Art Has a Home Here

Sharon Corwin and the Great Works of the Colby College Museum of Art


I’m on the ground floor of Colby College Museum of Art’s new wing, the Alfond- Lunder Family Pavilion, where the offices of the museum’s staff are situated to face a wall of windows. For those cutting across campus, the effect is not unlike a visit to the zoo, only in this case, the animal of interest is the stylish, well educated, art-obsessed human in his or her natural habitat – clean white offices punctuated with the occasional lime green or cherry red wall, filled with paintings by the likes of Alex Katz, Rackstraw Downes, and Sam Gilliam.

“That’s exactly what we were going for,” says Sharon Corwin, the Carolyn Muzzy director and chief curator at the Colby College Museum of Art, as we make our way down a sun-drenched hallway after the staff ’s weekly morning meeting. There is a quality of lightness about her—in her voice and in her way of floating around the modern space—but it would be a mistake to think she treads lightly. Over the past several years, Corwin’s intellect and aesthetic have shaped this place, literally and figuratively, for the better. While designing the new wing the team “wanted to build in that constant reminder that people are at work here,” she explains, “that this space and this collection are dynamic and constantly evolving.”

In the past five years, this 55-year-old museum has undergone extraordinary changes. In the summer of 2013, construction of the glass-walled Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion was completed, making the Colby College Museum of Art the largest museum in the state with 38,000 square feet of exhibition space to showcase the depth and breadth of the museum’s significant collection, recently augmented (in 2013) by the addition of over 500 works of largely American art from Colby alumnus Peter Lunder and his wife Paula. The museum’s history of donorshipof impassioned involvement by faculty, administration, community members, and renowned artists and collectors—is unique, but this recent acquisition tipped the scale, putting Waterville on the national map like never before.

Sharon Corwin has gracefully piloted the museum through monumental changes and unprecedented media attention. You may have caught sight of her—if not in person then perhaps in pictures. She’s the brown- haired, kind-eyed woman who continues to put all of the pieces together, the person whose quotes in the New York Times and the Boston Globe reliably reiterate the museum’s importance for Colby College, but also for this central Maine community. She is making bids at Christie’s one day, and sitting down for the pulled pork, corn-tortilla “lasagna” lunch special at Barrels Community Market in downtown Waterville the next. She is the one propelling the museum’s mission forward—facilitating interactions with world-class art for everyone, from Presque Isle public school kids to Colby College students to visitors to northern New England’s newest art destination.

In her office, we discuss the museum’s famous Whistler collection and contemporary artists Maya Lin and Jocelyn Lee. She has plans to visit modern realist Alex Katz in his Lincolnville studio later in the day (a prospect that boggles my mind). Corwin holds a doctorate in art history; her knowledge is deep, her education apparent, but her love of art is not the least bit buried in jargon. In her conversation—and even in her curating—she allows for art’s mysteries, gives herself over to the unexplainable sometimes. This past summer when I visited, the art on display in the museum’s several exhibition spaces worked on many levels. Visually beautiful, objects are arranged in ways that resonate with historical and social relevance but also aesthetic congruity. The effort and talent required to curate such an impactful art experience speaks not only to Corwin’s work ethic and talent, but to the caliber of the entire Colby Museum of Art staff, who have come from all over the country (and even Paris) to be at this Maine museum.

Where did the passion come from? Sharon Corwin tells me that when she was a little girl, growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, her parents often took her to the High Museum of Art. “It was never like, ‘Let’s go to the museum to learn something.’ It was just a place to go and look and experience.” Of course she learned things—facts, figures, etc.—but when the pressure is off, you’re able to acquire new information about yourself, too. You’re probably more open to accessing unique, complex modes of thought. The interplay between feeling and thinking, gut reaction and deliberate analysis, has always been a part of Corwin’s experience of art, and probably part of what makes her so well suited to the task of creating a living, breathing museum that serves a student body and an art-hungry public.

“We recently had a math professor over here talking about knot theory—this complicated math concept—in relation to a painting that has these forms that are based in knot theory,” she tells me. “I have this whole new understanding of the painting now. Sometimes I’ll just walk through the galleries when we’re open and just sort of eaves- drop on people. When I hear the comments they’re making or the excitement or joy, that makes it possible for me to come back and work until nine o’clock and not feel grumpy about it. The work we’re doing feels like it has importance and mean- ing and purpose.”

Eleven years ago, after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Corwin was looking for work that was all of these things—im- portant, meaningful, purposeful. She applied to jobs around the country, from Houston, Texas, to Portland, Oregon, to Long Beach, California. “Then I came here,” she says. “I had never been to Maine before. I fell in love with the museum immediately. When I walked in the door, I could just feel it. I could feel the potential that existed here, I could feel the specialness of this place.”

It required an adjustment for Corwin and her husband, a musician in the Bay Area, to make the move from urban California to rural Maine, but the change was ultimately a happy one. “For a while we said the thing we missed most was going to a taqueria and getting a really good burrito,” she jokes. And not a minute later, in all seriousness, we’re talking food, and how good it is here. “The farms are a part of Maine’s creative economy in so many ways,” she says, recalling a recent community event hosted by the museum. Stone Fox Farm Creamery of Monroe brought the artisanal ice cream. Poets and musicians performed before paintings, activating the artwork in a way that brought Corwin and her colleagues to tears. Corwin’s support of the arts in Waterville extends beyond the glass walls of the museum into down- town streets and the beautiful buildings that are home to projects like Common Street Arts, whose mission is to enhance the creative and economic vitality of Waterville. “I’m really excited about the farmer/artist and the farmer/musician or just the farmer/farmer,” she says. “It’s about scale—in Maine, everything is scaled in a way that’s accessible. There’s a richness to the artistic community that’s authentic. Alex Katz lives down the road, Lois Dodd lives down the other one.”

And yet, just as there is nothing elitist (or exclusive—the museum is open to the public free of charge) about this place, there isn’t anything provincial about it, either. Thanks in large part to supporters like the Lunders and Katz, and to Corwin’s careful planning and expert execution, the Colby College Museum of Art is now home to some of the greatest works of American and contemporary art anywhere. In 1992, Katz donated more than 400 of his own paintings to the museum, and since 1996, the Paul J. Schupf Wing has presented ongoing selections from this vast collection. In addition to donating his own work, Katz will, along with Corwin, visit artist studios in Chelsea, purchasing cutting edge contemporary work to donate to Colby, practically before the paint has dried.

Walking through the current exhibitions with Corwin, the pieces on display hit hard, on their own and in combination. I’m haunted by the invariably sad and humorous faces on Bernard Langlais’ wooden animal sculptures. I’m wooed by the line and color of Robert Mangold’s 18 acrylic and pencil drawings and drawn to the black bizarreness of a 2001 untitled piece by Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas, who builds lichen-like molds of acrylic paint upon canvas.

Although Sharon Corwin has seen all of this work hundreds of times – has, no doubt, spent sleepless nights considering their arrangement—while she walks and talks, she looks and loves. Thinking back on our conversation, I imagine her wandering through these rooms on a particularly challenging afternoon, hearing what someone might have to say about a piece of art, hoping it’s the kind of thing that will power her through the evening. In the Paul J. Schupf Wing, she stops before a landscape by Katz, leans her weight on one heel, and looks up, dwarfed but undaunted by a giant night sky of black and blue.

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