Interviewing Jacqueline Terrassa

By: Aisha Pérez-González


Connectedness is often presented as a never-ending thread in a person’s life. But for Jacqueline Terrassa, it is more about consistent suggestions toward what will be coming next. In this interview, we sat down to talk about her life as an artist, museum educator, and now her new position as the Carolyn Muzzy Director at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine.

How did you make your way into the museum education field?

It was never a goal to work in this field; I happened to discover it along the way. Art has always been part of my life; I have always made art and have always enjoyed looking at it. My parents encouraged my engagement with art. They both liked being surrounded by beautiful things, including original works of art. My mother, an eternal educator and lifelong learner, bought an encyclopedia for children when my brother and I were young called “El mundo de los niños,” which I loved. It included a tome on art, presenting dozens of works from some of the world’s most famous museums. We also had the privilege to travel outside of Puerto Rico, and I had a chance to visit museums as part of those trips. Those visits made for vivid childhood memories.

But it was ultimately thanks to mentors that I ended up doing this work. They pointed me in this direction. I entered art education as an incoming sophomore in college by working as a teaching artist at the Liga de Arte de San Juan. I had no experience teaching; thank goodness they gave me the opportunity. An artist Silvia Blanco recommended that I teach in their summer arts camp for children. She had known me since I was a child and saw that I was very serious about art. She was also the first person I knew who was a practicing artist, someone who was connected to networks in the art world. Similarly, I think it was also her who suggested me for an internship at the Bienal del Grabado de San Juan, before it became the San Juan Poly/Graphic Triennial.

I spent my summer internship reviewing, researching, and writing biographies for the Biennial’s catalog. The work allowed me to learn about artists that, to this day, I’m so glad I know about, such as Liliana Porter and Luis Camnitzer. The experience also offered me my first view into the behind-the-scenes functions of an organization. Thanks to those experiences, I eventually got my first full-time job at a nonprofit, the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago’s South Side. Through that work, thanks to community art-education partnerships that brought together different kinds of arts organizations, I discovered that there was such a thing as a museum educator job. Fast forward a couple of years: I was hired as director of education at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. I have been in the field of art museums, and in museum education, ever since.

Do you consider yourself a mentor to your team, colleagues, and the public you engage with?

Absolutely. I see mentorship as a central part of being a leader, not only, but especially in relation to, young women, and young people in general who have faced or might face barriers to entry and ongoing growth. I prioritize giving attention to those who may not have thought of themselves as likely candidates for art museum or art world roles. It matters to me to demystify what it means to be in this kind of organization and do this kind of work.

I spend a lot of time, easily at least twice a month, doing informational interviews with people who are considering the field and want to learn more. I also see management and mentorship as related. In peer mentor relationships (say with a colleague in another department of my institution), as well as in managing through a mentorship methodology, the benefit is mutual. People are learning from you, but you are also learning a lot from them. I learn a lot from the people I work with: hearing their questions, thinking in different ways, working with students. I especially love working with students who are making their way in the early stages of their undergraduate or graduate studies.

How do you integrate your process as an artist and educator in your day-to-day life?

I have thought about this a lot. The question is complicated because it concerns questions of identity. If I am an artist, then the assumption might be that I should be making art much of the time, yet that is not my reality. Around 20 years ago, when I entered into the field of museum education, I told myself, for better or worse, that if museum work proved to be creative and expansive enough, maybe it would be okay if I didn’t make art, or at least not as my central practice. I have very few regrets in my life; this is one of them. As a result of that choice, I stopped making art regularly. It took me a long time to understand that to be an artist one didn't have to be a career artist. I have now come to understand that, for me, being an artist is a way of looking at the world—of exploring the world and then responding to it through materials and relationships. It is a practice, and so long as that is my orientation toward the world, I can still legitimately call myself an artist even in the absence of an external system of validation supporting my practice. I have made my way back into making art more regularly. I also write. I’m not an art historian, and I didn't train as an educator even if I have extensive knowledge and experience in both fields. I grew up as an artist and trained as one—it is part of who I am.

I bring that orientation to my museum work. I love working with artists and collaborating with them. I think I have some sort of empathy and understanding for their process. When I talk about art, I like to help people see what choices an artist made, and how those choices reveal something about themselves, about their social context, or about their kind of artistic world that they are in.

I also see the work of crafting vision, building community and ownership, and developing experiences that people will benefit from as creative processes, often collaborative creative processes. I am not a linear thinker. Instead, I work iteratively. I gather ideas, models, and information. I establish a set of conditions or values or questions that provide certain useful constraints. I listen and begin establishing possible directions or hypotheses. I then begin to sketch a plan and to refine it with others. At a certain point, the thing we’re making is fleshed out and complete. Or perhaps it’s something that is meant to continue to evolve.

