Curating collaboration and community | Joy Armstrong ’21

What do you get with an art gallery background, experience in youth nonprofit work and a College of Education Ph.D.?

Joy Armstrong, GOCA Director and UCCS alumna, who is striving to use her many skills and passion for art to help the issues facing her community.

The GOCA Director and College of Education alumna first joined the Mountain Lion family as a high schooler, taking astronomy and theater classes in her senior year. She enrolled in University of Denver for her undergraduate and double majored in media communications and studio art before following with her master’s in contemporary art history and criticism from Kent State University, where her path unexpectedly turned to gallery and curatorial work.

“Kent is where I was bit with the museum gallery curatorial bug,” said Joy. “I never thought about a career in museum and gallery work, but as a graduate student, I had the great fortune to be invited to apply for the graduate assistant position in the School of Art Galleries, which isn’t at all what I thought I would be doing.”

Though Joy had expected to go into teaching or education, gallery curation merged her lifelong love of art with her passion for community and outreach. After completing her assistantship, she spent ten years working at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

“Moving ​into ​that ​curatorial ​realm ​was ​the ​first ​place ​in ​my ​life where ​I ​felt ​like ​I ​could ​use ​my ​most ​authentic ​voice, where I ​was ​at ​my ​most ​creative ​and ​that ​I ​had ​opportunities, through the arts, ​to engage ​with ​communities and the important issues they face,” Joy said. “But more so, it felt like an opportunity to pull in what I continue to love about creative engagement and community participation and see how that could dovetail with education and social justice issues in a more active, practical way than a strictly academic way.”

Joy’s educational journey diverged from her expected path once more when pursuing her doctorate. She had long considered going for a degree in art history, but the time commitment and relocation required would take her away from the career and community she had only grown to love more and wanted to continue working in.

“My supervisor at the time mentioned there was a UCCS program that I might find interesting, because it would allow me to continue working my full-time job while pursuing a next-level education and staying rooted and active within this community, where I wanted to be,” said Joy.

The program was Educational Leadership, Research, and Policy in the College of Education, from which Joy graduated in 2021. Her dissertation, “History and Belonging: A Phenomenological Study of Participatory Public Art Murals in Colorado,” focused on the ways in which creative engagement with public art can build community, celebrate identity and address systemic social inequities to advance a more just tomorrow.

“The doctoral program felt like an interesting chance to do something that was a little bit different from anything else that I had done to date,” she explained. “One of the things that was so beautiful about the experience was the willingness of the department and faculty in allowing us to have some flexibility and interpretation of what educational leadership and research and policy could look like outside of the much more narrow view I had in my mind.”

Flexibility and interpretation are found in Joy’s role as GOCA director as well, where she’s constantly collaborating with her colleagues, meeting with artists, establishing exhibits and doing her part to foster the community aspect she’s hopeful to see continue growing.

“What makes each day typical is that it’s atypical, and that it is consistently made up of meaningful conversations, of creative processes, of learning and engaging with generosity and humility, and yet finding ways to build toward something together, which is where I want to be,” said Joy. “And I would like for GOCA to be at the forefront of building creative community.”

This position isn’t Joy’s first experience with GOCA, either. She acted as a board member from 2012-2016 and though she had to step away from the work to focus on other priorities, she never lost the love and kinship she found in it.

“I got hired into something that I was already a part of, which was wonderful,” she noted. “I developed such an admiration and affection for GOCA during those years. It has always been a place where I feel excited and challenged and eager to support, and now I’m eager to give back to the community through this role. I feel incredibly grateful and fortunate to be here at UCCS in this capacity.”

One of Joy’s many goals for GOCA, along with the creative community building aspect, is to expand the reach of art and ensure it’s accessible and welcoming to all.

“I want to see the Ent Center established even further as a nexus for the campus community and community at large, and as a place where folks can learn and can grow alongside others and feel and know that they belong here, that the arts aren’t for a specific type of person,” she emphasized. “You don’t have to have lived any particular experience or be in any station in life to let this be a place for you.”

Part of this philosophy is borne out of Joy’s own experience with the arts and how they’ve served as a space to help her find her identity and work through personal struggles.

“I have myself experienced the transformative power of being in the arts as a person who grew up struggling greatly with my own sense of identity and feeling like I didn’t quite fit in,” she said. “You hear that story a lot from creative people who just felt different, and pathologizing that experience of difference rather than celebrating it for its uniqueness. Finding my way into the arts, with many similar souls, has been both challenging and healing as I navigate my own mental health over my lifetime.”

Joy put that ability to good use in her role at Inside Out Youth Services, a Colorado Springs nonprofit that supports LGBTQIA+ youth by providing a safe space for them and promoting education and outreach. Her four years there as Program Director gave her the opportunity to help kids and adolescents with their own struggles.

“The work with young people again showed me firsthand, but in a different way, how participation in a creative process and that shared, lived experience is life altering and potentially lifesaving,” Joy said. “Being in a role that was not arts centric, but was critically important to understanding the many challenges that LGBTQIA+ young people, and young people in general, face, helped me gain clearer comprehension of how to think creatively about innovating messaging to increase social justice, and that making things accessible and equitable requires, in many cases, a lot of creativity.”

Now, in a more arts-related role, Joy is looking forward to bringing the many aspects of her background to drive that community engagement and youth support through art initiatives.

“I feel like I bring with me here a lot of those lessons and understandings that I had the privilege to learn at Inside Out, in terms of how we create meaningful experiences that aren’t for people but that are with people, and how are we the co-creators of community,” she said. “And I’m primarily interested in building something together that is mutually beneficial across all sectors of our community.”

About the UCCS College of Education

The College of Education offers undergraduate and advanced degrees, initial and advanced licenses and additional endorsements across three departments: Teaching and Learning, Counseling and Human Services and Leadership, Research, and Foundations. The college is home to more than 1,000 students and offers 12 bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. It is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs (CACREP). Learn more about the College of Education at UCCS.