Marta Churchwell: Joplin arts community losing an asset in Mai

Globe/Roger Nomer Josie Mai is the new director for the Spiva Center for the Arts.

Sometimes, you must turn your back on something to keep from losing it completely.

That’s why Josie Mai turned her back on a lengthy career in art and packed her bags for Albuquerque, New Mexico, to become a financial planner. She closed out her stint as director of Spiva Center for the Arts on Friday.

Josie had spent decades in art — creating it, teaching it and administering it. She had taught in Kansas City schools and a nonprofit arts program before teaching art at Missouri Southern and Pittsburg (Kansas) State University. In May 2016, she became executive director of Spiva, a role that led to significant involvement in the city’s largest art venture ever — development of a $16 million to $17 million privately funded arts and entertainment center.

Being involved in art at that level had begun to weigh on her. Fearing that she would eventually burn out on it, she decided to walk away from it.

“I loved art too much. That’s why I’m leaving,” she said. “I was afraid I’d get jaded on down the line. ... I needed something where art wasn’t my thing all day, every day.”

When I heard that Josie was leaving Joplin for Albuquerque, I wasn’t that surprised.

She and her partner, Lance Estep, have spent a lot of time traveling the Southwest, and it was evident that both loved that area.

I also reasoned that it would be a good place for Lance to pursue his profession in archeology.

But I was dumbfounded when I learned that Josie was going into financial planning for Edward Jones. It seemed like the opposite end of the career spectrum from art. She agreed with me when I told her so.

But Josie admitted that she’s never shied from major career moves.

“My brain is ready for something new. I need to try something else,” she said. “This will allow me to afford to buy art and support artists in that way.”

During her time at Spiva, Josie molded the community art center into more than a traditional visual arts venue.

Attempting to appeal to the broader art interests of the community, the center began offering classes in such areas as floral design and the culinary arts. To promote lifelong learning, it launched Art Lab, offering Saturday workshops on everything from traditional art to cake decorating. It greatly expanded the number of classes the center offered, particularly for adults.

Josie’s greatest pride has been expanded outreach to marginal populations. Under her leadership, the center began a veterans’ art program and will soon provide therapeutic art programming at the recently opened Veterans Affairs Clinic in Joplin. It also initiated partnerships to provide such programming at Lafayette House, a local women’s shelter, and Ozark Center, a mental health services provider.

Accompanying this outreach has been a new focus on reaching younger adults, recruiting them to serve on the Spiva board and its committees and as general volunteers. It has attracted an increasingly younger crowd to Spiva events.

“Diversity is one of the things we need to continue to work on,” Josie said. “That’s what art does. It brings people together.”

The increased programming and outreach couldn’t have been done without increased staffing, which was accomplished when Josie secured private funding for full-time positions. Until she took the leadership, Spiva had been hobbled by having only part-time staff, aside from the executive director and, in recent years, an assistant to the director. Now, five of Spiva’s seven staff work full time. It means a lot to what Spiva can offer.

“It makes it more dynamic as an overall organization,” said Josie. “There’s richer collaboration with full time staff.”

The replacement of Josie comes at a crucial time for Spiva as it works with Connect2Culture, other arts entities and the city to develop the arts and entertainment center proposed for Seventh and Wall streets, adjoining Memorial Hall. The complex is to include a new home for Spiva.

Considering the momentum of that project, Josie said her replacement will have to hit the floor running, developing community buy-in and partnerships with arts organizations that will be potentially involved. It will mean acclimatizing to Spiva quickly to allow a smooth transition from the present building to the proposed new one in the next two to three years.

The Spiva board is to begin interviewing candidates for Josie’s position in the next couple of weeks, said Steve Graddy, board president.

Graddy summed up what many of us are thinking about losing Josie from our community and as an arts leader.

“While we are sad that she is leaving, we understand that she has an opportunity to do something new and exciting in Albuquerque,” Graddy said. “We are happy for her and wish her nothing but joy and success in her new adventure.”

Contact Marta Churchwell with column ideas and comments at

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Marta is an arts columnist for The Joplin Globe.