Aside from all the knowledge and skills gleaned from years working in international locales and revered institutions, newly minted Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville Director Caitlin Doherty brings with her another talent that’s likely to endear her to the populace of her new city.
“Years ago when I moved to Ireland, I worked in a bar while I took some time to figure out what a career in the arts might look like,” Doherty tells Folio Weekly. “I can pull a mean pint of Guinness. It’s a life school that I’ve found has been appreciated in many different cities around the world.”
Doherty comes to MOCAJax after having most recently served as Chief Curator and Deputy Director of Cultural Affairs for the Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. Her career has spanned the globe, as she’s worked with artists and students in art institutions from Scotland to Ireland to Qatar to the United States.
The international search for MOCA’s new director, led by board member Alison Lee, was set in motion after Marcelle Polednik—who’d served in the role since 2011—stepped down last May. Under Polednik’s leadership, MOCA enjoyed significant endowment growth, led by a $5 million gift from local businessman and longtime arts patron Preston H. Haskell. In addition, during Polednik’s term, MOCA received The Donald & Maria Cox Collection, which includes works by Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston, Joel Shapiro, Frank Stella, Keith Haring, Malcom Morley, Jasper Johns and many more, to its permanent offerings. Polednik will also be remembered for helping to implement the creation of Project Atrium, the popular and prominent exhibition space that showcases installations by emerging and mid-career artists.
With a reputation for facilitating collaborative relationships between museums and affiliated institutions of higher learning, Doherty comes to MOCA hoping to continue strengthening the museum’s connection to the University of North Florida, which took over MOCA in 2009.
“I see MOCA as a bridge or a gateway, if you will, to make that connection tangible for the campus to reach the Jacksonville community,” Doherty says. “There’s nothing that’s being studied at the university that isn’t also being explored by an artist somewhere—in perhaps a wee bit of a different way. When you can bring those perspectives together, that’s where I think there’s potential for real magic to happen.”
Doherty was born on South Uist, a small island in the Outer Hebrides of Northwest Scotland. Her parents, both educators, moved the family to Edinburgh soon after.
“Both of [my parents] are very interested in the arts in general as a kind of holistic approach to education,” she says. “I was brought up to believe that the arts are at the heart of any great society.”
After earning master’s degrees in art history from the University of Edinburgh and in museum and gallery studies from the University of St. Andrews, Doherty moved to Ireland, where, after pulling those pints, she started working as the visual arts coordinator for the Garter Lane Arts Centre.
“I never had a career plan, as such,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to work in the field of art, but I didn’t really know what that would look like. I studied art history because I was genuinely interested and passionate about art and artists.”
Doherty brings an eclectic background of specializations to her role, including the medieval art of Great Britain, Modernism, and a deep knowledge of 20th-century artists like Picasso.
“I think the reason I love art is that it tells us something about the world within which the artist is existing, has been part of, and has been contributing to,” she says. “And, in regard to contemporary art, contemporary art tells me something about the world that I’m a part of, and that I’m bringing up my kids in, and that, hopefully, I’m contributing to.”
After taking on several roles at various institutions in Ireland—as well as teaching at Waterford Institute of Technology and serving as a guest lecturer at University College London—from 2012 to 2015, Doherty worked as exhibitions and speaker curator at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar—a branch of VCU School of the Arts in Richmond, Virginia. Doherty says she feels privileged to have worked in places she feels have “a distinct sense of place and community,” something she recognized about Jacksonville while touring here during her site visit with MOCA.
“While my husband and I were very much struck by the scale and size of Jacksonville, we felt that it very much seemed to have a heart and sense of place,” she says. “It’s hard to find a place that has that big-city, global attitude in terms of my career and contemporary art, but that also has a small-town feel and sense of community.”
As Doherty settles into her new role, on Monday, March 20, she says she’ll have a lot of inspiration from which to draw—the kinship she feels with her new city’s geography, to the historical architecture of her new workplace, to Northeast Florida’s arts community at large.
“I’m used to being on the Atlantic Ocean,” she says. “Plus we’ve got the river—the heartbeat of the city—just like my husband’s hometown of Waterford. Looking at that architecturally beautiful and historic building that MOCA is privileged to be within, and to think of how that space is important to understanding the art and the artists inside, that makes me very much excited.”