These processes of crafting vision, strategy, artistic direction, community, and programming tend to be collaborative in nature. Learning organizations are resilient because they adapt, they are responsive, they are inclusive. I use my skills as an educator trained in inquiry-based methods of teaching and learning in my work of leading others. I like to understand what motivates people and what ideas people have that can give dimension or focus to the thing we are making together. In this way, I also seek to learn and help others learn more about each other, their community, art, or the institution. This results in stronger vision and greater ownership in the organization.

Can you tell us more about the Teen Creative Agency program you worked on in Chicago and how it flourished?

I was at the Museum of Contemporary Art at that time, from 2008 to 2011, and I oversaw public programs. Part of that included planning talks, conversations, and various kinds of public events for adults, and also overseeing family and youth programs. The museum’s director wanted us to involve teens in the museum, an area of programming the museum didn’t have, so I began with a research and development phase that involved consulting with teens themselves and peers at other organizations.

At that time, many museums around the country were actively developing teen programs, especially teen councils, where high school-aged students had an active role in ideating, designing, and executing programs for other teens. I was interested in that approach. What I did not want was to create a program where young people came to the museum and we told them what to do. I knew this was one model that would not attract them nor was it what they needed. One of the biggest challenges of working with young people, and particularly teens, can be retention. But we learned from our conversations with teens and our research that retention was only a problem if they don’t find the experience to be rigorous and meaningful.

Two other staff and I drew from our research and from the mission and vision of the MCA to create Teen Creative Agency, or TCA. The result was a leadership program within the context of an art museum; we wanted young people to see themselves and to act as creative leaders. Our goal was not to produce artists or even curators; instead we focused on exploring and enacting how the MCA could relate to the public through the lens of teens. Together, they learned about each other, the museum, and art, and they began to develop programs that not only served other teens but the broader visitorship of the MCA. It’s been 10 years; the museum is evaluating the program and trying to determine what needs to change, which is necessary and understandable. However, I'm surprised and glad that it has been so durable.

After the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, you moved to New York to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What was your initial reaction? Did you see yourself in that position?

It was a turning point in my life. A leap professionally, and a leap personally as well. There are only a few museums that are bigger than the Met; I knew that I could make a difference in a smaller institution, but I didn't know if I could make a difference in a very large one, especially one so legendary. So, I went to the Met with that question: Can I make a difference in an environment that is this big or will it swallow me up? Can I have an impact?

I'm interested in coming into places that are going through some process of self-awareness or transformation, especially as it relates to becoming more accessible and expansive to a public. If the institution is comfortable with where it is, then I should not be there. During my final interview, the head of the Education Department explained that she wanted me to help her steer it in new directions. One of the things that she was excited about was the possibility of emphasizing the role of artists in the museum—artists as not just the people who make the work on display, but rather as partners and active participants.

We developed the notion of the museum as a generative site and began to launch programs where people could creatively participate in the museum, using it as place of inspiration, where looking and making came together. This work reconnected me to the heart of my relationship with museums: as a young, budding artist, I visited museums looking to learn how other artists made things.

How did the Gallery and Studio Program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York enrich the life of the community?

The division of Gallery and Studio Programs was one of the largest of several areas of the Education Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I led a staff of 14. We were in charge of shaping the pedagogy and programming for all experiences that helped people of all ages and backgrounds engage directly with works of art in our galleries and make more meaning from those experiences, on their own time, outside of school or work contexts. This included dialogical approaches as well as “studio” or art-making programs that connected artists and other makers with the museum and its historic collections. “Studio” was never a location but rather a mindset. Over a short period of years, we developed a whole set of multifaceted offerings that included large-scale, participatory, multigenerational cultural festivals; drop-in art-making workshops and drawing-in-the-galleries programs for families, teens, and adults; short courses and workshops, where works of art in the collections and historic processes of making inspired new art-making by participants; and a series called Artists on Artworks, where artists, some of them quite famous, would choose a few works of art in the museum and lead guided walk-throughs and talk about the works from their own point of view. All these activities invited different kinds of people to come to the museum and make it their own, to connect personally with art, and to look more closely. We created entry points. The cultural and not just the aesthetic or historical aspect of the art was important because it allowed people ways to, at times, engage with their own cultural heritage, and at other times learn about cultural histories and traditions different from their own. It allowed us to realize the power of the museum as a place that contributed to global, intercultural understanding in addition to serving as a place for inspiration, creativity, and discovery.

I understand that your approach to the educational process includes a hands-on experience. How were you able to connect all different kinds of publics?

It’s about opening up entry points.

