I recently met via Zoom with my new colleagues at Colby, Teresa D. McKinney, Diamond Family Director of the Arts, and Jacqueline Terrassa, Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art. I decided to have a three-way conversation—and in particular, see the dialogue enfold between the two of them. Even though Teresa and Jackie have been working together for only a few months, there is a wonderful synergy between them, and they share remarkably similar interests and vision.
V.P. I write regular dispatches for the Maine Arts Journal about Colby College, and I felt it is important that our readers meet you and hear about the initiatives that are underway at Colby, which are very outwardly oriented and will impact the artist community and the community at large.
So, tell us what attracted you to Colby, what made you apply (of course, we loved you guys and we hired you—that was a no brainer!). Do tell us why you decided to come to Maine—despite the cold that Teresa and I were complaining about before we started.
J.T. [to Teresa] You came first.
T.McK. Well, I was recruited, I was found.
V.P. But you followed up!
T.McK. I followed up, which didn’t have to happen, and I followed up because of the vision that was laid out before me, Colby’s decision to lead with the arts, to make the arts a core part of the development downtown and on campus in a more outward-facing manner. An idea of space for innovation and creativity and of space for considering the community. There was the use of the term “destination”—and that was really intriguing. Looking at the materials and asking around, I felt I couldn’t miss that, I wanted to be a part of it! And when I met the team, when I sat between Margaret McFadden [Provost and Dean of Faculty] and Sharon Corwin [then director of the Colby College Museum of Art] and across the table from Jim Thurston [Associate Professor of Theater and Dance] and Lareese Hall [Director of the Colby Libraries], that really sealed the deal.
V.P. When I first came to Colby from New York City, I kept saying that the people you meet here are people one would be excited to meet anywhere on earth! And you, Jackie?
J.T. To your point, once I started investigating this as a possibility, I kept thinking, I want to get to know these people more! And I’m not joking when I say that Teresa was a really important part of my coming here. First, because her position had been created—the college’s vision could not be realized without a position like this one. And then, the fact that this amazing person, who I wanted to get to know and immediately felt a kinship with, had been hired for that job. There were several reasons for being interested in the first place: I have a real soft spot for academic museums because my first job in museums was at the Smart [The Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago], a museum with an education and academic teaching mission. I love museums, but I say very publicly that working in museums has never been a goal. It’s still not a goal, even as director of this museum. For me, museums are amazing platforms to do what I love, which is to connect people with art in really meaningful ways and to connect communities using art. And so, this was a museum that wasn’t just—”just”—a museum, it had this vision for Waterville’s downtown, with spaces soon to be physical, where artists, researchers, community members, and students can meet and collaborate. One of the running themes in my career has been working with artists and academics in different ways, and here was a place that actually brought them together. One thing that was critical was the Colby College Museum of Art’s premise of interrogating what American art is at the core, of not taking for granted what American art is, or that there’s only one story of American art, but rather, of questioning and embracing critical inquiry. I was ready in that regard to be at a place that could go deeper into those questions.
V.P. What’s fascinating is that Teresa came first, was impressed by a group of people among whom was Sharon [Corwin], and you, Jackie, took Sharon’s position. But then, Teresa ends up being one of the reasons you decided to come. I love how seamlessly this chain unfolded.
One of the things that’s remarkable about both of you is that you, Teresa, worked at Juilliard [The Juilliard School, New York City], and you are a musician, right?
V.P. And you, Jackie, are an artist. You hold a BFA [from Washington University, St. Louis] and an MFA [from the University of Chicago]. So, I’m curious whether for you there has been a shift at one point that led you to not being just a practitioner but to become an organizer—or whatever you want to call it. When did that happen?
