Seasons of Change

Jackie Terrassa

Carolyn Muzzy Director Jacqueline Terrassa reflects on her past influences and guiding principles for the future of the arts at Colby Museum

If we look at change as a catalyst for personal and professional growth, incoming Carolyn Muzzy Director of Colby College Museum of Art Jacqueline Terrassa has reached an apex. The seasoned arts educator, whose career spans working at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Freer l Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, and most recently as Woman’s Board Vice President for Learning and Public Engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago, has grown each step of the way. Terrassa and her staff are widely credited with reintroducing the Art Institute as the museum of Chicago, bringing a new approach to education and engagement that broadened connections to the community.

For Terrassa, the importance of art is fundamental. Born and raised in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, a suburb of San Juan, she learned at an early age the impact that art and beauty can make on one’s life.

“Art has always been part of my life; I have always made art and have always enjoyed looking at it,” Terrassa said. “My parents encouraged my engagement with art; they both liked being surrounded by beautiful things, including original works of art”.

Terrassa further credits her mother’s role as an eternal educator and lifelong learner as a greatest influence in her life, “She bought an encyclopedia for children when my brother and I were young called “El mundo de los niños,” which I loved,” Terrassa said. “It included a tome on art, presenting hundreds of works from some of the world’s most famous museums.” This small gesture, combined with having the privilege to travel outside of Puerto Rico to visit many great art institutions created vivid childhood memories for Colby Museum’s next director.

During her busy period of transition from Chicago to Waterville, Terrassa has been actively engaging on a deeper level to get to know her new Colby Museum colleagues, and forming new connections with the Museum Board of Governors, Colby leadership, and community. All of this, while packing and moving from halfway across the country to central Maine, has reinforced that people are fundamental to every successful change in your life. “Genuine relationships matter, old ones and new ones,” Terrassa said. “While geographies change and jobs begin and end, relationships can continue if we commit to them.”

When Terrassa left Puerto Rico to receive her B.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis then later M.F.A. from University of Chicago, she never intended to foster a career in the museum world. Her career path changed her sophomore year of undergrad, when artist Silva Blanco mentored her offering opportunities to learn and grow within the field. Today, she sees mentorship as a strong tenant of her work.

During this transitional period, Terrassa sees many important similarities between the Art Institute of Chicago and the Colby Museum, outside of geography, size, collection and history. At their core, both Museums were founded in relation to a teaching mission, which influence collecting and programming. She feels that at Colby Museum, key questions to ask of any 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 can help broaden and even complicate understanding of art and art history.

“We have important works by major artists such as James McNeil Whistler, Alex Katz, Terry Winters, David Driskell,  among other artists associated with the Skowhegan school or with Maine more broadly,” continued Terrassa. “While both institutions have collected contemporary art from their inceptions, the collections emphasize the art of our time, helping to bring forth how historic works of art speak to us today.”

Terrassa sees artists as partners in the present tense, this is more made possible through the formalized establishment of the Lunder Institute for American Art. The Institute brings artists and scholars together in a community with faculty, students and others for innovations in American art.

“The Lunder Institute is an integral part of the Colby Museum’s work as an incubator for various kinds of artistic, research, curatorial, community and pedagogical approaches that might build from but don’t conform to precedent.”

Another significant parallel is that both institutions are committed to fostering civic engagement, which Terrassa strongly embraces. A guiding principle of her past work was, “How can we be of Chicago and not simply “about” Chicago or “for” Chicago?” At Colby, she is interested in how local context can be central to who we are and how we behave. Terrassa envisions Waterville as an educational and cultural hub. She is interested in exploring how to best partner, preserve and promote creative practices that are core to Maine’s culture, including those of indigenous communities. This unique interdisciplinary approach can help inform the collection that is uniquely situated at Colby and in central Maine.

Nearly six months have passed from Terrassa’s first interview to her start date of October 5th, but one common theme has prevailed throughout the selection process: the values and culture at Colby. 

“Culture matters – and it is clear that something special was going on here at Colby,” Terrassa said. “With a remarkable president in David Greene – and students, staff, Board of Governors, and faculty – I’ve noticed the way in which they made space for each other and held together as an interlocking community. I’ve been struck by integrity, willingness to grapple with tough questions, and their down-to-earth, straight forward way of communicating. I also perceived a real commitment to addressing the large, gnarly issues of our time and an understanding of the role that art can play in that process”.

During Terrassa’s tenure at Colby Museum, a main objective that she strives to foster and demonstrate is 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 have 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, nor into curriculum, budgets, or communications,” Terrassa said. “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 Museum staff.”