Sharon Corwin joined the Colby College Museum of Art in 2003 and became its director in 2006. Photo by Greta Rybus, courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

Sharon Corwin realized the potential of her new job soon after she was hired as curator at the Colby College Museum of Art in 2003. About three weeks in, she got the green light to bid on a Yvonne Jacquette painting that was up for auction at Barridoff Galleries. She came down to Portland from Waterville, placed her bid – and got the painting, “Town of Skowhegan,” an aerial view of the central Maine community.

“It was thrilling,” she said the other day, recounting the beginning of her 17-year tenure at the Colby museum. “I realized what this job could be. It was an opportunity to shape the collection in Maine and at Colby.”

Corwin became museum director in 2006 and leaves this month to become president and CEO of the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago. During her time at Colby, Corwin, 50, helped the museum expand its collection with depth and diversity and transform a widely respected small-college museum into the envy of much larger institutions across the campus spectrum. Corwin, who knew little about Maine or Maine art before arriving on campus, leaves as one of the most influential museum directors in the state’s history, having solidified and expanded relationships with artists and collectors alike, and guided the museum with exhibitions attuned to climate change, diversity, equality and inclusion.

Her last day is June 30, a departure that feels a little anticlimactic without her ability to convene to say goodbye. “I had thought these last months would be filled with in-person goodbyes and thank-yous – my thank-yous to others. That has taken the form of phone calls and video conferences. That is all good. But everyone is feeling the effects of losing that in-person contact,” she said.

The acquisition of art stands as Corwin’s greatest Colby accomplishment, in numbers and in a cultural impact. Colby had about 5,000 objects in its collection when she became director in 2006. That number is up to 10,000 now. A year after she bought the Jacquette painting, she got the go-ahead from the museum board to buy an Agnes Martin painting, another goosebump moment. Soon after becoming director in 2006, she announced the acquisition of 150 prints by contemporary artist Richard Serra, the gift of museum benefactor Paul J. Schupf. A year later, she announced the gift of more than 500 paintings, sculptures and prints by such masters as John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe, a gift of Peter and Paula Lunder valued at $100 million. The gift was so big, Colby had to build a new wing to accommodate it.

Marquee acquisitions kept coming, classics and contemporary alike. There were prints by Whistler, etchings by Picasso, a Jackson Pollock painting – the first by a Maine museum – an Alma Thomas painting and last year a sweetgrass, ash and cedar bark barrel by Penobscot basketmaker Theresa Secord.

Sharon Corwin, in the galleries at Colby.

On top of all that, hundreds of paintings by a range of contemporary American artists were all donated by the Alex Katz Foundation, the private foundation of the painter, who is a longtime supporter of the museum. Routinely, Corwin traveled to New York to meet up with Katz. They would pile into cabs for gallery tours and studio visits, all for the betterment of Colby’s contemporary art collection. “There was such freedom and joy about it, and it was so much fun,” Corwin said. “We really changed the face of contemporary art in this state, thanks to what Alex has done through his foundation.”

In a phone interview, Katz said working side by side with Corwin to acquire art for Colby was a highlight of his career, because it gave them the chance to shape the museum forever. His relationship dates to the museum’s longtime director, the late Hugh Gourley, who cultivated a relationship with Katz that led to the acquisition of a large trove of paintings by Katz and the construction of a wing to house them. He deepened his relationship with Colby when Corwin became director by focusing on building Colby’s collection of contemporary art, purchased by his foundation for the museum. Since 2004, the Alex Katz Foundation has purchased more than 450 paintings for the museum, with a cumulative value of millions of dollars, Katz said.

“It was a small museum when she got there, and now they have a big new building that she was very instrumental in pushing through,” Katz said. “We changed that museum from a small college museum to one that competes with the best museums anywhere. She cultivated a group of people who were really interested, and they have supported us.”

Colby President David A. Greene said he expects to have a replacement for Corwin in place soon – perhaps by the end of June or early July. Thanks to Corwin’s leadership, the job has attracted a top crop of candidates, he said. “Here’s the good news: This is a wildly popular position. The top people in the field are interested in it, which I love. And I am not surprised. Sharon has great standing in her field. We love her at Colby, but she is beloved in the art world, and that doesn’t hurt when you are looking for a new director,” Greene said. “Sometimes I dread a job search. This one, as much I dreaded losing Sharon, I was looking forward to this search because I knew we would be attracting incredible, interesting people.”

In her new role, Corwin will oversee the Terra Foundation, with a mission of supporting and advancing the study of American art and scholarship. Corwin prepared for that mission at Colby, where the integration of the museum in the daily activities of college students was another hallmark of her directorship. After working to design a new physical space to support the exhibition of the Lunder Collection, Corwin also helped form the Lunder Institute of American Art in 2017, as a place for scholarship, creativity and mentorship.

It operates under the umbrella of the museum, but as a separate entity dedicated to scholarship and research based on the Colby collection, as well as issues and ideas circulating in the larger art world. The institute has collaborated with high-profile artists, engaged scholars in original research and invited emerging artists and academics to campus for research and to talk about and mount exhibitions related to climate change and equality, two of the biggest issues of the day. Among the artists who have come to Colby to work with students and to engage the community are Theaster Gates and Phong Bui.

When Corwin was hired, the museum had five employees. It now has 26. As they have been part of the past, growth and expansion are part of the museum’s future. A big part of the next director’s job will be integrating the Colby’s downtown art space, which include a gallery and studios, into the routine operation of the museum, Greene said. It’s an experiment in economic development and revitalization with art and artistic activity as the centerpiece, he said.

Secord, the Penobscot basketmaker and a national advocate for contemporary Native American art, said Colby’s 2018 exhibition, “The Beauty We Carry,” was the first significant contemporary Wabanaki art exhibition in a museum setting. She credited Corwin for a “remarkable long-term vision and unique understanding of the arts landscape within Maine and in national circles. … Sharon leaves a unique legacy of understanding what true inclusion means and of honoring and upholding the diversity and cultural equity mandates of the museum and college.”

Duncan Gibson, who graduated from Colby in 1983 and knew Gourley, credits Corwin for successfully honoring Gourley’s vision and spirit while expanding on it. “A once quiet place with a small, but good collection, that has really become a microcosm of the art world today,” he described the museum in an email. “You expect Homers, Copleys, Maine sea- and landscapes, but what you get with those is immersion into some of the galleries in Chelsea, SoHo, and elsewhere. … And from the outside looking in, the collection is still primarily American, but much more representative of America – African American, Latino, Native American. Again, not quite what the summer visitor may be expecting for a summer afternoon.”

Lisa Marin, granddaughter of the late American painter John Marin and a member of the museum’s board, called Corwin “a dear friend and loving friend of the family, and a big supporter of the things we wanted to do.” She said Corwin succeeded at Colby because she was bold in her own vision while respectful of the opinions and the wishes of others. “It would have been so easy for Sharon to do what Hugh did and sort of be another Hugh, but she didn’t. She forged her own path, and being a woman in that role was something that was very extraordinary,” Marin said.

Before coming to Maine, Corwin was a faculty fellow in the history of art department at the University of California, Berkeley, guest curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and acting assistant director of the Mills College Art Museum. Maine presented her with an opportunity to do something she had never done in an unfamiliar place.

“I had a feeling,” she said. “I had a sense about the museum, that it was something really special. And it was, and is. I feel the same about Maine. There is a real specialness to this state, which I also understood immediately. I embraced every aspect of living here, and leaving is hard. If anything, it’s remarkable that I am leaving.”

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