Though it's not visible over over the phone, I can hear Jeremy Mikolajczak's smile as he wishes me good morning, apologizes for calling so early—it's 9 a.m., Arizona time—and asks if I've had my coffee yet. Mikolajczak, who currently resides in Miami, is about to leave his post as excutive director and chief curator of the Miami Dade College Museum of Art + Design to lead the Tucson Museum of Art. He's eager to discuss his plans for TMA's bright, culturally-inclusive and generation-bridging future.
You're in the process of moving from Miami to Tucson, which is going to be a pretty significant change, city-wise. Are you excited?
Absolutely—both my wife and I are so excited to become part of the Tucson community. We had such a great experience the last time we were there. I got to meet the [Tucson Museum of Art] board and a handful of staff members, and we also got to search the city. It was both our first times there ... It was really wonderful to explore downtown and explore the mountains a bit before we left.
How did you initially get into the arts?
I think I've always been a lifelong art-lover in many ways, and it wasn't until very early on in my career I really got into arts administration and my interest in cultural organizations. I started out like many museum professionals—as an artist. I was a painter for many years and I have always kind of hampered the line between cultural facilitator and visual artist. Actually, part of my master's degree was technically in visual arts, but I've always been interested in the way that cultural institutions have been managed and run, and how they serve a purpose in the community. I believe wholeheartedly in those aspects—that they do bridge and connect and bring people together, but they also have a way of sort of setting a pace for the community, and they can do many great things.
Do you think your work at Miami Dade College connected Miami's diverse community?
Yes. What we've been able to do with this institution is find en-routes into [minority] communities and find exhibitions, find programs, find artists that [the community] feels part of ... We've been able to maintain that level of inclusiveness and that level of access to this institution. That's my own personal mission, and that of the TMA—that this institution feels acceptable for all.
Tucson is a pretty diverse place, too—we have a large Hispanic population, and thus a strong connection to our Mexican roots. How do you plan to create inclusiveness at TMA for our many different cultural groups?
I mean, from my standpoint of being here [in Miami], we have a very strong connection to the Latin scene as well. We obviously have a strong Cuban community—we're the Ellis Island of the Cuban population, the Cuban exile community. [It's] very important that we serve that role and that purpose ... Looking specifically at Tucson, it's going to be finding ways to create programs, explore artists and exhibitions, work with Julie Sasse and Christine Brindza, great curators at the museum, to find ways to reflect the culture that's there—to find ways to connect with them. There's a level of inclusion that needs to happen in all institutions, and it's a challenge in all museums today because there's been such an emphasis on European history. Now we need to expand that, we need to change so that [TMA] is a direct reflection of the community.
So, as we look to the future, we need to look at what is the next millennium. What is the next group that will come through, and how do we connect with them? How do we reach them?
You said you want to advance TMA into a "groundbreaking, 21st-century museum." Can you elaborate on that?
I think inclusiveness is part of it, but also being able to connect generationally. I think what's really interesting is finding ways that museums connect with millennials, and even the younger generations. You know, museums have to change—they can't be sort of these static boxes that are houses for historical art only.
What's really great about the TMA and Tucson is that they're progressive enough that these sort of swift changes can happen in a sort of concentrated way. And when it comes to looking at what a 21st-century institution is, you have to experiment. You have to provide access. And that's something I hope to bring to the community. On top of that, I hope to reach out to like-minded individuals and cultural institutions to find collaborations and partnerships so that we can build the region as much as we can build our individual institution.
What about art impassions you most?
I think art has an ability to tell a story, and art has the ability to be a universal for all. I think that's really important ... Art is becoming the bridge; culture is becoming the bridge in the dialogue. Art doesn't know divisions, it doesn't know race, gender equality—it doesn't know those aspects, but it starts a conversation. And that's what's really important and what's really engaging about art—that it has that ability.