J.T. In the early 2000s, I became familiar with the work of the artist Gregg Bordowitz and he eventually became a friend. The reason why I bring him up is because, for the first time, I saw somebody who talked about activism, teaching, writing, making videos and films, all as one—he defined practice in a super integrated way. I wish I had met him earlier when I started my career. Before meeting Gregg, I felt that I needed to make choices, that it was art-making and then this other thing called museum or art education or art administration work, when in reality, it can be a much more integrated practice. When I was still getting my BFA, I started teaching and discovered that I loved teaching and connecting art with people. And then, when I interned at a nonprofit for a biennial in Puerto Rico, I found out that I was actually really good at the back-of-the-house work. I needed a job and didn’t want to go the path of adjunct teaching in five places and making less than $20,000 a year. And so, fortuitously, a job appeared at an art center in Chicago [Hyde Park Art Center], and I became the program coordinator. I didn’t realize that this would mean getting the equivalent of a second master’s degree in nonprofit management, but that’s what happened and one thing led to the other. So, it wasn’t really an intentional turn, it was more like I needed to make a living and I found the work really creative and exciting, and it was—and has always been—really important for me to be working in close proximity to artists and to people in the arts.
V.P. You know, these are exactly the kinds of stories that I want my students to hear.
J.T. And I’m happy to . . . I’m available.
V.P. That’s one thing I always tell my students: that professionals who are at the top of their game today didn’t get there through a straight line. I think this is an important message because there’s quite a bit of anxiety as students think they have to have their life figured out. But as you said, important things happen serendipitously; you get sucked into something, and often, after the fact, you realize that what you thought were very disparate interests have in fact a lot in common.
J.T. Yeah, there’s a through-line.
V.P. And you, Teresa? For Jackie, it was art-making and then connecting with people but while remaining within art-making. You started in music but now, at Colby, you’re in charge of the arts writ large.
T.McK. Oddly enough, I would say my path is similar to Jackie’s. For me, art-making was as a church musician. As an undergraduate [at Hampton University], I was a flute performance major. I went on to further music study, but my interests were really about building genuine relationships with my community through the arts, working towards social change. In music, the career is often made up of a series of auditions and that is part of the process. There was one audition I won for a regional orchestra—it was a screened audition. In other auditions, I had to hear how I would never succeed because of my background, my race. I realized I needed to learn how to make sure that young people have what they need to accomplish their goals in whatever field they want to pursue. I have an interest in working with people that have a mindset that’s a little bit different. They may be thinking differently. They may be quiet. They may be hyperactive or disruptive. Either way, they’re probably brilliant artists. I studied arts administration [at Florida State University College of Music, Tallahassee] and it was important that the program be housed within the school of music, so I could take my performance degree and apply it. While there, I worked with the Dean to design a way to use the college’s resources to work in the local neighborhood with children. One of the first projects that we did—actually, I’m just thinking about that now that I’m talking to you—was a mural with a program called the Fourth Avenue Cultural Enrichment. An artist sketched the massive mural and then the children came and painted, and we’d all be on a scaffolding. Gradually murals were placed in different parts of the city. We also did African drumming and dancing. I was dancing with the kids, but then I was writing grants and I was in school. That developed into a stronger interest in community engagement. And I said: this is what I want! I want to be able to understand the mechanisms of nonprofits, to figure out everything from fundraising to programming, and all the varying hats you may wear. As a result, my path was really about arts education, it was about community engagement and what you’re talking about: helping students develop an open mindset as artists, instead of the doom and gloom (“Oh, you have an art degree, what are you going to do? You’re going to be a broke artist!”). It’s about shifting that mindset so you see that as a creative thinker, there are lots of opportunities, in every industry. Obviously, within a music conservatory, the students and their families have made a serious level of commitment to performance and, given that level of investment, it wasn’t always easy to tell students to start thinking outside of the box. It was important to show how they could use their gifts and how, as a performer, as an artist, one can engage with different communities. It’s about sharing your gift and developing your life so that you understand that every geographical area is a stage, as opposed to the few main stages of the world where you have to go through “gates” with guardians that tell you how to fit in a certain mold to be in the space. Whereas the industry and the world are looking for your unique gifts. I really enjoy working with young people and telling them: let’s develop your unique self. Like you said, it’s not a straight line.
V.P. What you’re describing fits so well with what we do at Colby. I keep telling my students that whatever their major, they’re learning to think critically and creatively, to research, to communicate. One of my goals is to teach students to think outside of the box. So, when you use that expression, I couldn’t agree more! What you are talking about is to open up. For a young person, it’s how to think about the future and, even though they might be studying something very specific, to realize that the possibilities are many. And in your positions, you are opening up the college to the community. It’s revealing, Teresa, that your first experience was performing in a church, which is a communal experience. This confirms my point of how the dots eventually get connected.
