HMA Announcing New Leadership

Jon Carfagno has been named the museum’s new Executive Director

Jon Carfagno has been named the museum’s new Executive Director

The Hickory Museum of Art has announced a leadership team for the museum that consists of a new Executive Director and a newly formed Associate Director position.  The museum is proud to announce that Jon Carfagno has been named the museum’s new Executive Director, and Clarissa Starnes has been promoted to the position of Associate Director.  In addition to these changes, the museum’s current bookkeeper, Mary Johnson, has been promoted to the position of Business Manager.

Carfagno succeeds Lisë Swensson, who announced her retirement in 2016 and will leave after 13 successful years as the museum’s Executive Director. Carfagno will assume his role at the Hickory Museum of Art on April 1st, 2017. He was selected after a national search overseen by a committee appointed by the museum’s Board.

After serving internships at museums in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Berlin, Jon Carfagno joined the Education Department of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas in 2005. He grew in his role to become the School Programs Manager, where he planned and administered all the professional development and curriculum initiatives for K-12 educators.  He then joined the Grand Rapids Art Museum in June 2009 to serve as their Director of Learning and Audience Engagement.  He led numerous initiatives that brought local, statewide and national recognition to the museum during his time. For instance, Design Briefs, an entrepreneurial start up incubator program he created in collaboration with thought leaders from the West Michigan technology community, was featured on both an internationally attended webinar and the Alliance of American Museum’s Center for the Future of Museums website.

Currently, Jon serves as the Vice President of the Board for the Museum Education Roundtable a national board that publishes the Journal of Museum Education.  He led the Education Department at GRAM in receiving the Distinguished Service Award from the Michigan Art Education Association in 2013. Last fall, he was invited to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to participate with a group of art museum education department leaders to envision a professional services organization designed to support of the future of leadership in the field.

A frequent speaker on the topics of human centered design, methods of innovation, and organizational theory, Mr. Carfagno is most actively concerned about museum futures, sustainability, and inclusion. He holds an M.A. in Art History with a Distinction from the University of Massachusetts and completed Kendall College of Art and Design’s MBA Certificate Program in Design and Innovation Management.

“We are very excited to have Jon serve as the fifth Executive Director of the Hickory Museum of Art,” said Alan Jackson, President of the Board.  “He is a true visionary who understands how to create a level of engagement between an art museum and the community it serves.  He will bring to the Hickory area a wealth of experiences and knowledge that will serve the museum very well in the years to come.  We are happy to welcome Jon, his wife Megan, and their children to the Hickory area and look forward to them becoming an integral part of our community.”

Jon is married to Megan Carfagno, and they have two children.

“There are so many exciting developments happening in Catawba County right now. My family and I could not be happier about this opportunity to contribute to the growth and new directions that are underway” said Carfagno.  “One of the museum’s generous supporters, Barry Huffman, once said, ‘art can be a tool to see the world around us in more innovative and creative ways.’ I am grateful to be joining a team that has a strong history of community-focused programming and look forward to working with them to continue making the museum a marketplace of bold new ideas.”

Clarissa Starnes has served as the Collections and Shop HMA Manager of the Hickory Museum of Art since 2015.  During her time at the museum, Starnes has focused on promoting and enhancing publicity of local artists through festivals, exhibitions, and the museum store.  She has several years of experience as an Art for All Coordinator with the museum, teaching art lessons and planning art projects for a variety of members in the surrounding community.

She holds a Bachelor of Arts with a minor in Visual Arts from Lenoir-Rhyne University, where she graduated with First Honors, was on the President’s List for each of the years of her enrollment, and received the Margaret A. Berry Art Award for several years in a row.

Starnes will serve as the Associate Director for the Hickory Museum of Art, where she will focus on the management of museum operations and opportunities to engage a larger and diverse audience to the organization’s events, exhibitions, and festivals.  She will also continue to serve as Collections Manager for the large selection of artwork currently owned by the museum.  She will assume this role and responsibility on April 1st, 2017.

Mary Johnson has been with the museum since 2002, serving in several roles including Membership Coordinator, Administrative Assistant, and her current role as Bookkeeper and Office Manager.  She holds an Associate of Applied Science degree in Business Administration, and has over 30 years of bookkeeping experience.

In her new role as Business Manager, Johnson will continue to manage the financial aspects of the museum but will also assume responsibilities for other business-related aspects of the museum.

“With Jon serving as Executive Director, Clarissa serving as Associate Director, and Mary’s new role as Business Manager, we feel that the Hickory Museum of Art has the right leadership team to continue its tradition of success and positive impact in the Hickory and Catawba County area,” said Linda Greenwell, Chairman of the Executive Director Search Committee.  “We are very appreciative of Lisë’s excellent leadership of the museum for the last 13 years, and feel confident that the new leadership team will continue the work she started.”


About the Hickory Museum of Art
The Hickory Museum of Art is an art museum in downtown Hickory, North Carolina that holds exhibitions, events, and public educational programs based on a permanent collection of 19th through 21st century American art.  The museum also features a long-term exhibition of Southern contemporary folk art, showcasing the work of self-taught artists from around the region. The Hickory Museum of Art is North Carolina’s second oldest museum, established in 1944 by local artist Paul Whitener.  The museum’s permanent collection includes over 2,000 art objects, ranging from Hudson River School paintings, American art pottery, Glass Art, High-Speed Photography, and the work of regional artists.

