Art is the Vehicle. The Mirken Family Endowment for Education is the Fuel.

A student with a passion for science branches out to explore creative pursuits. An art history major meets an expert appraiser whose advice helps to shape their career path. An aspiring curator gets hands-on experience in all aspects of running a museum. A community of all ages—from elementary students to senior citizens—connects through art. All of these enriching opportunities and more are fostered at the Colby College Museum of Art through the support of the Mirken Family Endowment for Education. 

Established in 2013 with a gift from Alan B. Mirken ’51, the endowment has three distinct parts. The Mirken Family Annual Field Trip facilitates networking and career development for Colby art and art history majors. The Mirken Family Postbaccalaureate Fellowship in Museum Practice at the Colby Museum provides high-level training for an emerging museum professional. Mirken Family Education Initiatives support academic and civic engagement projects for Colby students, as well as a variety of community engagement and educational programs.

As is true of many other endowments and gifts supporting Dare Northward initiatives, Mirken’s goals are specifically targeted, but its ultimate impact is broad, long-lasting, and far-reaching. The Mirken endowment is enhancing the dynamic, vibrant liberal arts education the College offers to all undergraduates. It is also populating the art world with Colby-trained experts whose contributions enhance their field and burnish Colby’s reputation for excellence. And it is further cementing Colby’s place as a community partner and contributor to the vitality and quality of life in the region.

Colby students during 2019’s Mirken Family Annual Field Trip at the offices of Brooklyn Rail in New York City.

The Mirken Family Annual Field Trip: Fostering Career Connections
What is it really like to work in a large urban museum, a venerable auction house, a community cultural organization, or a boutique gallery? Colby’s seniors majoring in art and art history have the opportunity to find out through this Mirken-sponsored experience. In a typical year, students travel to New York or Boston to meet Colby alumni at their workplaces. Due to the pandemic, the trip this year was a virtual experience, taking the form of three online panel discussions: “The Studio and the Art Market,” “Museum, Publishing, and Education,” and “Young Alumni in the Arts.”

Whether on site or online, the goal is to connect students who are pondering their career pathways with professionals who can provide information and insight. Faculty know their students best, so each year two Art Department professors—one in studio art and one in art history—serve as leads for the trip and collaborate with alumni engagement, DavisConnects, and Museum staff to tailor the networking opportunities to meet the specific interests of that year’s cohort. In 2020-21 professors Gary Green and Marta Ameri served as faculty leads. Alumni participants offered valuable advice during the events and further encouraged students to stay connected and continue to tap them as resources.

Julianne Gilland, the Colby Museum’s deputy director, said the discussions this year served to highlight how robust Colby’s alumni networks really are. One panelist emphasized that when she began to make her way into her professional life, it seemed like everywhere she turned she encountered a fellow Colby graduate. Gilland said, “To her, that really spoke to the way that our graduates are out there in force in really exciting positions, in all kinds of organizations that are art related.” Mirken funding helps each new group of graduates build fulfilling careers and further extend Colby’s reach in arts and cultural institutions.

The Mirken Family Postbaccalaureate Fellowship in Museum Practice: Foundational Career Preparation
One of the Colby Museum’s current exhibits is Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960. Co-organized with the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, it is an unprecedented show that includes works that are on public view for the first time. Christine Zheng, the Mirken Family Postbaccalaureate Fellow in Museum Practice, has been engaged in putting the exhibition’s catalog book online and helping to implement a virtual exhibit. This exciting work “speaks to the larger theme of creating greater access to all the Museum has to offer,” she said. Further, it demands innovative thinking about “how to use digital strategies and media to enrich museum engagement.” 

Over the course of her appointment as the Mirken fellow, Zheng will work closely with professional staff in all areas of the Museum, from collections and exhibits to outreach and educational programming. Upholding Colby’s liberal arts mission, she’ll also collaborate with student interns at the Museum and support the academic work and interests of other Colby undergraduates across disciplines.

“In any active, vibrant teaching museum there is a whole host of roles a person can play,” said Gilland. “The Mirken fellowship shows the full range of possibilities and is designed to give someone a 360-degree view of what we do at the Museum. It’s an extraordinary experience for an emerging museum professional or for someone who may be interested in this path.”

Zheng, a graduate of Carleton College in Minnesota who completed a summer internship with the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and who has worked in public relations and communications in the tech industry, began in February 2021 as the Museum’s third fellow. One of the previous fellows is now an engagement coordinator in a large urban museum, and the other is pursuing an advanced degree on her way to a career as a curator. 

Gilland said the competitive fellowship attracts the best and brightest. The considerable practical experience it confers prepares fellows for a range of opportunities. Like the Mirken trip, which fosters undergraduate career development, the Mirken fellowship is enabling Colby to train and prepare the next generation of arts professionals.

Photo of opened Art Kits for All package.

Mirken Family Education Initiatives: Endless Possibilities
In March 2020 the pandemic forced the Colby Museum to close its doors to the public. No visitors beyond active Colby students, faculty, and staff would be roaming the galleries. No school students on field trips would be in person viewing the exhibitions and creating projects in the Museum’s Mirken Education Center. But thanks to the funding of Mirken Family Education Initiatives, a creative pivot was in the works. Kris Bergquist, Mirken Curator of Education and Engagement, was working with community partners to launch a program that brings art out of the Museum and into the community. The method? Art Kits for All containing materials and instructions to complete at-home art projects designed by museum and community art educators. In a collaborative effort with the Waterville public schools, the Kennebec Montessori School, the Family Violence Project, and Waterville Creates, some 3,500 art kits have been distributed across the community since March 2020. Combining outreach, community engagement, and local partnerships, Art Kits for All is an example of how Mirken funding related to art supports so many of Colby’s broad institutional priorities. 

Colby undergraduates benefit from Mirken Family Education Initiatives as well. While the Museum employs several paid student guides and interns, Mirken funding helps provide the resources for those students to undertake creative projects, pursue special academic interests, and further their civic engagement. For example, student guides created and distributed on campus some 1,000 Create-It Kits—featuring small art projects for students, faculty, and staff. In a Mirken-funded individual project, a student explored the responsibility that museums have as historically predominately white cultural spaces by developing discussion guides for the Museum on that topic. Another student with an interest in working with children created activity sheets for student mentors to share with kids.

“What the Mirken endowment funds allow us to do is to create special opportunities for individual students,” Bergquist said. Such self-directed work does more than build skills in students. “It helps them see how they can make an impact in the world.”