So how did Johnston end up as the new director of an art museum in the “wee town” of LaGrange?
“I’ve been asked that a lot, by almost everyone I meet,” said the 40-year-old art historian, who took the helm at LaGrange Art Museum on Jan. 3.
Credit an increasingly small world - and LaGrange’s charm.
As director of the Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown, a Craigavon borough town similar in size to LaGrange, Johnston served on its sister city board. Last year she met LaGrange delegates Margaret Ross and Ray Coulombe at a Sister Cities conference in Belfast and was intrigued by their description of LaGrange Art Museum, a modern facility housed in a renovated 19th century jail on Lafayette Parkway.
Johnston, who was looking to return to the United States, checked out the LaGrange Art Museum online and discovered it was seeking a director. She sought her husband’s opinion.
“Well, go for it!” he said.
Johnston soon found herself in LaGrange for a job interview that would change the course - and continent - of her family’s life.
“Everything was wonderful,” Johnston said of her first visit to LaGrange. “The people were interesting, the city was interesting, the building was interesting, the socio-political context was interesting.”
She liked the community’s plentiful cultural offerings, the weather, West Point Lake and the prospect of an “outdoor life,” a challenge in beautiful but rainy Northern Ireland.
Now, barely three weeks on the job, the University of Minnesota graduate is preparing for next month’s opening of LaGrange National XXVI, a biennial juried exhibition, and laying plans for what she hopes to accomplish after that.
“There’s a history here (at LaGrange Art Museum), and that’s fantastic,” said Johnston, who had to build the Portadown museum “almost from scratch” following its opening in 2002. “The challenge is we must be relevant for our audiences. The question is how to do that.”
She will draw on her 20 years experience, dating back to college days. She worked, interned and volunteered at two of Minnesota’s finest museums, the Walker Art Center and the Weisman Art Museum of the University of Minnesota, both in Minneapolis. After graduation, she ventured to New York, landing a position in the publications department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Working on “coffee table books” involved her in many areas of the museum - education, marketing, conservation, curating, design.
“I saw how a very high level museum operates. … It was an induction by osmosis,” she said.
Her move to Ireland grew out of volunteer work at New York’s Irish Art Center. They asked her to curate an exhibition of Irish art. She read and studied, but felt inadequate to the task. At 31, she thought, “I better go to Ireland.” She met her husband, whose field is construction, and wound up running an Irish museum.
She said her approach here will be to build on what exists and work hard to ensure that “the programming, the building and everyone who works in it is as accessible as possible.”
That means putting education at the center of the museum’s mission - with outreach not far behind. She believes “education is a natural segue to outreach ” and aims to expand museum programming to include all three of its spaces - the museum, the adjacent Center for Creative Learning and the Cochran Gallery on Lafayette Square. She hopes to work with community groups and take classes and workshops to targeted audiences.
“We want to give the schools a variety of ways to experience the visual arts,” she said.
And while Johnston expects to show varied kinds of works, her personal passion for contemporary art definitely will come into play.
“I like working with living artists to do new work about the place I’m in. Often, they see you differently,” she said.
That might take the form of artists in residence, she said, citing Houston’s pioneering Rowhouse Project, in which artists from other areas come to live in the community, producing work that reflects their perceptions of it. The result? “Total resonance” with the people of Houston, Johnston said.
She’s also reaching out to local artists and hopes to form an artists’ advisory board to offer insight on all areas of the museum’s operations.
“We want to be here for the art and the artists,” she said.
But most of all, the new leader wants the museum to be open and friendly, a place for discovery and inspiration.
Getting people to come in to see an exhibit and say, “Oh, this is pretty,” is not a museum’s reason for being, she believes.
“We want to challenge people, to get them to see differently or think differently, in a friendly, open, respectful way.”