Jacksonville is well on its way to becoming an international player in the world of fine arts, thanks in part to Caitlin Doherty’s global vision, passion for developing the local art community, and fearless determination to push the River City out of its staid comfort zone.
With a career spanning three continents, MOCA’s new director has been revitalizing the cultural institution since she took the reins in March 2017. Her curatorial choices are distinctly international: 2019 welcomes new exhibits by American artists, a show by three Chinese artists this summer, and the commissioning of a Sudanese Qatari artist. Doherty’s unafraid to step onto the world stage and represent Northeast Florida. She was one of only two museum leaders from the US recently invited to speak at a forum in Beijing about the future of education within art museums. “MOCA’s voice is already being heard and I have no doubt it will continue to participate and lead those conversations,” she says.
Curatorial phenom. World traveler. Game changer. Caitlin Doherty is all of these, but if you met the soft-spoken director you wouldn’t know she’s a museum powerhouse. Her warm smile and easy laugh put one at ease and she defines herself in simple terms, “I’m a nanny of two, a lover of art, and I have the privilege to live and work in Jacksonville, where I direct a museum of contemporary art.”
Her roots are proudly Scottish and Irish. She grew up in Edinburgh, then moved to Ireland where she met her husband. Doherty served as the inaugural director of Linsmore Castle Arts and taught art history, design history, and museum and gallery studies at Ireland’s Waterford Institute of Technology. Teaching brought her great joy: “It’s like being a child in a sweetie shop [candy shop], getting to talk about the things that you love,” she says.
In 2012, Doherty’s career went international. “Somewhat accidentally, we all ended up going on a grand tour where we – myself, my husband, and my two children – moved to the Middle East, where I was asked to run an art space for Virginia Commonwealth University at the branch campus in Qatar,” Doherty recalls. She organized major exhibitions alongside the Qatar Foundation and the Qatar Museum, featuring international contemporary art and design. Her journey brought her to the United States in 2015, where she served as the chief curator and deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. She curated significant international exhibitions in Michigan before moving to Jacksonville in 2017.
Growing up in a home where art and culture were valued as highly as math and science, Doherty was encouraged to follow her heart from a young age. “I didn’t really have a career plan. I never really have. You just follow your heart and your head and I’m passionate about art,” she says. “My parents didn’t say, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ but rather they said, ‘What would you like to study?’ They encouraged me to look at education in a much more holistic way and I wanted to study the history of art so that’s what I did.”
“I work in contemporary art because I’m interested in the world that I’m a part of and that I’m bringing my children up in,” Doherty explains. “I think if you look at any society from the past, we learn about society by looking through the lens of its art and culture. For me, contemporary art – the art of our time – provides a lens for us to understand the world around us a wee bit differently.”
Art education creates well-rounded creative thinkers, and Doherty is passionate about providing access to the arts to children from all walks of life. “If you look at children who are exposed to art and culture and you look at children who are not exposed to art and culture, invariably those who are meet the recognized matrix for success at a much greater percentage. This is not an artsy figure; this is nationally recognized over and over again,” Doherty explains, pointing out that it’s often children from minority groups, those with learning challenges, and those for whom English is a second language who suffer the most. “I would argue that it is incumbent upon institutions such as MOCA to provide ways in, unique learning opportunities to nourish our sense of community in the same way that we consider nourishing and growing our kids in other ways.”
MOCA works hard to support Title I students, a fact Doherty is immensely proud of. “Something that’s particularly exciting is that we’ve received the DuPont Grant to be able to offer our STEAM Passport Program to Title I children,” she says. “That was funding that was cut throughout Duval County Public Schools – not just cut to MOCA, it was cut across the board – we were able to seek and receive grant funding through DuPont in order to continue providing those tours to our Title I children.”
“I think that it’s an important thing, to talk about how you’re allowed to be an artist. It doesn’t need to be just a hobby. It’s something you can actually do. In Scotland and Ireland, arts and culture are part of our everyday, and growing up you see it as a viable reality,” she says. “We need to equip [children] for whatever roles they want to go into—but the arts and the creative industry are an economic driver and contributor nationally. That’s something that should be sustained and grown – not cutting art education for our children, but in fact growing it.”