V.P. You both started during the pandemic—talk about a challenge! I can only imagine how strange and artificial it must have felt, especially since you’re all about creating connections. What were the challenges and what were the silver linings?
J.T. I would put that in the present tense: what are the challenges?
T.McK. The whole idea for me is about building community. That’s the basis of why we are here. It’s one thing to Zoom with someone that you’ve met before, but several months of just popping into people’s email and saying: “hello, would you like to have a Zoom coffee?” is challenging. Jackie and I are doing some deep levels of vision work and for this, you really need to be in person. There are challenges, but we’re pushing through, and we have to do it with grace [chuckles].
J.T. I echo all of that. It’s difficult . . . with both of you, I’ve traded emails about drinks [which are yet to happen!]. There’s the challenge of moving to a new place where you don’t really know anybody: how do you meet people? Whether it’s for the purpose of the job or personally, you break bread, you share a meal, you have a drink, you sit in a space, you get to know the person. So that has been challenging professionally and personally. I’m trying not to get too caught up on that. I needed to meet my staff. I needed to meet my board. I needed and still need to meet the people around me, so if Zoom was the option, then that is what I used. I’m excited about the journal [MAJ], because the question is how to connect, how do I start feeling part of a larger whole, whether it’s the larger whole that makes Waterville or the larger whole that makes the Maine arts community, because we’re not showing up at openings on a Friday night or going around to open studios. So how do I start? It’s such a slow process because it’s one by one by one. Similarly, at the museum, except for students (and barely, because we are not having events), I don’t really know the audience. When I started at the Art Institute [of Chicago] or at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as Managing Museum Educator for Gallery and Studio Programs], I spent hours just showing up at our programs, seeing who was there, observing how things went, talking to people.
V.P. And feeling the vibe, right?
J.T. Feeling the vibe, understanding who we are doing things for, why they are coming, and who is not coming. Right now, we have none of that, and that’s really challenging.
V.P. I’m so sorry you had to start in such circumstances. This being said, what are your impressions of Maine, even in confinement?
T.McK. Maine is beautiful. And can I tell you? I feel like I got out of New York at the right time!
V.P. Yes, you totally did!
T.McK. I moved here at the end of February, and I didn’t start the job until April 1st. At that time, I was going to go to Florida, but I got kicked out of my parents’ retirement home. So, I came back and enjoyed the beautiful Maine landscape. I had friends that came to visit because everyone was trying to escape New York, so I wasn’t lonely moving here, leaving my friends. And the summer in Maine was spectacular. I learned a bit about some of the lakes and the coast. I think it’s amazing.
V.P. What about you, Jackie?
J.T. I am fascinated. Part of the appeal of coming here was the idea of being immersed in nature, of not having to travel to nature, out of the city, to have access to the outdoors unfettered. The fall was spectacular—I’ve never seen a fall like that! But even as things kind of shut down for winter, still, driving a couple hours and hiking the carriage trails of Acadia National Park—it’s spectacular. The people I have been able to meet outside of Colby are just . . . yeah, I just want more of it! I’m fascinated by the history of Maine. I’m fascinated by the millennial history of indigenous people here, the longevity of the Penobscot language, for instance.
V.P. I agree! I find so moving the presence of the language in the toponyms, how the landscape is inscribed with this history.
I can relate with what you both said about Maine and nature because nothing prepared me for this. I was born in Buenos Aires, lived in Geneva, Switzerland, and New York City, and it wasn’t until my early thirties, in Berkeley, that for the first time in my life I didn’t live in an apartment building. And now, I don’t want to live in a city ever again!
J.T. Why not?
V.P. I now feel claustrophobic in cities, I enjoy them for two minutes. Here, it’s the quality of life and the beauty.
Tell us: what did you expect when you came here and what did you find? There was of course the College’s vision that attracted you—we talked about that—but what else did you expect? And what surprises did you have?
