Spotlight on Joelle Ryan-Cook

inthejasperspotlight_JoelleRyan-CookJoelle Ryan-Cook has spent the past 22 years working at the Columbia Museum of Art, growing and shaping what is arguably one of Columbia’s finest treasures. Her experience, from the ground up, affords Ryan-Cook a unique and intimate understanding of what makes the art museum. While studying Art History at USC, Ryan-Cook began working at the museum as a volunteer tour guide. That volunteer position led to a paid internship and a full-time position training tour guides and developing education programs, before she became Director of Education, finally settling into her current position, Deputy Director & Director of External Affairs.

Before Ryan-Cook ever started working on museum visitor experiences, however, she was a frequent museum visitor herself. While growing up, her parents constantly exposed her to arts, culture, history, museums, and historic homes, and she believes they gave her the keys to her career. They took her to multiple museums, such as the Chicago Art Institute and the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. She explains, “Arts and culture were just a major way we spent time together as a family.”

Ryan-Cook’s current role at the museum is to oversee daily operations in concert with the Executive Director, Karen Brosius, and to focus on the Department of External Affairs, which consists of education, adult programs, communications, visitor services, facility management, the Columbia Museum of Art shop, and the facility rentals program. She says, “I am so lucky that these teams are so creative, innovative, hardworking, and dedicated, because they really make the work we do so much fun, and we have been successful because of them. What really makes museums come alive are the talented people who work there who are inspired every day by the art in the galleries and the community we serve. My job is to make sure all of these parts of the museum are working towards the same goals.”

Understandably, Ryan-Cook had a difficult time choosing one favorite show out of the dozens that have taken place at the museum since she’s been there, but she was able to settle on the Mark Rothko show. She says, “I tend to land on those shows which generate the most discussion and debate. Not everybody will like every show, but if it makes them think or ask questions, then we have done something right… Also, I just find his work so spiritually moving. When art and soul can come together, that, for me, is a good day at an art museum.”

It seems that Ryan-Cook has had many, many good days at the Columbia Museum of Art with even more in front of her. She says, “The work is so fulfilling, and I absolutely love having had the opportunity to work at CMA for so long. It has been a pleasure to see the museum grow, but more importantly to see the Midlands embrace arts and culture so wholeheartedly. This town has so much going on now, and I think that is fabulous.”

-by Abby Davis

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