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In the Spotlight: Stephan Jost and the Mills Art Museum

Glodean Champion

To say Stephan Jost (pronounced “Stefan Yost”), Director of the
Mills Art Museum, loves his job would be an understatement. “There
are only about four days a year when I don’t want to get up and
come to work,” said Jost, smiling. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell
when I’m working.” Not too many people can say that.

He sits on the floor of his office in the Mills Art Museum,
knees tucked beneath him, carefully wrapping a package marked for
places unknown. His prematurely gray closely cropped hair adds an
air of distinction to his bespectacled boyish good looks. He looks
much younger today in blue jeans and a t-shirt but even in a
business suit one would never guess him to be 35. His friendly
nature is apparent immediately as he initiates a sociable
conversation until he can finish taping up the package. He double
checks to be sure the mailing label is secure and all sides of the
package are carefully sealed before leaning it against the wall and
pulling up a chair to get down to business. The transition is
smooth and transparent as the interview begins. His eyes light up
and he smiles as the conversation shifts to two of his favorite
subjects-art and his job.

“The museum is really run as a team and we produce 20 shows a
year. Every two weeks there is a new exhibit, which, is largely in
part due to Stacie Daniels, the museum’s assistant director. She
does the matting, framing, hanging, working with the work/study
students and is very involved with the Senior Exhibition,” Jost
humbly adds. “I have to [stress] that we are a team because
sometimes I get credit for things I didn’t even do. There’s Stacie
and 20 other students, in addition to myself, that make this

In January, 2002, he moved to California and became a part of
the Mills community, where he currently lives on campus with his
partner, Will Scott. His accomplished background and outstanding
people skills have proven beneficial for the museum not only in the
increased donations the museum has received but also its
visibility. Over 10,000 visitors have been through the museum in
the past year, a major increase compared to the 3,500 that passed
through the year before.

Growing up in East Lansing, Mich., a town where most of the
parents were professors (including his own), there was no question
as to whether or not he would attend college. Approximately 90
percent of his high school classmates went on to college. It was,
seemingly, an unspoken expectation throughout the township.

Jost attended Hampshire College where “thinking out of the box”
was encouraged. There were no grades or required courses. Students
determined their major and then sat down with the professors and
worked out their coursework together. It was during an Art History
class his first semester of college that he determined he not only
wanted to major in art but also had a dream of becoming an art
museum director.

Jost brings his “out of the box” thinking to every aspect of his
current position and attributes the increase in visitors, in part,
to the unique design and structure of the museum.

“There’s not a very tight aesthetic in the museum,” explains
Jost. “I want to appeal to a broad audience. There are always some
things on view that engage a lot of people and some things that
repulse or challenge others.”

In addition to pushing the envelope and evoking thought in
museum visitors, he also does the same for his students. Over half
the exhibitions this year will be curated by the students, which is
a great selling point when Jost is traveling around the United
States meeting with donors and introducing the Mills Art Museum.
“The one thing I’ve noticed is the donors don’t care if there’s a
Picasso exhibit or Penny Cooper. What they care about is the museum
is student focused,” explains Jost, as he props his legs up on a
nearby exercise ball.

Travel is old hat for Jost. While in college he spent six months
living in Amsterdam studying 16th century Dutch stained glass
windows. Not a reason most people would visit Amsterdam, but that
is what makes Jost such a fascinating person. “I am interested in
social change and in studying 16th century Dutch stained glass
windows I also got a chance to see the social change going on
during that time. Believe me, the 16th century made the ’60s look
modest in comparison.” Every year since then he has traveled to new
and unexplored exotic places around the world and this year he will
spend time exploring parts of Asia.

Jost began his professional career at the world renowned
Sotheby’s, an auction house located in New York City, assisting
with the coordination and publication of over 130 catalogues
annually. After four years he took another intern position at the
Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery of the University of Texas, where
he researched and catalogued a large print collection that had been
given to the museum.

“The auction world is about money and class and not so much
about art. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s just not what I
wanted to do with my life,” he said.

After several internships with the University of Massachusetts
Fine Arts Gallery, Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, Phillips
Collection in Washington D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York City. He later spent several years with the Allen Memorial
Art Museum at Oberlin College. The museum was an object-focused
academic museum and Jost made access and utilization of the
collection to the entire campus. As the Curatorial Research
Assistant, Jost’s initiative resulted in over 60 non-art history
classes integrating the museum collection into their

Most people with drive and determination are usually inspired
and influenced by someone close to them. When asked about the
person who was most influential in his life, Jost places a finger
under his chin, looks up at the ceiling and says “There are
actually two people.”

The first influence came from Jost’s great-uncle, who was the
head of the Swiss foreign service and had extraordinary diplomatic
skills which he truly admired. The second is the unlikely
friendship he has with Morrison Heckscher, the American Wing
Director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “And I must mention,
he’s 60 years old,” Jost jokingly adds. “But, we both challenge
each other and confirm for each other that what we’re doing is

“I think it’s important to find friends who are different than
we are but more important to find close friends that are different
than we are. We don’t usually find close friends that challenge us,
wouldn’t you agree?”