Ben Thompson has become quite familiar with the way museums work.
Not so much by studying how they operate — he went to school an artist looking to hone his craft— but by doing.
While in graduate school, he did what any student needing to make a little money and wanting to be closer to their passion would do: He took a job in the field.
One of his sculpture professors recommended a job as an exhibition installer. He ended up doing that for institutions throughout the Boston area.
Little did he know it would be the start of a career in museums, including an almost 10-year role with the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville.
Installer, preparator, registrar, curator and now deputy director. He’s done it all in the industry and in Jacksonville.
“I have that institutional history,” he said. “I know it through and through on every level.”
His time in Jacksonville coincides with his time at the museum. His route is one that took a major detour that impacted so many in his native New Orleans.
Working his way up the ranks
Thompson grew up in a suburb of New Orleans, a city he describes as having creativity, music, performing arts and overall culture in just about every corner.
“You can’t help but take part in creative pursuits,” he said.
Surrounded by that type of environment, maybe it’s no surprise he pursued an artistic career.
He went to undergrad at what’s now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to study studio art and found himself drawn to performative sculptures.
While there he also went to the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina to study blacksmithing.
He grew from working with jewelry and small metal to forged work, one reason he was attracted to the Massachusetts College of Art. The Northeast was a place he says many native Louisiana artists have gone to work and be inspired over the years.
The graduate program there allowed him to work in the school’s Studio for Interrelated Media and combine art with nontraditional methods like electronics and robotics.
The next logical step for Thompson was to go somewhere “where I could really explore art, technology, performing art and performative art.”
He was on that track, but not the way first imagined.
He took a position to install art at Boston-area museums and ended up landing a full-time position at The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University as an art handler. Then he became a full-time installer. Then a registrar, someone responsible for tracking what’s in the museum and ensuring its safekeeping.
“All the way up the ranks,” Thompson said.
He did that for a few years and married his wife, Erica, in 2004. They then decided to move closer to family.
The options? His in New Orleans, hers in Central Florida or a compromise of sorts in North Carolina.
New Orleans it was in 2005 — right in time for one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history.
A hurricane that changed everything
Thompson was set to start a job at the Ogden Museum, home to the largest collection of Southern art.
The couple started the move to the Esplinade Ridge area of New Orleans. A week or so after the move began, the storm emerged.
“Katrina happened and all bets were off,” he said.
Initially, the two thought about riding it out. A call from his father quickly changed his mind and they evacuated to Houston like many ended up doing. A five-hour drive took 24 hours. All roads led out of the city.
Thompson’s father’s house flooded. His own home ended up with half a foot of water. His sister’s apartment had a caved roof.
They were fortunate, he said, and realized what was important.
“Family,” he said. “In the end, family was what we had before, family was what we had after … everything else was just stuff.”
They tried for a year and a half to make it work in New Orleans. Thompson became all too familiar with insurance claims at the museum.
The storm had taken a physical and psychological toll, what Thompson refers to as “very dark times.”
“It wasn’t the city I knew,” he said.
‘Paradise’ in Jacksonville
During that time, Thompson had been in contact with MOCA Jacksonville leaders about a registrar position. It ended up working out and he and his wife were eastward bound.
Admittedly, the bar was low. Functioning electricity, potholes fixed, clean streets, no piles of trash.
“We thought it was paradise,” he said.
Thompson started in February 2007 and was impressed with the facility. It had a lot of flexibility and the permanent collection then was relatively small at about 800 pieces, which made it manageable. Today it stands at a little over 1,000.
The institution changed over time, like its 2009 affiliation with the University of North Florida.
He changed too, working his way up the ranks to curator and determining the museum’s content.
Thompson’s had many memories in his time, whether it be the children looking on in wonderment at the installation of Tristin Lowe’s planetary “Lunacy” project to the First Amendment challenge about Angela Strassheim’s photograph of a nude, pregnant woman.
The promotion to deputy director in May came shortly after Director Marcelle Polednik announced she was leaving in July to become director of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
His promotion was a natural progression. He knows how it all works. He’s done it himself.
Thompson is responsible for the day-to-day operation itself. His goals are aspects you’d likely hear more from a board room than an art studio: fiscal stability, operational efficiency and supporting the museum’s just under 50 employees.
They’re all important to ensure the museum maintains as a new director is found.
And who knows, maybe he’ll throw his hat in the ring someday.
He’s done just about everything else.