STORY BY GIULIANA LAMANTIA
By the afternoon, Jeff Fleming has already spoken to London about an art exhibition he wants to do in 2016, written the introduction for a lecture and had a brainstorming meeting downtown with the Iowa Arts Counsel.
Fleming has yet to meet with a lawyer later in the afternoon. He plans to top the day off with a director’s dinner that night to thank patrons of the Des Moines Art Center.
“You wouldn’t even know the time if emails didn’t exist,” Fleming laughed. “You spend a great deal of time on the computer and time on the phone communicating.”
Being the executive director of the Des Moines Art Center, Fleming never has a typical day.
Primarily, he reaches out to patrons, artists, staff, community members, government officials and more to build relationships.
Which brings him full circle because to Fleming, life is about building relationships.
Having an immense passion for art since childhood, it was never a question to Fleming that he would pursue it.
Albeit the “starving artist” notion, he received support for his dreams and now gets to do what he loves everyday.
It was his communication and connections that got him there, which now drive his entire career.
“I didn’t think about getting a job or how am I going to live,” Fleming said. “It’s just something you had to do. You follow your passions, which I think we all should follow our passions. If you do and provide those opportunities for luck, good things can happen.”
Fleming began his education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From there, he moved on to East Carolina University where he received his BFA and then Pratt Institute in New York City for his MFA in painting and art history.
After he graduated and moved on to Pratt, Fleming swears his entire career began with one phone call.
“I called someone I didn’t know, I said ‘I’m moving to New York, I need a job can you help me,’” Fleming said.
“I got a job at the Met. Someone else read my resume. I didn’t have any skills — I still don’t — but the next person looked at my resume and said, ‘Oh my God,’ you worked at the Met,” Fleming said. “I didn’t do anything important but I worked at the Met. One thing led to another. My whole career is based upon one phone call.”
Fleming originally planned on teaching, however his job in the fundraising office at the Metropolitan Opera House changed his interests.
From learning how to develop connections with others and to raise money through those connections, he was inspired to pursue art administration.
Throughout his career, Fleming has held many positions.
He worked at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston South Carolina, the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in North Carolina, before moving to Des Moines where he has worked at the Art Center for 15 years.
“The overriding goal wasn’t I want to be a director, it’s I want to do great work,” Fleming said. “Then you just sort of follow the path that life leads you.”
Following life’s path in terms of his goals meant creating relationships and connections as he had at the Met.
To Fleming, not only is art a collaboration, but life itself.
“I would say in any field whether it’s art or business or politics or anything, it’s about building relationships with people because that’s how things get done,” Fleming said. “Develop your list and work very diligently to develop those relationships because that is going to position you for the next step.”
When it comes to his current role at the Art Center, Fleming uses his refined communication skills to collaborate with staff on a daily basis.
“We have so much in common that all of our ideas seem to match our interests and the things we do at the museum,” senior curator Gilbert Vicario said, who works closely with Fleming to plan exhibitions at the museum. “There always seems to be a common connection between what we want to do, so it makes working with him really great.”
Fleming’s personable qualities throughout his career and life shine through in his artistic interests.
Some of the most interesting forms of art to him are the ones that provide personal experience,or the items that have been touched by human hands.
“Although I work in the modern and contemporary world, I also have a great affinity towards historical objects,” Fleming said.
“For example, utilitarian ceramics. Like early Chinese ceramics or Vietnamese ceramics, or even day-to-day objects. Those that have lived a life, not necessarily had been placed on a shelf and just looked at, but those that we have touched and used. I’m very interested in that.”