Jessica May will take the reins of Kansas City's Kemper Museum: 'A complete joy to me'
The new leader of Missouri's first contemporary art museum will bring two decades of experience working with artists and communities at institutions across the country.
Kansas City's most prominent contemporary art museum named a new leader on Tuesday.
Jessica May will become executive director of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art on Feb. 27, according to a press release from the institution.
“Kemper Museum is a complete joy to me," May said in the release, "gracious in its welcome to audiences from Kansas City and throughout the country, as well as brave and innovative in its artistic and educational programs.”
May will arrive in Kansas City from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she most recently served as the vice president of Art and Exhibitions for The Trustees of Reservations, the nation’s oldest land conservation organization. She was also the artistic director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, west of Boston.
In her dual role, May oversaw arts initiatives across a statewide network of more than 120 scenic and historic places, including recent commissions by internationally-known artists Rose B. Simpson, Hugh Hayden, and a commission by Jean Shin due to open in spring 2024.
In the release, May said she looks forward to her new role at the Kemper.
“I fell in love with this great city very quickly as I got to know the museum and its audiences," she said. "Its history and cultural depth — in terms of visual art, food, music, design, athletics, and so much more is exceptional."
“I’m honored to join this institution and share my passion for connecting art, artists, and communities both inside the museum and beyond its walls,” she said.
Kansas City's multiculturalism during a time of growth and opportunity, and its diverse consortium of cultural and civic leaders further attracted May, according to the statement.
Since reopening after the pandemic, attendance and program participation at Kemper Museum has steadily increased. With the streetcar's anticipated expansion in 2025, staff are preparing for an influx of visitors and new energy in the art museums district.
The museum is also actively expanding partnerships and bolstering programming. This year, the museum's annual Block Party will be held in May to coincide with Kansas City Art Institute's end-of-semester exhibition to boost collaboration.
“The arts are essential in public life,” said museum trustee Mary Kemper Wolf in the statement. “Jessica (May) has embodied this idea throughout her career. She is committed to building meaningful partnerships, and not only to inviting people into the galleries, but to extending the museum’s offerings out into the city, and beyond.”
The Kemper Museum will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. It was founded by banker and philanthropist R. Crosby Kemper Jr. and Mary "Bebe" Hunt in October 1994.
May will succeed Sean O’Harrow as executive director. O'Harrow left the Kemper in November 2022 to serve as president and CEO of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. Wendy Guillies has been Interim Director since March 2023.
May will become the museum's sixth executive director.