Art was never a particular passion for Judith Hayner.
During her undergrad art history class at Eastern Michigan University, the professor asked her and five other students to stay after class one day. They had just taken an exam, and she thought, "Did I flunk?"
She excelled. And while she never imagined becoming Executive Director of the Muskegon Museum of Art (MMA) she has been surrounded by art for the past 23 years. "It speaks to me. It's a good reminder that in the mundane of this world, there are very bright spots."
Judith first became involved with MMA in 1994, when she took the position as Assistant Superintendent for Muskegon Public Schools, which had owned and operated the museum for nearly a century. The museum fell under her supervision; she fell in love with the museum.
"It's a very unique place, particularly in Muskegon. This is a small town. We're not a very big community. To have this nature of an institution, this quality of an institution, is very unique."
When MMA's former executive director left in 2003, Judith stepped into the position temporarily—to better understand the needs of the institution before hiring another director. At the time, she found the institution needed a strong, experienced leader to help build a strong financial foundation and increase community engagement and development.
"I decided to jump on it."
Born and raised in Detroit, Judith earned a Bachelor's degree in education from Eastern Michigan University. She moved to Muskegon in 1973. "You couldn't buy a job," she said, so she taught part time before landing the position as Student Advisor for the Adult Public Education Program at Muskegon Public Schools. After a few years, she transitioned into counseling, earning a Master's degree from Western Michigan University and moving to counsel faculty and students at the University of Arkansas.
Throughout her career, Judith left Muskegon three times.
She also returned three times.
And the third time was the charm. After six years in Arkansas, Judith returned to Muskegon to lead Every Woman's Place, before finally becoming affiliated with MMA five years later. "I thought, all right. This is it. I'm supposed to be here."
So she stayed—and this fall, after more than 14 years as MMA's Executive Director, Judith is retiring.
Judith has led MMA and what she calls her "incredibly dedicated and inspiring" staff through many mile markers. Among them, MMA's operational independence from Muskegon Public Schools and numerous inspiring exhibits, including the acclaimed Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian, which has attracted over 20,000 visitors since its opening in May 2017.
MMA's greatest success, Judith notes, is the institution's role in Muskegon through events, galleries and exhibits that represent the identity and needs of the community. At one point, MMA displayed collections from individuals in the city. "This is a welcoming place. It's a place for everybody."
Judith's leadership throughout her career is not unlike the work of an artist. "You have to be able to see the big picture effectively, but you also have to pay attention to the details," she said. "You have to be able to have that vision in mind, but then you have to do the work."
She notes now is the right time—for the both the museum and herself—to step away, though walking out the door the last time will be the hardest thing she's ever had to do.
"This has been the privilege of a lifetime."
Art was never a particular passion for Judith, and yet: "Your careers don't make a lot of sense except in the rearview mirror, and then you can see how one thing leads to the next."
Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.