Starting a job is always difficult, but beginning at a newly conceptualized position that no one has ever held before in the midst of a pandemic is on another level entirely.
That’s just the situation Jessica May is in after starting earlier this month as managing director of art and exhibitions for the Trustees of Reservations as well as artistic director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. May’s appointment marks another step in the three-year project of merging the deCordova with the Trustees, a Boston-based land preservation trust with properties statewide.
“I have admired this program because [of] the way the Trustees have so brilliantly folded together multiple historic and contemporary arts programs,” said May, 43, in a recent Zoom call. “To me, there’s both the practical kind of innovation of the Trustees’ model, but there’s also this other side of this broader kind of conservation and care ethic.”
The integration of the two nonprofits was first proposed by museum leaders in 2018 because of the deCordova’s financial struggles. Former deCordova executive director John Ravenal helped shepherd the merger before leaving his post last year.
The integration was approved in 2019 by the town of Lincoln, which retains ownership of the museum and park, and it was determined that the deCordova would maintain a distinct identity and nonprofit status while coming under the umbrella of the larger Trustees organization.
“[The Trustees] communicate really well with the leadership of the town. They seek our involvement and input when contemplating any program changes or property improvements and I can really say that, to date, they’ve stayed true to the intent of Julian de Cordova’s will and have really understood the culture and values of the town of Lincoln,” said James Craig, a Lincoln selectman and negotiator in the agreement between the deCordova and the Trustees.
The deCordova’s changing identity and organizational structure was spurred by financial troubles because of “declining attendance, [a] small endowment, increased operating expenses, and the loss of significant annual gifts,” Craig said. But the move also arrives at a time when small and midsize museums across the country are adapting to new and evolving demands concerning how museums should function in their communities.
However, the deCordova’s situation remains unique, and not one the Trustees hopes to see replicated.
“We don’t have a museum acquisition strategy. We don’t want any other museum to have to be in a place where they need to be part of an integration,” said Matt Montgomery, the Trustees’ chief of marketing and audience development.
Now, with May taking over leadership of the museum, a new chapter is beginning for both institutions.
“From my perspective, we are looking at a museum environment where there are fewer and fewer ways to succeed, and the headwinds against particularly small museums — which are so vital to communities all over this country — are incredibly fierce,” May said. “It’s a really exciting job for me for a whole host of reasons, but really at its core it’s about thinking through what a museum can be and how a museum can thrive in our culture.”
The deCordova is not the first museum acquired by the Trustees. In 2016, the organization merged with the Fruitlands Museum in the town of Harvard. Montgomery said that he sees these acquisitions as a necessary extension of the Trustees’ mission to preserve historic land and natural resources in Massachusetts.
“The plans for expansion are really about continuing to ensure that art and culture are a part of the Trustees’ work,” Montgomery said. May’s position is in part meant to help strengthen this new arts and culture arm of the Trustees organization while making the museum’s resources more broadly accessible to communities served by the Trustees.
May’s position also emphasizes the unity of the deCordova and Trustees organizations through her oversight not just of the deCordova, but of all the Trustees’ art holdings. May has administrative oversight of all exhibitions at any of the Trustees’ more than 100 sites across the state. That includes Fruitlands.
“My mandate is to offer a compelling vision for the Trustees as an organization with a deep and passionate commitment to arts and artists’ legacies,” May said. “I think that we will be able to serve most effectively if we serve as one voice with many registers.”
As a result of the merger, the deCordova no longer has an individual website and is now entirely hosted by the Trustees’ site. The original deCordova URL now links to the Trustees’ site.
Despite this shift from the more traditional model of a director having oversight over only one museum and its collections, both May and Montgomery maintain that the deCordova will not lose any more aspects of its individual identity.
“I have never heard one person talk about pulling resources from the organization,” May said. “Instead, it’s, ‘How can we support its team and its mission?’”
Montgomery emphasized the expanded resources and reach of each institution — the deCordova in its ability to exhibit across Massachusetts and the Trustees in its strengthened and reimagined art collections.
“I think it provides an opportunity for both organizations to expand the type of work that we do. For us, it’s about having the opportunity to have someone like Jessica May join the team and think about our historic collections in a different way and also continue to uplift our contemporary art program,” Montgomery said. “For the deCordova, there’s this opportunity to work beyond the boundaries of [its] campus.”
Before coming to the deCordova and the Trustees, May worked at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, as the chief curator from 2012 until 2020. While the New Mexico native currently lives in South Portland with her wife, Karen Bala, director of design at Dyer Brown Architects, and their son, Noah, 11, she and her family are in the process of relocating to Cambridge.
“Jessica has a great ability to share her love of art with others. She is extremely dedicated to the field of museums and art history and is a wonderful public speaker,” said Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art. “She is well versed in the arts of New England and is a leader in a field that has much work to do confronting racial injustice.”
Going forward, May said she wants the deCordova to be a space that invites visitors to think about their relationship with the land as well as with art.
“I want that building to feel like the most open and inviting place. When you walk in, I want you to exhale,” May said. “So for me, creating a building environment where it feels like the art is working with individuals and feels like it is full of art is super important.”