Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Doneeca Thurston: Lynn is a majority minority city, it’s an overwhelmingly immigrant city, so I just really want to make sure that everybody feels seen and heard and that their history is, and themselves, are reflected in art spaces.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Doneeca Thurston, the brand new director of the Lynn Museum and Lynn Arts, and sort of a long-time friend of ours at the Mass Cultural Council, and I’ll get into that a little bit later, but welcome to our program, Doneeca.
Doneeca Thurston: Thank you, thank you so much for having me.
Anita Walker: You know you’ve been at a place a long time when you can look at sort of almost a life story career trajectory of some people we’ve known some time. So, Doneeca, actually our first intersection was when, and they wrote this, “when she was a youth.” You still are very youthful, Doneeca.
Doneeca Thurston: Thank you, yes.
Anita Walker: But Doneeca was in one of our Creative Youth Development programs, RAW Arts up in Lynn as one of the youth participants in that program, and fast forward to today, new director of the Lynn Museum. So I’m going to first, talk about your story, your personal story and how you were involved and what your experience at RAW contributed and how that took you to where you are today.
Doneeca Thurston: Yeah, so I’m from Lynn, so RAW is in my hometown. I think it was the summer of my, summer before my junior year of high school, I had some trouble at home and trouble at school, and I just wasn’t really finding an outlet and was resorting to self-harm and having a really hard time with that, and I came across a flier for the film school, and I thought, hey, you know what, I’ll just apply and see what happens, and it was like the best summer of my life, I met so many different people and, I mean, I don’t consider myself a film expert, but it was just fun to learn a new craft and then from there I continued on in film school and ended up joining Women 2 Be, which is meant for high school girls at Raw Art Works, and then my senior year of high school I actually became a Raw Chief, so I was helping mentor the youth and assisting the art therapists with an after-school program twice a week.
Anita Walker: So then what happened?
Doneeca Thurston: Then RAW nominated me for the Posse Scholarship, and I was actually the first Posse Scholar from RAW and for the City of Lynn, and then I went on to Bucknell University where I got my bachelor’s in history, and then I returned to Lynn to get my master’s in history from Northeastern.
Anita Walker: And so just recently you were appointed as the Director of the Lynn Museum. What does that entail when you really take over the reins of an organization like that?
Doneeca Thurston: It’s a little bit of everything, so I actually worked at the Lynn Museum prior. I volunteered a summer in college when I was kind of figuring out if museums were an arena that I wanted to explore, and then while I was in grad school I became a graduate intern, and then they hired me as a programs assistant, so I kind of worked my way up through the ranks.
Anita Walker: You knew your way around.
Doneeca Thurston: Yeah, and then I was at the Peabody Essex Museum for almost five years, and then this opportunity kind of came up, and about a year ago I had kind of talked about, well, maybe one day I’d want to be the director of a museum, and so here I am, which is kind of crazy. I’ve got my dream job at 29 and running a museum and an arts building. It’s a lot of work day-to-day, painting walls, patching up things, it’s a super small team, fundraising, just making sure a lot of our studio tenants are happy in our art space, really just celebrating all that downtown Lynn has to offer.
Anita Walker: What’s the scariest part?
Doneeca Thurston: The ghosts.
Anita Walker: I did not expect that answer.
Doneeca Thurston: Yeah, there’s definitely some spooky happenings in the museum that I experienced before while I was working there as a part-time staff member.
Anita Walker: Okay, say more, we want to hear about this.
Doneeca Thurston: So in the library I was working with some of the photos in our archive and I’d heard a female voice humming, and I thought that maybe it was one of our vendors, Tim, playing a trick on me, but I was actually the only person in the space at the time. So a few months go by and we had an event rental, and it was busy on the first floor so I ran up to the third floor to use the bathroom because nobody was up there. It was pitch black because I was too lazy to turn on the lights. As soon as I go to open the bathroom door I hear that same voice, that same humming, but right behind me. So I immediately leave and I run downstairs, and I’m like, oh, my God, did that just happen. But since I’ve returned I’ve heard there’s a second-floor classroom that’s right underneath the director’s office, they’ve heard the piano playing at random times, nobody else is in the building. Yeah, there’s definitely some characters in the building.
Anita Walker: Wow, that’s an amazing story. So I don’t know how many museum directors discover that as they’ve been walking into… I was thinking more about what scares you about the challenges facing you in running a small museum, everything from the fundraising to sort of the vision, to working with the board, to, you know developing the strategic plan. I’m sure you have all of this on your plate.
