When asked what it means to have fresh leadership in Maine museums, Jacqueline Terrassa, the new director at the Colby College Museum of Art, answered by looking inward to the heart of her own museum in Waterville and its mission of collecting, displaying and interpreting American art.

“It goes to the question of what is American art,” said Terrassa, who arrived at Colby in October, moving from Chicago by way of her native Puerto Rico, where her family resides. “What is America, who is an American and what is American art?”

Jacqueline Terrassa began her new job as director of the Colby College Museum of Art in October. Courtesy of Colby College

As a Puerto Rican, Terrassa’s perspective on America is hemispheric. The term “America” does not represent a country, but encompasses the regions of South, Central and North America. Thus her perspective on American art is broader than the national-identity version of art history, which suggests American art begins around the founding of this country, continues through the late 20th century and is defined by the geographic constraints of the 50 United States – but rarely includes art from places like Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, or Cuba, which is part of America.

As the broader culture grapples with questions of equity – Who counts and to what degree do they count? Who has the power, and who has the voice? – new leadership in Maine museums means there’s more power and more voice among people who often hold neither: women and people of color. Since March, when the pandemic arrived, five prominent art and cultural institutions in Maine have changed senior leadership. In each instance but one, the new leader is a woman or a person of color.

That means there’s new perspective on the Maine art scene, and a bit more equity. In a state that counts itself as 94 percent white, every bit counts.

“If we create room where the 6 percent feel they belong and they have ownership and voice, it is to the benefit of the rest,” Terrassa said. “A truly inclusive environment is to the benefit of everybody.”

In addition to Terrassa, the new directors include Christopher Newell, an artist, educator and Passamaquoddy tribal member who joined the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor as executive director in March; Amanda Lahikainen, an educator from Michigan, who was hired as executive director of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in May; Jenn Pye, the longtime curator at the Monhegan Museum of American Art, who replaces a retiring volunteer director who guided the museum from its infancy; and Timothy Peterson, who arrives in January from Minnesota as executive director at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, replacing Suzette McAvoy, who has retired.

There will be more change in 2021. Carolyn Eyler has retired as gallery director at the University of Southern Maine, opening up another opportunity for fresh perspective. Her replacement has yet to be named. And the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath is without an executive director following the departure of Amy Lent in September.

Chris Newell, the executive director and senior partner to Wabanaki Nations, at the Abbe Museum in downtown Bar Harbor. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Newell, who also serves as an advocate for Wabanaki culture beyond the walls of the museum, said the growing diversity among museum leaders is significant because it represents a “shift in power” and ensures the perspectives of many people will be considered when exhibitions are planned. “When the voice of a museum changes, power dynamics also shift,” he said.

At the Abbe, that means the museum now speaks in the first person in its interpretation of Wabanaki culture.

“As a young Native person walking into that museum, I can you tell you that the voice of the museum would speak to me, a Passamaquoddy child, as if I didn’t exist,” Newell said at a recent panel discussion, “Reimagining Museums: Disruption and Change,” presented by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard. “That’s an experience I don’t want my children to have. I want the living Native voices of our peoples to be there as well.”

Visitors will begin noticing changes when the new directors get the chance to leave their mark on the exhibition process. That will happen in fits and starts in 2021, as museums sort out their plans to reopen to the public. The Abbe never opened in 2020, and its opening date is still uncertain. Colby is open only to the campus community. Terrassa looks to 2022 and 2023 as the first opportunity to directly influence the exhibition content.

Amanda Lahikainen begins her duties May 1 at director of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. Photo courtesy of Ogunquit Museum of American Art

At Ogunquit, that will happen as early as the coming spring. Lahikainen wasn’t prepared to announce details of the upcoming exhibition season just yet – “the ink is still drying on some of the agreements” – but said one of the museum’s 2021 exhibitions will feature the work of a Cuban-American artist, and her goal is to include a broader range of art in each exhibition season. The Ogunquit Museum historically has focused on Maine art, artists associated with the Ogunquit art colonies, and artists who live and work in southern Maine and coastal New Hampshire. That won’t change, Lahikainen said, but the perspective of the museum is expanding as the diversity and interests of its audiences grow.

“One of the phrases we use is ‘local and global.’ It’s a tired paradigm in some sense, but absolutely essential,” said Lahikainen, who began and ended her first season amidst the pandemic. “I would like to see local artists from Maine being represented, but in every season I expect we will see the more diverse aspects of global contemporary art.”

Jenn Pye is among five new museum directors in Maine. Courtesy of Monhegan Museum

At Monhegan, Pye takes over for Edward L. Deci, who directed the Monhegan Museum of Art and History as a volunteer for nearly 40 years, retiring after the 2019 season. Deci helped build the museum from a small island history museum into a world-class art museum, focusing on art created on the island by a range of world-famous and locally significant artists. Pye was the museum’s longtime curator. She co-directed the museum at the start of 2020 and now is its sole director.

For Pye, new leadership means the chance to review and re-evaluate how the museum speaks to the larger, changing world, on the island and off.

The museum’s mission is to preserve and display art and objects of cultural and historical importance to the island. One of Pye’s first tasks was doubling-down on that mission by considering the longtime island-history exhibitions with fresh eyes and greater awareness of the larger social issues at play in the country, in Maine and on the island. “We’re a homegrown museum, but we have grown so much, we need to be a little more than that now,” Pye said.

The pandemic forced “a turning of the gaze back inward and figuring out who we are.” With the onset of the virus and limited visitation, the museum delved into digital programming to expand its audience beyond those who could travel safely by boat to the island. That effort will continue without pause, and it has caused the museum to consider questions of access and equity. “Even when not in the midst of a pandemic, we are not accessible to most people. We’re not accessible for half of the year, and when we are open, we are not easy to get to,” Pye said. “So, how do we do it?”

Among the projects Pye is working on is an online exhibition about the island’s experience during World War II. The war signaled a cultural shift on the island, which manifested itself in the form of new artistic expressions. “Pre-World War II, it was really traditional. Post-World War II brought a lot of New York artists to the island and more modernist sensibilities,” Pye said. By creating dynamic online content to tell that story, the museum can expand who it reaches and how it speaks to the larger world, she said.

Tim Peterson has been hired as the new executive director at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. Courtesy of CMCA

Peterson comes to CMCA with a long history of curatorial experience and art-space management in rural and urban Minnesota, in Los Angeles and at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He’s guest-curated at the Provincetown International Film Festival and taught at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

He brings to Rockland an entirely fresh perspective, informed by a different set of experiences that he will merge with what he learns from the staff and colleagues as his horizons expand. He’s eager to explore contemporary Maine art and listen to the voices of artists whose ideas haven’t always been heard, for whatever reason.

“I don’t want to bring my ideas for their own sake,” he said. “I want to widen the dialogue.”

 

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