Almost any art museum educator will tell you that, quite often, hands-on activities designed for children appeal to adults who want to participate but feel shy or self-conscious about doing so. As a result, I am a big fan of intergenerational programming. Let’s not even call it “family programs,” because all of a sudden that assumes a type of social unit. Instead, let’s call it a workshop open to people of all ages and backgrounds. These kinds of programs bring people together. Most of us are inherently creative and curious, and we want to engage with our world; ask questions about our world. Those inclinations are no different, really, between a six-year-old and a 90-year-old. Some people are more cerebral, some people are more hands on.

Any successful art education program or museum program provides different entry points, recognizing that there are different kinds of learners, different kinds of abilities, physical, and cognitive abilities, different preferences for how you engage with content, and sometimes the same person might want different things on different days, and sometimes for different identities. So, offering a variety of entry points allows more people to feel invited to take part in an experience.

What do you think is the key to creating a successful museum education program?

An important ingredient is to understand the conditions on the ground. By this I mean understanding the context of the organization and its strengths, the desires and need of its communities and constituencies, and how that organization is situated in the broader landscape of cultural organizations. We need to be able to answer: What is unique about what the institution can offer people that no one else can, or not in the same way? It’s also important to articulate clearly what is the intended impact of that organization—how does it seek to benefit people?

Where do you think the educational programs in Puerto Rican museums should be headed?

There is a tremendous social need in Puerto Rico—the need for processing collective and individual experiences of trauma, along with the need to experience individual and collective joy in the face of trauma and neglect, the need for social bonding across social classes and identities, and the need to foster a sense of individual and collective agency in order to address the pernicious realities of colonialism, which continually creates dependence and disempowerment. Art can be a powerful vehicle for all of these needs, and experiences with works of art can also help us understand and value history, what has come before, while allowing us to see how we can envision new possibilities. Puerto Rican museum programs already are doing a lot of this work in collaboration with communities, focusing on those who have had the least access to art rather than those who will find their way to art museums on their own because of their upbringing. That community work should continue and grow. Resources are needed to support that work as core parts of the work of museums, not as ancillary “enrichment” activities.

If you have to describe your professional journey since 1998 with one word, what one would be?

The word that comes to my mind is unimaginable. If you had told me in 1998… I remember where I was when I got the call from Kim Rorschach, then director of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, to ask if I would be interested in considering the position of education director. I was in my office when the call came in, working as an administrative assistant in the Art and Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago. I was trying to make my art; trying to have a job that was not too taxing in terms of energy so I could just focus on making art. That wasn't working well. Then I get this call. If you had told me at that time that I would be doing what I'm doing right now I wouldn’t believe it. (laughs)

So, unimaginable in that sense, but at the same time, when I look back, there are these continuities from job to job to job that are really consistent. The fact that that first job was at a university art museum mattered a lot because I saw the value of those academic museums and the way they could also function in a larger community. Now I’m going to be the director of an academic museum that is not just about serving the campus but also about a broader community. There are some helpful, important lessons that I will be drawing from my time at the Smart Museum.

My commitment to expanding access to the arts has been a constant throughout my past jobs. It’s been an unpredictable journey, surprising. I'm grateful.

Can art educators see themselves as skilled for a museum director position?

Yes. I see the experience, the background, the mindset of educators as being really valuable for director jobs, and I have increasingly seen museum educators become directors of museums, which I think is a really good trend. The Colby College Museum of Art is guided by an educational mission. The exciting part now is the challenge of how to knit together the educational mission as it relates to the campus with the broader community-based work and field-transforming practices it is incubating. How do we create the conditions for people to learn and grow and be the people who they want to be?

How do you feel about your new challenge at the Colby College Museum of Art?

I am absolutely thrilled to begin my work at Colby. I am excited to assume a director role within this museum, to contribute to Colby’s communities and to the field of arts and culture from a new role. The context of the college, and its expansive mission, prepares young people holistically to be responsible, compassionate, visionary leaders of this complex world and provides a great framework for how we involve students, faculty, and staff of the college in the work of the museum as it relates to building collections, creating ownership in the museum for many, learning processes, community building, and community development through the arts. The work we do in Waterville can be a model for other colleges, other museums, other towns and cities. I am also especially interested in Colby’s commitment to thinking in new ways about American art. At a time when the United States is undergoing a deep social crisis in terms of its role and sense of identity, the question of “what is American art” and who it represents is as important as ever. This question matters to me greatly as a Puerto Rican, as a person from the Caribbean diaspora, and as a Latina.

I have to thank my high school history teacher, Josefa Santiago, who on the first day of our Puerto Rican history class began by saying, "Puerto Rico is an island, a Caribbean country, and a Latin American country." That line has never left me. (Thank you Sa. Santiago.)