Alumni Spotlight - Alexandra Nicholis Coon

The field of art history is one rich with inspiring paths to follow. Between curating, researching, and taking on leadership roles, Alexandra Nicholis Coon has worn many hats since earning her B.A. degree in Art History from Kent State in 2001. She went on to earn a Masters degree in Art History from Case Western Reserve University and a Collections Care Certificate from the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation. Her professional career began as an intern at the Massillon Museum, where she has climbed the ladder all the way up to her current role as Executive Director. 

Alex Coon working with a conservationist looking at photo portraits on a table for an exhibition.
In addition to her extensive career at the Massillon Museum, Alexandra helped found the Museum Studies program at Walsh University, where she also taught as an adjunct professor for five years. She has served as President of the Ohio Museums Association board, and is currently Chair of the board of Visit Canton, the Stark County Convention and Visitors' Bureau, and is a member of the Cleveland Print Room, Aultman Health Foundation, and Soroptimist International of Canton/Stark County boards of directors. 

We checked in with Alexandra to find out more about her life and career. In this interview, she reflects on her beginnings at Kent State and discusses some of her many achievements as an art historian. 

Q: Tell us about some of your favorite memories and experiences from when you were a student at Kent State.

A: I have many fond memories of attending Kent State University, which I will always hold dear, and which provided me the foundation of character, of professionalism, and of academic studies that led me to where I am today. Having been a member of the Honors College from the beginning of my time at Kent, I had the opportunity to engage in community service through a course requirement; that led me to volunteer for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Portage County, and I maintain a relationship with my Little Sister to this very day. I joined my fellow art club students on a trip to London and Paris, and co-founded a student newspaper, STAND, with fellow Honors College cohorts. My Honors Thesis experience taught me discipline, research skills, and the value of finding your own voice and perspective among others throughout history. It also taught me, perhaps more importantly, humility, acceptance of constructive criticism, and patience. I'm also grateful to Kent for introducing me to a classmate in freshman Honors English class who would become— nearly fifteen years later— my husband.  

Q: You currently hold several professional roles. How do you balance all of your responsibilities, and do these roles often overlap with one another?

A: I have always strived to make connections. While I believe most everyone I know is aware of my desire to continually bridge resources, people, and ideas, it wasn't until I was speaking with a friend of mine a few months ago that this answer about balance came into focus. For us, he explained, what we do is a lifestyle. In other words, I do not see my career at the Museum as a 9-5; there is no clock to stare at, no card to punch, no beginning nor end to the day, in my mind. And one thing carries over into the next; my roles at Visit Canton, the Cleveland Print Room, Soroptimist, as a mother, and as a partner always integrate facets of the projects on which I'm working and the things I love so dearly. That having been said, I've always been someone who likes to stay busy, connected, and keep irons in a lot of fires.

Alex Coon showing Senator Sherrod Brown an exhibition at the Massillon Museum.
Q: What is your favorite part of being Executive Director of the Massillon Museum?

A: I always hoped that, upon stepping into my leadership role at the Museum, I would not lose the ability to communicate with my colleagues, even after transitioning into a position of more authority, and to balance my responsibilities to provide oversight with the organization's best interest in mind. It's something that needs continually nurtured— the ability to remain humble, remain open, and to literally make the time and space for conversations that allow all voices to be heard; this ensures we maintain the culture of diversity, of respect, and of continuing education that is celebrated among our team, and encouraged by our board of directors. My favorite part of being the executive director of the Massillon Museum is watching our conversations evolve, the Museum grow more connected to the community, and watching the ideas germinate and come to fruition.

Q: Can you describe some of your proudest personal achievements as an art director and historian?

A: I have had many opportunities for personal and professional growth, curatorial and administrative achievements about which I'm very proud, and experiences for which I'm immensely grateful. I curated my first large-scale exhibition in 2005 on the topic of 19th century painter, William T. Mathews, and was invited to write a complementary article for Art in America. Other exhibitions I curated and developed the catalogs for focused on the photographers Nell Dorr and Belle Johnson. 

