Kalamazoo Institute of Arts turns 100 and Jennifer Cooley wants to help you celebrate

“I’ve always been a curious person,” Jennifer Cooley says. “I want to know the why.”

Jennifer Cooley is the new director of museum education and community engagement at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA). She began the position on October 23, 2023, and has spent her time since asking why and listening closely to responses — what is happening in the greater Kalamazoo community, what people want to see, what are the varied perspectives people bring to the local art world — and why. 

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see all of the growth in Kalamazoo,” Cooley says. “While I am a Michigander by birth, I’m coming to Kalamazoo with new eyes, with fresh eyes, of seeing it maybe with a different perspective than those who have been here for a while.”

The Battle Creek native returns to Michigan after more than 20 years away, primarily in Des Moines, Iowa. Cooley earned a degree in art history and museum studies at Michigan State University, but then moved to California for her Master's Degree in Museum Studies and Public Programming at the John F. Kennedy University (now National University), then to Des Moines for a second Masters Degree in Public Administration and Executive Leadership from Drake University.  

Cooley’s rich work experience in museum education and community engagement includes the State Historical Society of Iowa and two other Des Moines cultural institutions — Salisbury House, where she served as volunteer and education coordinator, and the Des Moines Art Center, where she was the museum education and docent program manager. She brings expertise in collection interpretation and curricula development to the KIA, but also grant writing and DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion) training to her new role.

Before her return to Michigan, Cooley served on the board of the Iowa Museum Association and as a grant reviewer for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Museums for America. 

Jennifer Cooley, KIA Director of Museum Education and Community Engagement
“I love art museums,” Cooley says. “One of my goals at KIA is to help other people love art museums. It doesn’t matter to me what type of museum you may be drawn to — I’m drawn to art, to history, to historic homes. I love science museums as well because I love to learn. And really, that’s what museums are — they are that conduit to help park that interest in maybe something you know about or maybe something completely new to you. But museums may also present information in a way that you haven’t experienced before.”

Her love of museums, Cooley says, began early. She recalls a family vacation to the nation’s capital as a child. The little girl was overwhelmed by all the museums the family visited.

“Even just the architecture,” she says. “All those stairs leading into the beautiful buildings. I knew I was someplace special. The world seemed to slow down when we went inside — and I still feel that way. The world’s pace can be so fast, but when you enter a museum, everything slows down and there is something new to see and learn. I can appreciate what is in front of me.”

Cooley’s interest in art, too, came from early school years. When she was a student at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, she took as many art classes as she could squeeze into her schedule, and her resulting artwork was exhibited in a school art show. The thrill remained with her, even as she realized she was more of an appreciative audience than a participant. 

“I loved the act of creating,” she says. “But I could also appreciate what others could do when I wasn’t able to — it was the next best thing to being an artist myself.”
When the position opened at the KIA, Cooley embraced it with enthusiasm. It was time to come back to Michigan. 

“I’ve missed Michigan,” she acknowledges. “Especially the past couple of years, my thoughts have been drawn toward the Mitten State because of all the wonderful changes that have been happening in the arts and culture community in Southwest Michigan. When this position opened up, I jumped at applying for it in order to move back to Michigan, but also to be closer to family again.”

Her timing was on target. In 2024, the KIA will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Cooley is already brimming with plans — even as she says, with a twinkle in her eye, that she can’t yet reveal all the wonderful surprises to come.

“There is so much opportunity here,” she says. “I’ve been talking with staff and with docents to capture their reflections of KIA over the years. I have been pleasantly surprised at how proud everyone is of KIA in our community, at how important it is to people. At the same time, I realize not everyone feels that connected to museums, not everyone loves museums as much as I do, and that is going to be my work — to focus on those people and bring them in.”

Cooley says she plans to especially zero in on younger generations, those future fans of KIA. She hopes to help youth realize how fun a museum can be, and to nurture that connection as families grow up. An upcoming effort to do so will be a program called Art Detectives of Kalamazoo Public Library, beginning in February 2024 and traveling from branch to branch. Activities will be available for children to read books and create art projects corresponding to those books. 

Willing to be a student herself, Cooley talks about the Kirk Newman Art School within the KIA. She attended art classes there when she was growing up in Battle Creek and plans to attend again — this time, to try her hand at ceramics. 

“I don’t know if everyone realizes what a truly amazing art school Kirk Newman is,” Cooley says. “There is so much there for everyone to learn and enjoy. I will have to relearn working with clay, but it’s okay to be a beginner. There are one- and two-day workshops there to try out, too.”

Cooley encourages the greater Kalamazoo community to watch the KIA Events Calendar for upcoming events to celebrate the museum’s 100th year. There will be something for everyone, she promises, and plenty of reasons to ask why and learn the answers.
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Read more articles by Zinta Aistars.

Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.