her mask. Because of Jordia Benjamin’s dedication and expertise, Colby, Waterville, and Maine continue to become a more expansive, informed and, yes, resilient community.
Questions and Answers with Jordia Benjamin
Q: Three people, dead or alive, at a dinner party?
A: Shirley Chisholm, Prince, Aretha Franklin
Q: Who would play you in your biopic movie?
A: Yara Shahidi
A: Teleportation or a Rogue/Mystique hybrid (the ability to touch something and become that thing)