Jo Mueller: Our generation has chance to build on earlier legacy

Jo Mueller

For more than a dozen years, I was lucky enough to lead Spiva Center for the Arts.

Initially, I didn’t realize what a gift it was or how thankful I would be. It was a job, after all, but it turned out to be the job that gave me everything: I got to work with talented, dedicated staff and volunteers; I got to reach out to artists and observe reactions to hundreds of exhibits; I got to witness exuberant children stretch their imaginations and celebrate their art-making mojo. And in 2011, I witnessed the power of art to help people work through their collective sorrows. In a city torn apart by a massive EF5 tornado, Spiva’s galleries became places of healing and reflection where art was key.

I always knew the greatest part of my job was getting to say “thank you” to those who had — and have — a stake in Spiva. For generations, hundreds of donors, artists, volunteers and members secured its future and established a place for the arts in the city’s landscape.

How does that landscape — and a city’s potential — grow? Generation by generation, organization by organization, building by building. Pioneers and visionaries drive a city forward. They see a need and enlist the help of others. Committees form, ideas advance, and with tenacity and a large portion of generosity at every level, visions become reality.

We’re thankful for those who came before us and imagined progress. We may not know what the Schifferdeckers, the Sergeants or the Murphys did, but our predecessors celebrated momentous civic contributions by naming streets and ball fields and buildings after a host of visionaries. We navigate sections of the city by their names. We give directions based on landmarks.

What might Joplin look like if the Freeman family and the Sisters of Mercy had looked the other way? What about the initiatives that came later: the nonprofit organizations that offer support for children and families and those with fewer resources and more problems than most; those who imagined not just a college but a four-year university here; and recently, those who envisioned medical and dental schools in Joplin?

These and countless others are causes that started with grassroots efforts that gained momentum. Passionate residents identified unmet needs and persisted, daring to dream of something more for Joplin, inviting others to participate, painting a picture of what could be.

Joplin is still becoming. The energy is here. Together, we’re building a future that invests in quality-of-life issues. No matter your path, your profession or level of achievement, it’s our turn to be part of a visionary movement.

The Harry M. Cornell Arts and Entertainment Complex, projected to open in 2022, will house a state-of-the-art theater, outdoor amphitheater and a new home for Spiva Center for the Arts. Our talents and our gifts will transform the parking lot at Seventh and Wall into a place where opportunities and experiences in music, theater, dance, visual and literary arts will abound — far beyond what’s usually found in a city this size.

With Connect2Culture leading the way, 244 individuals and corporations have contributed $14.8 million toward the $16 million goal. Donations run the gamut — as small as the $0.26 found on the parking lot the day of the launch party (which doubled to $0.52 because of the 1:1 match that went into effect that day), to $5 or $10, $50 or $100, all the way to Cornell’s lead gift of $5 million.

It’s November. Let’s give thanks for this community, for visionary predecessors and current day innovators, for the educators and artists in all disciplines who stretch our understanding and make Joplin a richer, more diverse place.

Let’s give thanks for the donors — big, small and in between — who are engaged in the drive to create the Cornell Complex, a place for entertainment, education and celebration, a place where creativity and imagination will shine. They will all get to say, “I helped build that!” You can too.

Your financial gift of any size will make a difference. You may give to the Cornell Complex through secure online giving. Please visit to make your pledge or by mailing a check to Connect2Culture, 407 S. Pennsylvania Ave., Joplin, MO 64801.

Jo Mueller is a former director of Joplin’s George A. Spiva Center for the Arts and a 2016 recipient of the Missouri Arts Award for Leadership in the Arts.

Recommended for you