Tracey Jerome was in London, England when she was contacted by a national recruiting firm about a job opportunity on the U.S.-Mexico border in a city called El Paso.
Jerome had lived in the United Kingdom for about eight years and knew little about El Paso. She grew up in Virginia and has spent much of her adult life overseas.
But Jerome was impressed by what she saw during a visit and took the job. She became director of the city’s Museums and Cultural Affairs Department on Feb. 1, 2015. Now she is one of the city’s biggest fans.
“El Paso is leading in what is happening in public art nationally,” Jerome says. “The city is getting a lot of attention nationally and internationally for what is happening here.”
As director of MCAD, she is responsible for a $4.4-million budget and oversees the museums of history, art and archaeology, as well as the city’s arts and culture programs.
MCAD is the No. 1 funder of arts and culture programs in the city, according to Jerome.
The department operates the city’s public art program, which has completed 50 public art projects since it started 10 years ago. Another 28 are in the works.
MCAD also supports local arts and culture organizations.
Last year, it awarded $395,557 in grants to 64 non-profits and individual artists in El Paso.
It hosts a number of events, including Chalk the Block, Music Under the Stars, Dancing in the City and supports the Downtown Arts and Farmers Market.
MCAD is also guiding the development of two of the signature quality of life bond projects – the children’s museum and Mexican American Cultural Center.
At a time when there is an intense focus on science, technology, engineering and math – STEM for short – Jerome speaks passionately about the value of art, culture and the humanities. “It is transformative,” she says.
Art is also an integral part of economic development and is driving investment in our community, Jerome argued in a TEDx talk she gave in El Paso in May, titled “The Misunderstood Value of Art.”
“I’ve lived all over the world and this was an active choice for me to come to this community, because when I heard about what was going on here, I wanted to be a part of it – because I believe in it,” she said.
Jerome grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and says she has always been into art. As a child, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was one of her favorite places to visit.
Jerome says she never planned to live her adult life overseas, but opportunities came and she took them. She met her husband in Vienna, Austria, and his job allowed them to continue to travel.
“We decided that every time an opportunity came our way, we would be willing to say ‘yes,’” Jerome says.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in government from The College of William and Mary in Virginia and master’s degrees in historic preservation from Eastern Michigan University and in history of art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.
While in London, Jerome worked as an art consultant and as director of the Halcyon Gallery, a contemporary art gallery on New Bond Street in Mayfair.
She sat down with El Paso Inc. at her office in the El Paso Museum of Art and talked about El Paso’s reputation for arts and culture, her vision for El Paso’s museums and why STEAM is better than STEM.
Q: Why should people care about art? It’s just a luxury – fluff – right?
Absolutely not. I’ll start with the more abstract picture. Art is transformative, and it transcends who we are as human beings. Only humans can take something that is very basic, like a lump of clay, and mold it into something incredible – to express ideas and emotions through art.
Art takes us to another plane and is integral to who we are and touches the spirit in a way that nothing else does. If we don’t acknowledge that, we are missing something huge.
We are not missing that here in El Paso, because this community is very committed to its creative development and the integration of art at every level.
Arts and culture also play an important part in economic development and attracting people and companies to the region. Companies looking to expand or move here want to know: What is life like here? Arts and culture, and everything that comes with that, has to be there.
There is a lot of discussion about the creative class and how people are choosing where to live based on the quality of life. I made a very conscious choice to relocate and come to El Paso for this opportunity, and it is because of everything happening here.
Q: How did you first hear about El Paso and the open position?
I was brought in by a national recruiting group.
I was absolutely blown away just in the research I did from a distance about everything that is happening here – about the local museum system, what the local creative community is doing, the public art program, and the people of El Paso overwhelmingly approving the quality of life bonds.
And then I came and I fell in love with it very quickly. There’s something special about this place. I remember flying in and being taken by the desert. And then you see the mountains. There’s something dramatic about it. It’s desolate but welcoming.
The museum of art was the very first place I visited when I arrived. The idea of this space having been a bus station and now transformed into this wonderful museum is impressive.
Q: What was your most recent job before coming here?
I was a director of galleries in London.
Q: How long were you in England?
We were in the UK about eight years. And then we were in Brussels for two years before that.
Q: I think I just started to hear a hint of an English accent.
(Laughs) I do carry a UK passport as well.
Q: As someone with an outsider’s perspective, what is your assessment of what El Paso has arts and culture wise?
What is incredible about El Paso is there is a creative spirit that goes back a long way, whether you are talking about muralists, painters, sculptors or bootmakers.
