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Molly Uline-Olmstead

Meet Molly Uline-Olmstead, VSA Ohio’s New Executive Director

 From her first job unpacking filing cabinets in the basement of the Ohio Art League to her work creating connections between museums, educators, and diaspora populations through the Oklahoma and Ohio Exchange program, Molly Uline-Olmstead has done it all. She’s trekked across the state to collect artwork for display in government offices, organized thousands of students and their complex research projects for Ohio History Day, and managed an ever-evolving art studio that aimed to give everyone the opportunity to create.

Now, Uline-Olmstead is taking over at the helm of
VSA Ohio, the state’s organization on arts and disability, at what feels like the start of the next chapter. With a new executive team in place and a complete rebrand on the way, Uline-Olmstead is excited for what the future holds. She sat down to talk about all things art and accessibility in this Q&A:


You recently joined VSA Ohio as the organization’s new executive director. What led you to a career in the arts?
My background is a little bit all over the place. I started out in the arts at the Ohio State University. I went to school for fine arts—painting and drawing—which is funny because I don’t do any painting or drawing now. But I got a BFA, and while I was at OSU, I did my first internship with the Ohio Art League. That was my first real exposure to arts nonprofits.

I was there for about a year, and then I graduated and got a job—two jobs, actually. I got an internship at the Ohio Department of Education and then an after-school teaching position where I was a teaching assistant for a Catholic school’s latchkey program.

After a few years, I applied for the master of arts policy and administration program over at OSU. I got in and soon realized that what I wanted to do was the arts policy and administration and museum education track. I absolutely loved it.
 
I graduated in 2009 and applied for everything I could over the summer. Then I got hired at the Ohio Historical Society, now the Ohio History Connection. I didn’t have a history background, but they were sure that I could bring my experience in curriculum standards and museum education and learn the history along the way. I spent a lot of time when I first got there just reading every history book I could find around the office. I would just grab one and read it, and it didn’t really matter what it was about.
 
Your time at the Columbus Museum of Art as manager of studio initiatives focused on making the museum’s studio a welcoming environment for visitors to create, experiment, and explore. How did this job inform your approach to accessibility in the arts and your new role as VSA Ohio’s executive director?
When I came to the Columbus Museum of Art, the philosophy about creativity, about visitor-centered and person-centered approaches, was just a total breath of fresh air. Because we were the museum’s studio, we had this niche where we could say, “Yes, and.” “Yes, we’re a place to come and view art, and we’re a place for teens through our teen open studio.” “And we’re a place for students who might be on the spectrum.” “And we’re a place for arts camp kids.”
 
So now, I’m getting to bring that to VSA. VSA is a place where, when people have told you all your life, “You don’t belong, this is not where you get to be, this is not how art works,” we sort of get to stand up and be like, “Excuse me, it is 100 percent where you belong, and it is 100 percent how it works.” I feel really good about that.
 
Looking ahead to the future for VSA Ohio, what are you most excited about? What should we keep an eye out for?
The big thing that is coming up, which I think is super exciting, is we are rebranding. The most exciting part is where we get to start talking about our brand values and our brand voice. What are the words that encompass who we are as an organization and the people that we serve?
 
Now we are at this point where we get to pull all of these awesome words and concepts together. Like “possibility” and “welcoming” and “advocacy” and “excitement.” And that then feeds into all of the other stuff we do and sort of renews our purpose.
 
VSA Ohio is such an important statewide arts service organization that provides so many resources to Ohioans through its programming and initiatives. What do you wish more people knew about VSA Ohio’s mission and the work you do throughout the state?
Call or email us. Megan Fitze, our new director of programs, and I keep joking that we are two people hanging out in Columbus, figuring out stuff, and making new friends. Sometimes organizations seem faceless, but it’s really just us in the office, and we are very approachable.
 
I think that is so essential for an organization that serves people who a lot of times have doors shut in their faces. For them, they often hear, “This is not for you. You can’t do this.” And they get really tired of being told what they can’t do, as all of us do.
 
The actuality is 1 in 5 people is going to experience or have a disability once in their life. So, we’re not other, we’re everyone.
 
What advice would you have for people who want to know more about accessibility or might not be sure where to start?
I would remind everyone that it’s a partnership. It’s incremental. Just because a group is pushing you, it’s not because that group is angry with you. It’s because they want you to succeed and do better. When we think about including people of color in programming, including women in collecting artwork, including people with disabilities in our physical spaces, yes, there might be some anger and disappointment there, but in the end, the goal of everyone is just to be more inclusive and to lift each other up.
 
Now, I know that’s real relentless optimism.
 
I would also say include the people that you are doing the work about and for. Nothing about us without us. If you have a group that you can talk to, maybe the most important thing to them is that they just want to be able to attend your institution. They just want to be able to attend your event. There are some really basic ways that we can bring down those barriers, and these approaches might be something you never even thought of. There are plenty of other people out there who want to help you and make it work.
 
Finally, brick and mortar change is not the only path to accessibility. Human-to-human interaction is the way to accessibility. You can get around a lot of frustrating things about your building or your exhibitions or other physical issues if you can just sit down and talk to someone and build a connection.
 
In addition to supporting artists through VSA Ohio, you’re also an artist yourself. Can you tell us about some of the projects you’re working on?
One thing that I sort of latched onto is the topic of man-made environmental disasters. I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, which is coal country. And the neighborhood I lived in, when you would go out our front door, you could look up and see South Mountain, which was a mountaintop-removal limestone quarry. And, as I lived there, every year, a little bit more of the mountain would be gone. And you could see it. It was very clear. We lived not far from Centralia, Pennsylvania, which is the site of probably the most famous mine fire in American history. The entire town is basically condemned. I think two or three people still live there.
 
When I moved to Ohio, one of the first places I got to visit as an Ohio History Connection staff person was New Straitsville, Ohio, which also had a famous mine fire. There is something so wrong about the earth beneath you being on fire. It’s so incongruous. That is fascinating to me.
 
So, I have this series that I have been working on for a long time, where it is fiber work—it is a lot of embroidery, weaving, and knitting—made into housewares addressing these different human-caused environmental disasters. I guess in my mind, in the future, I have this entire line of beautiful handcrafted housewares all about awful man-made disasters. The series is all about lovely relics of people’s home life and what happens when that home has been usurped.
 
What do the arts mean to you?
I come very much from the philosophy that everyone has the capacity for creativity. We are all creative in our own way. I think if we could all be a little bit more curious, creative, critical, and aware of the fact that we are those things, we would all be more mindful, warmer, and more empathetic people.
 
It’s sort of like “namaste,” which means “the light in me sees the light in you.” The creativity in me can witness the creativity in you, and we share that. For me, the arts and creativity are about a shared humanity and the essential thing that makes us human. The arts are the core of our humanness.
 
It’s very lofty but also very basic. If we’re being creative, we’re being our best selves, and then we’re better to everyone else.
 
Is there anything else we should know about you or the work you’ll be doing at VSA Ohio?
I guess I would want people to be a little bit—or a lot bit, depending on who you are—open to what is around you outside of your daily commute and routine. Look a little closer, be a little more curious, be a little bit more willing to step outside your comfort zone and put yourself out there.
 
I think the people we work with at VSA Ohio have to do that all of the time, and it’s hard. So, I would ask people to look around themselves and do more noticing and more appreciating of what is around us every day. Just be more aware of your surroundings and what others are going through.


ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL

The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Interview by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Featured photo courtesy of Molly Uline-Olmstead
  



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