Sharon Corwin, who has directed the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville since 2006, is leaving Maine to become the president and chief executive officer of the Terra Foundation for American Art, a Chicago-based organization with assets of $582 million and an annual budget of $17 million.

Much of that money goes to grants to promote American art through research, scholarship and residencies. After spending much of her career chasing grants and raising money for exhibitions and other events, Corwin is looking forward to being in a position of giving money away. “I’m excited that I will be on the other side of the funding equation, which is exciting to me,” she said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “This way I can help advance the work of other institutions.”

Sharon Corwin, pictured here in 2013, is stepping down as director of the Colby College Museum of Art to take a job in Chicago. Gordon Chibroski

Corwin, 50, helped transform the Colby College Museum of Art into one of the top small liberal arts college museums in the country, securing a massive donation of contemporary American art from the Maine-based collectors and philanthropists Peter and Paula Lunder, which led to the opening of a new museum wing in 2013 and the creation of the Lunder Institute for American Art in 2017 as a place for scholarship, creativity and dialogue related to the collection.

The Terra Foundation announced Corwin’s appointment on Wednesday. Her last day at Colby will be June 1, and she starts in Chicago on Sept. 1. The Terra Foundation has offices in Chicago and Paris, and operates grant programs, maintains a collection of art and plans programs to promote American art with U.S. and international audiences.

In a statement to the Press Herald on Wednesday night, Peter and Paula Lunder said the Terra Foundation “had chosen well” and wished Corwin and Terra well in their work together. They praised former Colby Museum director Hugh Gourley for bringing Corwin to Waterville and former Colby president William D. Adams and current president David A. Greene for supporting her.

“Sharon Corwin has led the Colby College Museum of Art with  great vision creating wonderful art experiences for Colby and the community. Hugh Gourley hired Sharon Corwin as a Curator, President Adams gave her the opportunity to become the Director and President Greene mentored her as the museum’s mission has been enhanced and expanded,” they wrote in a joint statement. “Each moment Sharon rose to the occasion and today the Colby College Museum of Art has an impressive mission and an outstanding staff which will continue to present excellent art within our beautiful museum.”

Corwin arrived at Colby as a curator in 2003 from California, where she taught art history at the University of California at Berkeley. “I had never been to Maine before I flew in to interview for the job here,” she said. “I fell in love immediately with this museum and this state, and I just knew, instinctively, that this was going to be something special.”

As director, Corwin led the Colby museum through an expansion and transformation, doubling the size of the collection from 5,000 works to more than 10,000 and increasing both the museum’s budget and endowment. The Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion opened in 2013 and was built to house the Lunder Collection of American Art. The Lunder Collection totals more than 500 pieces of mostly American art, and is valued at more than $100 million. It is considered one of the most important private art collections ever assembled.

Working with the Lunders, she said, “was one of the real gifts of my time of Colby. It’s a true privilege and honor to work with them.”

Corwin also has secured art by Marsden Hartley, Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock and others, and expanded the diversity of artists represented in the collection. As a curator, she has organized exhibitions by Theaster Gates, Alex Katz and others.

In addition to the high-profile work she has done with artists, Corwin also expanded the museum’s outreach to Maine schools by securing funding to transport kids from as far away as Presque Isle in northern Maine for a day at the museum. “I am really proud that we can give these kids an experience in this great museum that will change their lives,” she said.

At the Terra Foundation, Corwin will replace Elizabeth Glassman, who is stepping down after 20 years as CEO. In a statement, board chairman Joseph Gromacki called Corwin “the obvious choice” to lead the foundation, given her background and accomplishments. “Sharon’s experience aligns with the foundation’s more than 15-year dedication to enlivening American art through exhibitions, scholarship, and the robust use of its collection in Chicago, the (United States) and around the world.”

Corwin called the foundation “a powerhouse in the field” for its development of new ideas and approaches for creating experiences with American art for audiences in the United States and around the world. “This is going to give me a new platform to address and advance a lot of the commitment I have for American art, American art scholarship and practice and thinking about the role of American art in public life,” she said.

A Colby spokesperson did not comment on Corwin’s departure.

She is the second of two major directors in the Colby Museum’s history. The other was Gourley, who directed the museum for 36 years and died in 2012. Corwin paid tribute to Gourley on Wednesday, crediting him with establishing the museum’s standard of excellence. “To continue his legacy here was an honor,” she said.


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