“I’m going to miss coming to such a beautiful place,” says director of development Jessica Welch, as she packs 13 years worth of paperwork into a growing stack of boxes. It’s two weeks before her Jan. 5 departure from the museum, and her 10-year-old daughter Zoe, as part of a school assignment, sits at a small desk alphabetizing files for her mom, as Welch tries to summarize her experience working at a place that is like a second home.
“I love walking in every day and seeing the roofline,” she says. “If you stand at the top of the stairs to the [John Dominis and Patches Damon] Holt Gallery and look out at the roofline, it’s so beautiful and tranquil; they’re just perfectly stacked.”
It’s not surprising that Welch gravitates to a space from which she can oversee her environment, or that she highlights an architectural feature that effectively unifies it. After starting out as a summer intern for then-assistant to the associate director Cathy Ng in 1999, as part of her University of Oregon master’s program in arts administration, Welch steadily climbed to vantages from which she helped steer the museum in positive directions.
“I kept doing more, whatever was needed,” she says. Following her internship, she came on full time in 2002 as an assistant in the development department. Seeing the museum needed help attaining grants, she began “pinch-hitting as a grant writer,” and then, in 2004, helped to launch the museum’s monthly ARTafterDARK program as a way to cultivate new, younger members. The first ARTafterDARK theme was Kung Fu Friday—with the Jackie Chan Foundation as sponsor. The event drew 300 people, who had to take cover in the colonnades and galleries as torrential rain poured all night. Today, the event attracts an average 2,200 guests, with a record 600 people signing up for memberships at the October ARTafterDARK.
“As the museum evolved, I evolved with it, and took on more responsibilities,” explains Welch. “When the opportunity to be the director of development arose in 2013, it was a new challenge. It has been rewarding—and fun—to build our strong team, setting us up for the future.”
As director of development, working with deputy director Hathaway Jakobsen, she assembled around her a strong team that handles fundraising, membership, and events. Development associate John Sy, who performs many of the data entry tasks Welch was doing when she started at the museum, says that Welch’s “firsthand knowledge of every role and responsibility in development is one of a kind. I think it’s what allows her to understand the needs and strengths of our department and align them with the museum’s goals.”
Jakobsen considers herself lucky to have had Welch by her side during her first two years at the museum. “Jessica is a kind and gracious person who has built heartfelt relationships for the museum,” says Jakobsen. “Our staff and trustees have come to depend on Jessica, far beyond her current job description, and all of our visitors have enjoyed a warm welcome from her over the years. I honestly can’t thank Jessica enough for all she has contributed to the museum. Her love of this place is unparalleled and I look forward to seeing her experience the museum as a visitor.”
Working at the museum has been “like taking a 13-year art history course,” says Welch. Landmark exhibitions such as the 2007 Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff and The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan in 2008 opened up new worlds for her as she watched them “evolve from an idea in someone’s brain” to full-fledged exhibitions with every department, from curatorial to installation to development, “making them happen.”
Welch has served under four directors and is proud to be part of teams that have steered the museum away from becoming “an irrelevant dusty ivory tower.”
“During my time here, the museum has become more focused on our community, and is much more visitor friendly,” she says. “And we’ve become smarter about the way we do business. We are getting better at not just serving our audiences but also measuring the impact of that and being able to tell that story.”
The museum’s growth is reflected in Welch, according to her first boss, Cathy Ng, who is now the executive secretary to the director. “I have seen her develop over the years into a confident, astute woman, whose upbeat way always leaves people at ease and inevitably engaged,” Ng says. “Her advancements here over the years prove how capable she is at tackling any challenge.”
As parting advice to her colleagues, Welch says, “Take advantage of the creative space, the lectures and classes; it’s really fun to work with the creative staff that comes from so many different walks of life, so just enjoy that and roll with it.”
What’s next for Welch? A mountain in Hokkaido, Japan, which she plans to snowboard down with her husband, Zoe, and younger daughter Lucy in early February. After that, she says, “Sky’s the limit! That’s what’s next.”
Pictured at top: Jessica Welch in the Joanna Lau Sullivan Chinese Courtyard