Spotlight: Jon Carfagno, Mobile Museum of Art

Walk the halls of the Mobile Museum of Art for a day with new Executive Director Jon Carfagno as he transforms the museum’s mission and ignites a fresh energy.

Mobile Museum of Art Executive Director Jon Carfagno
Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Jon Carfagno started his new job at the Mobile Museum of Art (MMofA) on a Tuesday. “I’m Italian by descent and superstitious, so I didn’t want to start on the 13th,” he explains. 
       He arrived instead on February 14th of this year, after a quick interview process from the board of directors. He says that his road to Mobile, however, truly began exactly one year ago when he called up retired Director Deborah Velders. His community at the Hickory Museum in North Carolina had asked him to travel to Alabama and purchase a quilt from Wilcox County for their collection. “I did what I always do when I travel — I called the director of the local art museum.” Within 20 minutes of conversation, Velders was sure Carfagno was the candidate to replace her, but she left the decision in the board’s capable hands. They were as impressed with the young art historian as Velders had been, and he moved his family to Mobile not long after. “We love it here,” he says when asked about the transition to the Deep South. The New Jersey native fits right in with his easy smile, sense of humor and willingness to include everyone in the creative process.

He says that in his new role at the MMofA, he is trying to create a movement of open-minded and open-hearted people who will come to the museum and learn about the creative process, giving people a tool kit to go out into the world and work together to make it a better place. “That’s what gets our team out of bed in the morning.”

He wants the museum to be more purpose-driven and intentional, a place where visitors don’t just see art but make a connection. “If you can combine our mission about open hearts and open minds — that comes with being somewhere new — with what you learn about the creative process, you can go out in the world and do amazing things.” 

Day in the Life:

5:30 a.m. Wake Up

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I don’t leave home without first doing 30 minutes on my spin bike, usually while listening to a book on tape or a documentary about an artist. After working out, I get ready for the day while listening to Alabama Public Radio.

7:30 a.m. Matcha

I switched from coffee to matcha over a decade ago. I love Wakaki-Shiro, which I order from Japan and make with 175 degree water from my Keurig. I have a battery-operated frother that blends the matcha really well. I carry my tea with me as I start my day, usually in a Buc-ee’s insulated tumbler (I am already loving life in the Deep South!).

8:00 a.m. Breakfast

I have an egg, cheese and sausage omelet to start the day, and visit with my wife and two young sons before we all head our separate directions.

8:30 a.m. Arrive at the Museum 

I make my way through security at the back of the museum, checking in with Operations Manager Louis Pope to make sure nothing unusual happened overnight. Then I head up to the Moorer gallery to read all the notes in the guestbook from yesterday’s visitors. It reminds me that people come here from all across town and all over the world, and I love reading about their experiences at the museum!

8:45 a.m. Art Moment

While walking back toward the offices, I pass Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s “Train” painting. I love to see the artist’s fingerprints in the mud that he mixed with his pigments and see the motion of the passengers on the train. He is a self-taught painter who truly blazed his own trail. I love artists and people who push boundaries.

9 a.m. Morning Check-in 

I touch base with our curatorial team about upcoming exhibitions and loans before assessing the community calendar. We finish with a little brainstorming for whatever is coming up.

9:30 a.m. Troubleshooting

The preparators call me down to a new permanent collection exhibition where we have just installed a glass sculpture by Sabrina Knowles and Jenny Pohlman. We want to prevent people from touching the work, but not intimidate visitors with an obnoxious alarm or barricade. It is very important to everyone on our team that MMofA is a welcoming and inclusive place to visit. So, we settle on a small podium on the floor that will help keep visitors at a safe distance.

9:45 a.m. Department Meetings

Every day, I have a more in-depth meeting with a department head — either finance, curatorial, facilities, education or communications and visitor engagement. We have a great team that works really well together to grow the reach of our mission, and I do my best to make sure each department has everything they need to do their best work.

9:50 a.m. Snack Break

I’m a creature of habit. I don’t put a clock to it, but every day at about the same time, I have a cheese stick. A half hour later, I eat a Tupperware of plain spinach.

10 a.m. Planning Ahead

Team members from every department (who I refer to collectively as a formidable force) gather around our seasonal planning wall to fill it with sticky notes of ideas for events, classes, social media campaigns and exhibitions. We make sure the offerings are balanced, that we have something for everyone, and that they engage and fill needs in the community. The whole group votes on their favorites with a little dot system. The ideas that get the most dots are ones that we think could make the biggest impact, and after the program, our database is updated in real time with the results.

11:30 a.m. Light Lunch

I bring a plain turkey sandwich most every day and eat half now, half after returning some emails and phone calls.

1 p.m. Front Desk

I spend some time with Mittie at the front desk, where visitors check in and get information. It’s so helpful to hear her perspective on who came in that day, what they were excited about and what was a success. Whenever I can, I love to work the front door and greet visitors. I’m still relatively new to town, and this is a great way to get to know the community.

2 p.m. Vault

Melissa from our curatorial team and I meet in the paintings storage area to discuss some works that might fit into an upcoming exhibition. The museum has more than 6,400 works in our permanent collection, so there is no shortage of possibilities! It’s exciting to think about which works of art will help us inspire creativity, activate new ideas or open new ways of seeing the world for our visitors. 

3 p.m. Board President

I meet with the board president for an hour every month. While the full board meetings happen nine times a year, meeting one-on-one with the president gives us a chance to really get to know one another and collaborate toward the achievement of our goals. 

4:30 p.m. Gallery Visit

After finishing my second glass of matcha, I grab a fruit bar before heading upstairs to visit a self-portrait by George Luks in the “DECADES: Looking Back, Moving Forward” exhibition for a little afternoon boost. The tiny painting is so full of attitude. Luks considered himself the ground-breaking, bad boy of American art. This relatively small canvas packs a big punch and inspires me to be bigger than I am.

5 p.m. Glass Blowing Class

The guys from Muffinjaw are setting up outside our classroom doors with their glass-blowing equipment in preparation for an evening class. I spend some time with them and the education team before our guests arrive, hearing about new techniques they are trying out. Participants will all make their own stemless wine glass tonight, and I am eager to try my hand as well.

6:30 p.m. Home

I always wrap up with late-afternoon messages and phone calls before packing up for the day. I say goodnight to the overnight security staff as I head out for the evening. Every day brings something new, but it is always exciting and creative at MMofA!

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