Newswise — "I didn't grow up going to museums; they were not on my radar socially," says Sonoma State University alumna Sandra Jackson-Dumont.
"I thought of them as a place I could get a glass of water when we played at Golden Gate Park," she adds, recalling San Francisco's sprawling 1,017-acre park that includes the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and the California Academy of Sciences as well as gardens, lakes, sculptures and monuments.
"I didn't understand; I hadn't been told why these places were important."
That makes it all the more remarkable to learn that the San Francisco native now serves as the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
With an illustrious career that includes stints at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Seattle Art Museum, Jackson-Dumont is as strong an advocate for museums and the influence of these institutions as one could imagine.
47 Miles and a World of Difference
There was little hint of a career in the arts or education when Jackson-Dumont was a teenager. One of five children, she was one of only two to have graduated from high school.
"Despite being involved with pre-college programs like Upward Bound, dance classes and church groups, I only saw myself going to a city college, getting a job and making a living," she remembers. "I had a lot of exposure to programs, but I didn't have that practical knowledge of how to get into a university. That just wasn't a part of my daily life."
A seemingly small moment changed things. While working a high school summer job at a local movie theater, Jackson-Dumont watched a group of black college students arrive to see Spike Lee's "School Daze."
"I thought they were so fly and so confident," she remembers. It was enough to motivate her to want to go to college herself, and with the encouragement of a high school teacher she applied to Sonoma State, planning to study biology.
The 18-year-old city kid was immediately taken with the campus, set at the foot of the rolling Sonoma Mountains.
"One of the most amazing moments for me was coming from a very urban environment in San Francisco and catching the bus 47 miles to Sonoma State," says Jackson-Dumont. "I saw the stars for the first time and understood the importance of the presence of nature in your life."
She also found a welcoming, supportive community. Sonoma State's Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) had a particularly big impact on her. "I feel very blessed that the faculty took an interest in me," she says. "I was very much a student organizer and leader, but at the same time I felt recessive. I felt unsure of myself at the time."
She remembers a particular time when Deborah Blue, Ph.D., a speech and language pathologist, stepped in to offer extra help to the new student. "Dr. Blue noticed that I had a bit of a lisp and I remember her speaking to me about what appeared to be a self-esteem issue because of that lisp," recalls Jackson-Dumont.
"When you think about it, that super-simple gesture set me up for success."
A Year Immersed in Art
As a child, Jackson-Dumont had been in community theater and dance productions infused by big questions about history, race and politics; it was her first experience of how art can teach new ideas and make them relevant and compelling.
As a freshman at Sonoma State, though, she took things to a new level, using art to create posters and fliers in her work as an avid activist and organizer on campus.
Still, she only ever saw her art as a hobby. "I was always really creative, but I just saw that as extracurricular," says Jackson-Dumont, who was honored by Sonoma State as a Distinguished Alumnus in 2014. "Nobody ever told me you could make a living as an artist or arts professional."
It was a chance to study in New York City her junior year at the CSU that ultimately transformed not just her future career but her very outlook on life.
"I have to say, I look back at my experience at Sonoma State and I am blown away by the gifts the university gave me, primarily affordability and accessibility," she says. "I found out that if I wanted to be an activist or an impactful human being I could do it — and I did," she explains.
Jackson-Dumont spent the year immersing herself in the city's art scene and finding herself particularly drawn to black artists and cultural workers.
While in New York, she also took an internship at Studio Museum in Harlem, where she met a host of dynamic and generous people of color who worked in the fields of education and art history. Just as she had in high school, Jackson-Dumont saw a connection for herself and made the decision to follow in their footsteps, immediately changing her major to art history with a minor in studio art upon her return to Sonoma State.
The 21-year-old had found the passion that would inform her work and her life for decades to come: education through art.
She graduated from Sonoma State in 1994 — the first in her family to earn a college degree — and went on to earn a master's in art history from Howard University in 1996.
Not long after, she started work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Later roles at the Studio Museum in Harlem; as an adjunct faculty member at Rhode Island School of Design, New York University and University of Washington; and the Seattle Art Museum followed before her arrival at the Met in 2014.
Art at the Center of Everything
"Museums have this history that has been presented as elitist or hierarchical … as places where people don't see themselves," says Jackson-Dumont, echoing the thoughts of her childhood self.
But, she stresses, "museums have the potential to be powerful places. The work I am doing is about creating museums as a cultural commons ripe for a dynamic exchange of ideas about pressing issues of concern, personally and collectively. If they haven't been looked at that way in the past, they need to be looked at that way in the future."
Part of her work is in helping to ensure that that those who don't have ready access to art — or even see the value of museums — have experiences that could change their minds. And that means reaching a wide, diverse range of people.
It's work with roots in her time as an undergraduate involved in the campus's EOP and Summer Bridge programs, she says. "Sonoma State really represented this amazing opportunity to start thinking about diversity, bias awareness and inclusion and how we nurture safer spaces," she reflects.
"I just love the fact that there has never been a movement in the world that has not had artist and culture at the center of it," Jackson-Dumont says. "It is literally everything around us."
While her role in heading up education at the 147-year-old Met may range from performances and scholarship to community engagement and fundraising, the goal is always the same: to curate experiences that create a path to critical thinking, self-reflection and creative practice for everyone, regardless of age or background.
"I want folks to find museums irresistible and necessary to healthy communities," she adds. "I believe people understand the importance of art and culture.
"In many cases, folks just don't understand how to use museums outside of school … If we invest in making museums feel like the spaces are an extension of people's lives rather than a tourist destination, I believe that museums will have a greater cadre of cultural ambassadors."
There's nothing Jackson-Dumont finds more thrilling than witnessing people finding themselves in works of art.
"That moment when people realize they can connect with others in new ways or they learn something new about themselves — that moment is everything."