T.McK. It’s a tough question because when you start a new job, you’re thinking about your first 100 days, all the initiatives, all the people you’re going to meet, the impression you’re going to make, and all kinds of anxieties. You have a whole plan in place and you expect those things to happen [laughs]. But we started during a pandemic, so it ended up being a little more gradual, which was a benefit. It was like, we have no choice but to pause and get to know people one by one and start plugging away. And then—we already talked about this—the beauty of Maine really caught me off guard—I was nervous about the cold because like you, I’m a warm-climate person. I grew up in California. I lived in New York but was always going to Florida to get some sun. So, yeah, I was shocked at how quickly I adapted to loving this landscape and not missing the city at all. As far as the work and Colby, everyone is very kind, very kind. And everyone is an artist! [laughs]
J.T. It’s such an interesting question because . . . I’m not sure what I expected. One thing that has surprised me, in getting to know Colby, is realizing its level of ambition and aspiration. For instance, I would have never anticipated that we would be launching a major artificial intelligence initiative [The Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence]. And this has just happened, while at the same time we are doing this huge community development and academic program around the arts, that is not one building, but three buildings plus people and programs. The level of ambition is incredible.
V.P. Could you talk more about Colby’s initiatives in the arts; what are those big projects?
T.McK. That’s what we call the “arts ecosystem.” Colby has this amazing museum, the Art department, the Lunder Institute for American Art, and other arts departments, including Music, Theater and Dance, Cinema studies, Creative Writing, and the Center for the Arts and Humanities. So, we have this robust selection of arts and scholarly activities and collaborations happening on this campus. And then, we have these buildings that are coming, starting with the Lockwood Hotel, which is a beautiful space opening soon to the public; the Arts Collaborative at 14–20 Main Street, with the Lunder Institute on the second, third, and fourth floors (with scholars, resident artists, and programs), while the ground floor will be open to the community; the Paul J. Schupf Art Center that will open in late 2022, which will include Waterville Creates!, the Opera House, the Maine Film Center, a community art gallery with a classroom and clay studio, and a contemporary gallery of the Colby College Museum of Art. This is going to set Waterville apart from all of the other towns, including some of the cities on the coast, really. Then in 2023, on campus, the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts will house the Music, Theater and Dance, and Cinema Studies departments; a performance hall; flexible studios for teaching and exploration; classrooms and music practice rooms; recording and video editing suites. In a central area, there will be an “arts incubator.” It’s going to be state-of-the-art and beautiful. The entrance will be facing the public street, which sends a clear message: the community at large will be welcomed. That’s the quick rundown.
J.T. If successful, this will knit together the life of campus, including academic life, and the life of the community. It will make art part of how people live. For students on campus, the new buildings will offer space not just for attending classes, but for hanging out. These buildings, in addition to the existing building of the museum, offer a space where you learn from artists, a space where you learn about jobs, a space you visit when you get away from your dorm or the Library or head downtown for a little change from the campus. For community members who live here or in the area, the range of ways in which you can experience the arts all of a sudden multiplies tenfold. You can take a pottery class and go to the cinema and look at art in a gallery, and it is all much more concentrated, in the middle of town. So that’s huge: the interweaving of community, of campus, of art into life. In many ways, I think that there’s an important opportunity; I am referring to the community piece that Teresa and I, and others, have talked about—the idea of social bonding. How do we celebrate together through art, how do we have difficult conversations through art, how do we explore through art new things that you never even thought interested you?
V.P. You know, the history of the town and the college is an interesting and paradoxical one because we used to be downtown, but early in the 20th century the college was running out of space and considered leaving the town. That’s when Waterville gave us Mayflower Hill, which kept us here but at the same time removed us from the life of the community.
J.T. I’m curious, Véronique, how do you see the value of all of this? How does this change things for you, from the perspective of somebody who has been teaching and been such a part of the Maine arts community?
V.P. I always felt that the physical distance between the campus and the downtown was unfortunate but also, because of Waterville’s gift of the “Hill” to Colby, that we should be giving back to the town, for instance having students contribute to its life. What a relief to see it happening! Of course, I love the crucial part the arts are playing. I’m personally thrilled that you decided to come to Colby to build community and to lead with the arts.
Image at top: Zoom conversation between (from left to right) Teresa D. McKinney, Véronique Plesch, and (bottom) Jacqueline Terrassa, 19 February 2021.