'Art educator': New executive director of GumTree Museum of Art

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The new executive director of the GumTree Museum of Art admits she had a strange feeling when the school year began in August.
After spending the previous 11 years as an elementary school art teacher, Kit Stafford now finds herself in quite different territory.
Sometimes, she feels as if she is playing hooky.
“I see my kids out, and I feel pangs of guilt because I’m not at school with them, but I hope I’ll be able to pull them in here,” she said. “I’ve had friends I’ve worked with for 11 years, so that part is hard, but I want to pull them in here, too.”
As she begins her fourth month on the job, however, Stafford said she does find similarities with her previous profession.
“I feel like I’m still an art educator, with a different title,” Stafford said while sitting in her office on a balcony that overlooks the museum’s floor. “The role of a museum is to educate the public about art and about high-quality fine art.”
Stafford spent the month of July working with outgoing director Tina Lutz before assuming the job on Aug. 1.
“Every week I think that the next week will slow down a little, but there is not a slow week,” Stafford said. “I just have to wind up every week and do it all again.”
During October, she was busy participating in several community events, hoping to raise the museum’s profile. The museum sponsored a tent at Chili Fest, threw a Rocky Horror-themed Halloween party and participated in downtown trick-or-treat activities.
This week, it will be hosting an ending reception during the Hops amp& Stops beer festival on Thursday night from 8 to 9.
Stafford is using her experience as an educator to increase the museum’s relationship with the schools. She said that is among her priorities.
“You teach people to appreciate and love art at an early age so they become lifelong supporters of the arts,” she said.
To that end, the museum will begin a new program with TVA, which will sponsor education workshops for kindergarten to fifth-grade students for each of the museum’s next five exhibits.
The “Saturdays at the Museum” program will begin on Nov. 13. From 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., the students will be educated about the exhibit and the artist. They will also make their own art project related to the exhibit.
The cost is $25 for members and $30 for non-members, and lunch and supplies will be provided.
Stafford didn’t necessarily plan to become a teacher after getting her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Mississippi State University.
“My mother teaches, and I had teacher-friends,” she said. “I got pulled in, and I loved that life.”
But she also was ready for a change.
“When I did find out the position was open, I just couldn’t get it out of my head,” she said. “It happened quickly, and it felt like the right move. I felt like it would challenge me in a new direction.”
Stafford has begun allowing corporate sponsorships for exhibits and has been planning a Feb. 2 blue-tie event at Elkin Place that will be based on the museum’s annual formal “with an energetic new twist.” The event will feature dancing, a silent auction and a paired scavenger hunt, in addition to art, food and wine.
Planning also has begun for this year’s Gum Tree Festival, which will be May 7-8.
With two exhibit openings and three busy months behind her, she said she is beginning to settle in to the new job.
“I feel like I’m getting the flow of things,” she said.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.