The Massillon Museum exterior showing the expansion of the space.
Because of the Massillon Museum I have traveled to France to research the city of Massillon's namesake; have worked with Ansel Adams' son and daughter-in-law and stayed at their home in Carmel, built by Ansel Adams himself; and developed a close friendship with Dr. Nelly Toll, an artist and hidden child of the Holocaust who passed away, sadly, just this January. Working with a team that included a documentary filmmaker, I spent fifteen years working with Nelly to help steward her inspiring story, first in the form of an exhibition at the Massillon Museum, and then a traveling exhibition seen all over North America and which continues to travel. 

I am proud of having led the renovation of MassMu's storage facility to a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled environment in 2010, and most recently, the 18,000 square-foot expansion of the building. The original 1931 art deco building is now joined by a 2018 architectural cousin and two now-adjoining buildings that allow us to occupy the entire city block. It was a great achievement, resulting from a tremendous team effort and immense community and state support. 

Q: What advice do you have for current art history students who are hoping to pursue a career in the field?

A: See, and be seen. I would encourage students to attend as many exhibits at both galleries and museums as they possibly can. Students have wonderful resources at their disposal on campus, from the Kent State University Museum to The Downtown Gallery. Troppus, Standing Rock, and Group Ten in downtown Kent are among several opportunities students have to engage with artists, arts professionals, and to experience varying interpretations of exhibits and content. I would advise them to soak up every volunteer and intern experience they can, and to visit the array of museums and gallery spaces we are so fortunate to have within an hour's drive, from Massillon and Canton to Akron and Cleveland. 

A group of people at the opening of Fragile Waters at the Massillon Museum
Q: Can you share some information about your upcoming project with Anderson Turner, the Director of Galleries at Kent State?

A: We invited Anderson Turner to collaborate on what we hope will be our fifteenth annual National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program. We've received funding the past fourteen years to host an NEA Big Read program in Massillon, each one focused on a different book around which we develop programming and exhibits related to the book themes. A major component of the Big Read is the distribution of free copies of the book throughout the community. Kent State has collaborated with us on several occasions, hosting book discussions and lectures mostly. Next year, if awarded funds, we will work with Anderson to develop an exhibition of contemporary indigenous artists to coincide with the book "An American Sunrise," by US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. The School of Art's Downtown Gallery will also host a complementary exhibit. Harjo is the first Native American US Poet Laureate, and will be the Museum's keynote speaker in April 2022 if awarded the grant funds. 

Images: (top) Groundbreaking ceremony at Massillon Museum, October 2017, Alexandra Nicholis Coon in the galleries at the Massillon Museum; Studying photographs with visitors in MassMu's Velma B. Erwin Research Room, Senator Sherrod Brown visited the Massillon Museum in February 2020; here Alex is giving him a tour of the Immel Circus, a 2,620-piece hand-carved circus diorama and permanent exhibit at the Museum; Massillon Museum exterior, 2019, showing 1931 original art deco building at left, and 2018 expansion at right; Fragile Waters exhibition opening at Massillon Museum, June 7, 2014 - Pictured here are, in the back row: Emily Vigil, Keith Rock, Alex Coon, Andy Rock, Ed Monnelly, Barbara Cox of Photokunst, Dr. Michael Adams (son of Ansel Adams); in the front row are seated Jeanne Adams (daughter-in-law of Ansel Adams and the exhibit's curator); the late Ernest H. Brooks II, internationally-renown underwater photographer, and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly.  The exhibition featured Ansel Adams, Ernest Brooks, and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly's black-and-white photography.

POSTED: Friday, February 26, 2021 - 2:50pm
UPDATED: Friday, April 9, 2021 - 11:05am
WRITTEN BY:
Grace Carter