Hickory Museum of Art Executive Director Announces Retirement

Hickory, NCLisë Swensson, who helped attract artists and exhibits from around the world to Hickory Museum of Art (HMA) and expanded its reach in the local community during more than 12 years as executive director, announced recently that she will retire.

Swensson, 65, who became HMA executive director in 2003, plans to leave her job in March 2017, giving the Museum’s board six months to search for a replacement.  Once her successor has been identified and employed by the Museum, she looks forward to continuing work in areas of art education, community arts, exhibitions and arts fundraising. Swensson is also eager to try her hand at art sales.

While she is sad to be leaving her work at HMA, Swensson said she is proud of the Museum’s accomplishments during her time as executive director.

“I continued the vision of (museum founder) Paul Whitener; I’m lucky to be a part of that,” she said. “I love working on projects with creative, passionate people, especially when a variety of cultural expressions are shared.”

HMA Board President Alan Jackson said Swensson has brought a high level of creativity, professionalism and enthusiasm to Hickory Museum of Art, which would not be the organization it is today if not for her energy and passion.

“Her efforts have made the Museum a true destination for local residents, as well as visitors from around the nation and the world,” Jackson said. “The quality and variety of exhibitions, educational activities and community events we have all enjoyed have been the result of a vision for the Museum that Lisë has created and shared since she first joined us.”

Kathryn Greathouse, executive director of the United Arts Council of Catawba County, said Swensson has made a tremendous contribution to HMA and the arts community in the Catawba Valley.

“None of us will forget what she has done for the Hickory Museum of Art and, indeed, the entire community here,” Greathouse said. “She has opened up HMA to new audiences and has initiated new programs that have been highly successful.  HMA has taken giant leaps forward under her leadership.”

Under Swensson’s guidance, the Museum drew nationally and internationally known artists and works, such as Israeli sculptor Orna Ben Ami’s exhibit, “The Softness of Iron,” and “Unexpected Beauty,” a collection of photos by Steve McCurry, who took the famous “Afghan Girl” photo that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. HMA partnered with the Catawba Valley Camera Club on the McCurry exhibit, which closed this past May.

In 2005, the Museum displayed “AFTERMATH,” an exhibition by New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz documenting the 9/11 terror attacks. The exhibit’s journey to Hickory began with a simple car trip that Swensson took. While driving to work the month after September 11, 2001, Swensson heard part of a radio interview with the nationally recognized Meyerowitz discussing his project documenting the monumental clean-up process at Ground Zero. 

“I just sat in my car and cried because this artist’s words moved me so much,” Swensson recalled.  “I wrote him an email and, months later, his assistant called me and said, ‘we’re impressed with what you wrote and, if we can work something out, we’re interested.’”

Former HMA board member and past president Mary Elizabeth Geitner said Swensson was key to attracting such strong exhibits.

“She has brought in wonderful exhibits, and it takes an executive director to make exhibits happen,” Geitner shared. “She has to knock on doors and get funding. Lisë hasn’t just holed herself up in the Museum; she has gone into the community.”

Swensson said she is also proud of the Museum’s efforts to reach into the community with programs such as Art for All, launched in 2004 soon after she arrived, that continues to involve low-income and at-risk children in art- making projects.

“The Hickory Museum of Art needs to be an integral part of this region and beyond,” she explained. “HMA is sometimes described as a ‘jewel on top of a crown.’ Instead of being ‘worn’ for special occasions, the Museum needs to be part of the day-to-day experiences of those representing all socio economic backgrounds and interests.”

HMA board member Trish Johnson said Swensson worked hard to connect the Museum with all parts of the community.

“Lisë tried to deliberately be inclusive of the entire community,” Johnson said. “She wanted the Museum to be reflective of the community, to involve the under-involved. She wanted everyone to feel the Museum was theirs.”

Swensson promoted diversity not just among people, but in art as well, Johnson said. In 2014, the Museum joined with the Hickory Pubic Library and the Hickory Community Theater to present a celebration of the play “Crowns,” about church hats worn by African American women. As part of the celebration, the Museum hosted a display of hats from members of the community.

“She’s always looking for avenues to make sure all people are included, from folk art to all kinds of art, not just paintings and drawings,” Johnson added. “She doesn’t miss the furniture aspect of it or the fabric aspect of it. She uses all media.”

Looking to the future, Swensson said the Museum has developed a partnership with the Downtown Newton Development Association and the City of Newton to sponsor the Foothills Folk Art Festival that will be held in historic downtown Newton on Saturday, October 1. This event is based on folk art festivals that HMA has held in Hickory and in Sherrills Ford since 2005.

Later this year, the Museum will feature contributions of women in the visual arts, including a partnership with Hickory Printing Solutions, which will produce a catalog and calendar for the exhibition “Woman Made: Women Artists from the Hickory Museum of Art Collection,” December 17, 2016 – April 23, 2017. The exhibition is being guest curated by Karin Borei. Additional community groups are encouraged to contact HMA to play a part in this multi-faceted celebration of women artists.

Swensson began as executive director in December 2003, when she and her husband, artist Dan Smith, moved to Hickory. Before that, she was director of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Va., from 1995 to 2003. She also has been chief art curator at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, S.C., director of the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County in Camden, S.C., and a high school teacher and coach.

Anyone interested in being considered for HMA’s executive director position will find application instructions at or by emailing

Hickory Museum of Art is located on the SALT Block, 243 3rd Avenue NE, Hickory. Admission is free. For more information about Museum exhibitions, art classes, field trips, and events, visit or call 828-327-8576.

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