A report by Bob Keyes for The Press Herald.
Jacqueline Terrassa comes to Maine with experience at major museums in New York and Chicago.
Colby College has moved quickly to find a replacement for its longtime museum director, tapping a native of Puerto Rico and museum educator with experience at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Jacqueline Terrassa will begin her duties in October, taking over for Sharon Corwin, who departed the museum in late June to become president and chief executive officer of the Terra Foundation in Chicago.
Terrassa, 50, currently serves as vice president for learning and public engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked previously at the Met, from 2011 to 2016, where she helped established inclusive studio art programs for residents. She also directed public programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and has worked at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art and Freer-Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. She began her career in a community art center, and said in a phone interview that she is eager to re-engage with community-oriented art programs.
One of her top priorities at Colby will be integrating the museum into downtown Waterville through the Paul J. Schupf Art Center, which is in the planning stages, and a new downtown studio-and-research collaborative, which will open next spring.
“I have a very soft spot for arts centers, which are different than museums,” she said. “That is where ideas are generated, where people come together and make art together and engage with each other in hands-on participation.”
After living and working in large cities most of her career, Terrassa said she was looking forward to being in a smaller community that is in sync with nature. In that regard, she said her visit to Waterville during the interview process reminded her somewhat of her native Puerto Rico. “I know what it means to be in a relatively small place that is absolutely surrounded by natural beauty,” she said. “Nature is part of your lived experience in Puerto Rico as it is in Waterville, and there is an incredible sense of pride where one is from and where one lives. I sensed that in Waterville. It’s independent-minded and proud, and at the same time ambitious.”
Over the years of her work experience, she has realized that bigger is not necessarily better. “Larger institutions have certain strengths and resources that smaller institutions don’t have. But smaller institutions have have strengths and opportunities that larger institutions do not have. I am excited about working in a small context on one hand, in terms of institutional size, and yet within a much larger context of a college of liberal arts in an important town in Maine that has a remarkable history and that is in the process of reimagining itself,” she said.
Colby President David A. Greene said Terrassa emerged as the top candidate for the job because of her track record of helping museums work directly with the communities they serve, often in the communities themselves and not in a museum setting. She will help the Colby museum find new ways of reaching and expanding its audience, Greene said. “She throws open the doors of museums. She does that in Chicago, she has done that in New York and she will do it in Waterville,” he said. “She has a deep intellectual quality and a way of thinking about art, museums and society overall, and that is exactly what we need to be doing right now.”
The Schupf Center will include a contemporary art gallery that will give the museum a strong presence downtown. But the center is envisioned as much more than a satellite of the museum, Greene said, and it will be Terrassa’s job “to help us develop a vision for it. What we can do there will be different than what we do in the museum, and it will be a place to take more risks, perhaps. The challenge with a museum, the stronger the museum gets over time, the harder it is to take risks. Having this gallery might allow us to take more risks.”
In addition to helping the museum establish a downtown presence, Terrassa will be responsible for overseeing the museum’s day-to-day operation as well as the Lunder Institute for American Art, which is dedicated to scholarship and research and working directly with artists. The Colby museum has grown in size and reputation over the past decade, adding works by major American artists and establishing residencies for artists. Terrassa said she became familiar with the Colby museum when she worked at the Freer-Sackler Gallery. More recently, she conversed about Colby with artist Theaster Gates, the Lunder Institute’s first visiting artist, a three-year term that began in 2018. She is a friend of Gates and has worked with him professionally over the years. She also noted that artists Phong Bui and Torkwase Dyson were visiting artists through Colby and the Lunder Institute in recent years.
“That indicated to me there was something afoot at Colby that was different, interesting and non-traditional,” she said. “That says a lot of about the level of ambition, aspiration and rigor in which they are engaging people to rethink what American Art and American art practice is now.”
Beyond her work in arts administration and education, Terrassa also is an artist. She embroiders what she calls small “material landscapes,” usually just a few inches square, that she makes for friends and family. “Right now, my practice is very personal. I think sometimes it’s almost like letter-writing. I have a very tiny audience. I make it for my mother in mind and for the people I know best and who know me best,” she said. “It’s a way of processing and thinking through emotions.”
Terrassa said she was drawn to the museum’s ambition and its ability to have an impact on the communities it serves, as well as her impressions of the museum and of Colby as a welcoming, nurturing community. “The museum is not interested in going by the playbook, but redefining the way in which it can relate to the community and how it can involve all of its constituents in that process. It was incredibly attractive to me,” she said. “I was really struck by the community that makes up and surrounds this museum. That was very important to me, the way in which people treated each other and the way people valued humanity as a whole while at the same time thinking big.”