It’s not as formalized maybe as some other communities, but there is a reverence and acceptance of art and creativity in this community. The murals here, if you notice, none of that work is defaced. It sounds like a really small thing because we take it for granted here, but El Pasoans are remarkable for the way they respect art.
Q: How significant is the art collection at the museum?
It’s incredibly significant, first and foremost because of the quality of work we have in our permanent collection. We have globally recognized works of art.
I have a good friend who is involved in the old masters world in London, and when I was first looking at this opportunity, I mentioned it to him and he immediately named some of the pieces that are in our Kress Collection.
We also have the second largest collection of retablos in the world. We’re getting ready to do an expanded exhibition of those works. And we have the best collection of Tom Lea’s works in the world.
Q: Has it all been valued?
To be honest that is a number we don’t like to throw out.
Q: I’m guessing people would be surprised by it.
Q: Have you been to the archaeology museum?
I am there on a regular basis. I was just up there working on a restoration project on the grounds.
The archeology museum is kind of an undiscovered gem. I have met a lot of people in El Paso who have either never been or haven’t been there in a long time.
We have a world-class collection of Casas Grandes pottery there. There’s a focus there very much on the ancient history of the peoples that have lived in this area.
I spend time in all of the museums. At the archaeology museum, I get my hands dirty.
Q: What is the latest at the history museum?
The latest and greatest, of course, would be the launch of the digital wall. I don’t know if you have been able to have much interaction with it yet.
Q: Only a little. The only negative thing I’ve heard about it is that there isn’t much depth to it yet.
If you have one takeaway from this, I hope people will be encouraged to take part in the development of the wall, because it is completely open to the public and will only get better as the community takes part. Anybody can upload their images to the wall.
But I will take a little bit of an issue with that, because we have had about 12 million touches on that wall since it opened in February. What that tells you is that people are going much deeper and further into it.
One of my big commitments coming in is to knock down some of the silos in MCAD.
Q: What do you mean by that?
For example, the art museum and history museum sit a block away from each other. Although there is a friendly relationship among staff, the idea of programming across the two sites is something that hasn’t been really pursued in the past. Collaboration is huge for me.
We have a Tom Lea gallery here and I can remember when I first walked in, and I didn’t know a huge amount about Tom Lea, there was nothing that told me about Tom Lea as a person – same at the history museum.
So what we decided to do during Tom Lea Month, working with the Tom Lea Institute, is to re-curate our gallery here. At the museum of history, we decided to talk about Tom Lea as a child and what El Paso was like when he was a kid.
Q: It has become more popular to criticize college programs in the humanities and liberal arts that some say don’t pay off – philosophy, history, literature and the like. Is that a mistake?
Absolutely it is. STEM is great but STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) is better.
If you really want the creative energy that is necessary for innovation, you have to have that other side and anybody who argues you don’t need that is living in another century.
Q: By “that other side” you mean more than art?
It’s literature, music, dance – everything that comes with the expression of the creative spirit.
Q: And art and music programs are sometimes the first to go when cuts are made to schools.
Which is a huge mistake. If you look at statistics, students that have arts education are much more likely to stay in school and not drop out. Students that have arts education are more likely to go on to higher-level education and to complete it. Students that have arts education are more likely to earn at a higher level.
Q: If somebody wants to get involved in arts and culture in El Paso, where would you recommend they start?
It depends on how they want to get involved. There are so many things. Thursday nights are great in Downtown, because we have late night museum openings so people can come in after work. We often have special programming to go along with that, and some of the local galleries have things happening.
We have a lot of educational opportunities if people want to drop in and take a course. All of the museums offer everything from lectures to hands-on activities.
If you just want to take a stroll, you can go on a self-guided public art tour using our mobile app. Regardless of what you may be interested in, we have it going on in El Paso.
Q: After a nearly eight-month legal battle involving the sudden removal of a sculpture on Country Club Road, the city offered the artist a settlement in November. The city offered to pay to re-fabricate the art piece according to the original design, among other things. That was in November. Are things still moving towards a resolution?
I can’t get into too much detail because it is in legal now, but we are trying to come to a mutually positive solution.
Q: How is MCAD involved with the implementation of the bond projects?
Two of the projects will fall under our care – the Mexican American Cultural Center and the children’s museum.
The programming and sustainability is something that is so, so important. The buildings should be aesthetically pleasing, but my biggest concern is what will happen there.
We’re looking to create a public-private partnership for each of these projects to make sure they are economically viable. The last thing you want to do is build an edifice to nothing.
What I want is for every one of the sites to be bursting at the seams. I love nothing more than to hear the hustle and bustle and talking of people visiting the museums.