This week, Jacqueline Terrassa takes her place as the new Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art. Terrassa, who most recently served as the Woman’s Board vice president for learning and public engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago, comes to Colby with an exceptional array of leadership positions at the country’s top museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Freer | Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian. She is recognized as a national leader in transforming museums as places for deep learning and rich community engagement.
In these early days of her transition, Terrassa shares some thoughts.
What similarities do you see between the Art Institute of Chicago and Colby Museum arts community?
There are several important similarities between the two museums, outside of the more apparent differences in size, location, collecting breadth, and history.
Both were founded in relation to a teaching mission–in Chicago, the role of the museum within the life of the School of the Art Institute, and at Colby the Art Department and the liberal arts mission of the College more broadly. This, for instance, influences collecting and programming. At Colby, a key question to ask of a potential acquisition is whether the work can be useful within the curriculum of Colby, whether it has educational value for Waterville and communities across Maine, and whether it has something to offer established and emerging artists and scholars of art.
A distinguishing characteristic of both institutions is the fact that they embrace artists, their perspectives, and their legacies. At Colby, we have important groups of works by major artists such as James McNeil Whistler, Alex Katz, Terry Winters, other artists associated with Skowhegan or with Maine more broadly, to name a few. Artists are also partners in the present tense, something that we have now formalized with the establishment of the Lunder Institute, which brings artists and scholars together in community with faculty, students, and others. Both institutions have also collected contemporary art from the start, have collections that emphasize the art of our time, and help bring forth how historic collections speak to us today.
Both institutions are committed to expanding notions of American art, past and present, bringing new thinking to the forefront of the field. Colby and the Art Institute, along with the Met and the Freer|Sackler at the Smithsonian, comprise the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies.
Finally, both institutions are committed to playing a strong civic engagement role. Anchoring my work at the Art Institute was the question, how can we be of Chicago and not simply “about” Chicago or “for” Chicago? Similarly, at Colby, I am interested in how our very specific local context can be central to who we are and how we behave. This includes our role in animating Waterville as an educational and cultural hub; how we can best partner to preserve and promote creative practices that are core to Maine’s culture, including those of indigenous communities; and how the uniquely interdisciplinary approach of Colby College can help us shape a collection that is uniquely situated here.
All of these distinguishing characteristics appealed to me greatly as I considered the possibility of joining Colby as the Museum’s director.
What stood out most to you as you interviewed for your new role as the Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby Museum?
The values that I saw at play throughout the selection process and the community I witnessed enacting those values were the deciding factor for me. Culture matters and it was clear that something special was going on here at Colby. I noticed a distributed leadership model at play. Though Colby counts with a remarkable president in David Greene, he is not the only extraordinary leader. I was struck by students, museum staff, senior staff at Colby, Board of Governors members, and by faculty. I was struck by the way in which they made space for each other and held together as an interlocking community. I was struck by their integrity, willingness to grapple with tough questions, and their down-to-earth, straightforward way of communicating. I also perceived a real commitment to addressing the large, gnarly issues of art time and an understanding of the role that art can play in that process.
New city, new home, new role—what have all these exciting changes taught you over the past few months?
Genuine relationships matter, old ones and new ones. While geographies change and jobs begin and end, relationships can continue if we commit to them. I have also learned to stay grounded by looking out two to three months ahead yet focusing on what matters most this day or this week. Finally, I’m actively working on slowing down
What opportunity makes you most excited about your new role?
I am extremely excited about the opportunity to both maximize and further interconnect the Colby Museum’s multiple resources, communities, and spaces of action in ways that make the CCMA and Colby College itself invaluable, accessible resources for many more people.
I see Colby College and the museum more specifically as inclusive, interdisciplinary generators of new knowledge and new practices. This means making the Lunder Institute an integral part of the CCMA’s work as an incubator for various kinds of artistic, research, and pedagogical approaches that might build from but don’t conform to precedent. It means maximizing student and faculty involvement in our efforts in downtown Waterville while also using the porous spaces that are currently under construction to knit together renowned artists and scholars with community-based experts, and local residents with our campus community. It means interrogating the narratives of American art in ways that transform how we present art in the museum’s galleries, and also how American art and American history are taught in K-12 classrooms and undergraduate and graduate programs across the country. There is so much potential ahead of us.
Museums, like the wider world, are experiencing a period of rapid cultural shift. What changes do you hope to see, or foster, in the coming years?
I hope to both foster and demonstrate what true equity, inclusion, and social justice can look like within art museums and organizations more broadly. For far too long the leadership of art museums has been in the hands of people who have not understood or paid true attention to these values, or who have voiced the values but not tackled the more invisible hard work of translating those values into leadership and management practices, policies and organizational norms, or into curriculum, budgets, or communications. For too long, those who rose to the leadership at top institutions have been trained to prize objects rather than understand that people and communities are just as important. They have been mentored to accumulate and consolidate wealth and power rather than activate and share it. Traditional leaders have “grown up” professionally under outdated patriarchal, autocratic, and authoritarian systems that are anchored in exclusion. For this reason, decades after the publication of the groundbreaking manuscript “Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums” (American Alliance of Museums, 1992), people who represent and enact different values from those that have been dominant in the museum field are once again fighting the status quo. The difference is that now there is a demand to not just be seen, but to actually have the power to influence policy, decision making, organizational structure, resource use, and management practices so that institutions become truly democratic, learning, and caring organizations. Realizing this vision is easier said than done. I have much to learn about how to make this possible and I am excited to figure this out with others at Colby and with my staff.