Doneeca Thurston: Right. It’s a lot of work. I think within my first two and a half weeks I was experiencing a lot of imposter syndrome just because I am 29. It’s like, “Am I old enough to do this work? Do you have enough experience?” I’m also their first director of color, so I feel like that’s a big challenge. I know I have the experience, I’ve worked really hard, so it’s just I’m tough on myself so it’s not only the burden that I have of all the work that I need to do, it’s all the burden that I put on myself personally. So I think–
Anita Walker: And how do you deal with that, how do you handle that?
Doneeca Thurston: I cook a lot, I go out with friends, I dance, I just try to remain positive and find different things to keep me going, and then I also just try to find the happy moments in the day and just appreciate that. While I am young I’ve accomplished so much and I really need to appreciate that and celebrate that, and empower people like myself to do the work and to know that they can also be successful and achieve their dreams.
Anita Walker: So of the various things that I mentioned that are no doubt on your plate, what is the most vexing at the moment?
Doneeca Thurston: Managing an art space. I’ve managed staff before, that’s fine, but managing a building with tenants. The building itself needs a little bit of work, a little bit of love. We will be applying for the Capital Facilities Fund grant. So, yeah, that’s a new skill, but there’s a lot of folks here to help me and we have a great management company that we’re working with. But it’s just making sure that the artists feel respected and valued and celebrated in the work that they’re doing because there’s a lot happening in downtown Lynn and I just, I don’t want folks to feel like they’ve gotten forgotten.
Anita Walker: How about as a new director cultivating a positive and productive relationship with the board, how are you working on that?
Doneeca Thurston: It’s been going great. I actually just had my second board meeting last night, and part of my interview process the final interview was actually a presentation to the entire board. I actually know a few of the board members from when I used to work there previously, so it definitely feels like a homecoming. I’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive response both from the board and from the community. So it’s nice to know I have a lot of people in my corner who want to see me succeed, and I’m really thankful that I have a board that wants to grow with me and grow with the organization.
Anita Walker: And so talk a little bit about your vision, your vision for the Lynn Museum. Where do you want it to be in five years?
Doneeca Thurston: Five years, I’d love for us to have a more unified name, I think Lynn Museum/Lynn Arts, it’s a little scattered, it’s something we’re working on, definitely working on our website, kind of a rebrand, refresh. But I really just want us to be more accessible to the community and more of a steward for the community. Our collection is largely colonial, it speaks a lot to the shoe history of Lynn, but it doesn’t speak to the recent populations. Lynn is a majority minority city, it’s an overwhelmingly immigrant city, so I just really want to make sure that everybody feels seen and heard and that their history is, and themselves, are reflected in art spaces.
Anita Walker: You are a rarity as a museum director and a person of color, talk about that.
Doneeca Thurston: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. It’s definitely challenging, but I feel like because of them we can. So while I might feel overwhelmed certain days I know that my being here and my being in this position of power is really opening other people’s eyes to what they can achieve and what they can be.
Anita Walker: You know when I think, especially in the history field which is probably an area that is most unrepresented, or underrepresented by people of color in leadership or, quite frankly, in any staff or board position, and so many of our organizations in Massachusetts, and probably no doubt across the country, whether it’s art museums or history museums, a lot of their collections, a lot of the stuff that is part and parcel of the exhibitions, are really the products of white privilege. So how does your lens, how are you applying that to the Lynn Museum?
Doneeca Thurston: I think we need to be open and honest about the founding of our institution, that it was a wealthy merchant class that decided that with these waves of immigration that they needed to preserve that history there. So being open and honest about that, and then being open to taking in new things into our collection that speak to like so the recent populations and the recent histories that are there. I’m really celebrating the prominent black families and black politicians and athletes in the Lynn community that have been super successful but have kind of just fallen by the wayside, nobody’s really sharing those stories, so really excited to be doing that.
Anita Walker: And how do you see the role of the museum in the community to help the community be more inclusive?
Doneeca Thurston: I feel like we have to be a community advocate. Lynn is really changing, it’s one of those cities that’s always had potential, but I feel like that potential is finally being capitalized on. For good or for bad we have a lot of developers coming in, there’s a huge displacement issue. The homelessness issue is rising as well. So just letting the community know that there’s a space for them. We hear them, we see them, we value them, and you know we want, I’m trying to think of the word, I think of like place keeping, it’s place keeping, that’s what we want to do, is place keeping, not place making. We recognize that there are so many people here who have been here before us and who will come after us, but the Lynn Museum and Lynn Arts can be that champion in the community.
Anita Walker: Well, I can say that that museum is very fortunate to have your energy and your inspiration.
Doneeca Thurston: Thank you.
Anita Walker: And we are delighted to have you here on our podcast. Doneeca Thurston, Director of the Lynn Museum/Lynn Arts, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Doneeca Thurston: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
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