Being Surrounded by Art is a Bold Way to Live: Celebrating Marie McKee’s Presidency

Marie McKee was president of the museum for 16 years. Photo by Matt Wittmeyer

Marie McKee was president of the museum for 16 years. Photo by Matt Wittmeyer

When Marie McKee talks about The Corning Museum of Glass, there’s no doubt that her passion for this remarkable organization runs deep.

“I love every aspect of what I do at the Museum. I get to work with unbelievable people who do unbelievable things,” she says. “It’s a thrill getting to know the different artists at The Studio, hearing the many presentations by artists and scholars. Every single Hot Glass Show I have attended has been memorable.”

Marie was senior vice president of human resources at Corning Incorporated when she was offered the opportunity to become both president of for-profit Steuben Glass and president of the not-for-profit Corning Museum of Glass. She jumped at the chance.

“I’ve always loved art. Being surrounded by art is a bold way to live,” she says. “This was an amazing opportunity to run something I cared about and to produce real results.”

Marie joined the Museum in 1998, in the midst of the previous expansion.  There are many challenges that come with a rapidly changing and growing organization, but Marie’s on-the-job business experience combined with knowledge gained from volunteering and serving on boards for not-for-profit and arts organizations served her, and the institution, well.

“I quickly focused on ways to balance the business of running a museum with ensuring we remained true to our educational mission,” she remembers.

Could she increase the Museum’s international reputation as the authority on glass while ensuring the facility felt welcoming to families and tourists? Could her team diversify and increase the Museum’s revenue streams while still remaining affordable and accessible to everyone?

The results speak for themselves. Under Marie’s leadership visitation has doubled, the time visitors spend at the Museum has tripled and earned revenue has quadrupled. More than 420,000 people walk through the doors each year, and hundreds of thousands more visit the Museum online, see a Hot Glass Show on a Celebrity Cruise Ship or encounter Museum staff teaching or lecturing around the world. The GlassMarket has grown into one of the top ten art museum gift shops in the country.

Glassmakers present a Hot Glass Show on Celebrity Cruises.

Glassmakers present a Hot Glass Show on Celebrity Cruises.

In addition, the collection has nearly doubled. Under Marie’s guidance, the budget for acquiring new objects has increased nearly ten-fold, and donors have become more engaged with the organization. The founding of the Ennion Society patrons group has helped the Museum acquire many important works and fostered stronger relationships with collectors.

“One of the best memories I have was Ben Heineman calling to tell me he had decided to give the Museum his collection,” says Marie. “It was my birthday and we laughed about it being a very special present. His support and friendship were terrific.” The Heineman gift, valued at $9.5 million, was one of the largest ever for the museum and ensured the Museum’s place as the world’s most comprehensive repository for the preservation and documentation of studio glass.

The Heineman gift, valued at $9.5 million, was one of the largest ever for the museum and ensured the Museum’s place as the world’s most comprehensive repository for the preservation and documentation of studio glass.

The Heineman gift, valued at $9.5 million, was one of the largest ever for the museum and ensured the Museum’s place as the world’s most comprehensive repository for the preservation and documentation of studio glass.

Equally important to becoming internationally recognized was the increased engagement with the local community. “We were charged by our board chairman, Jim Flaws, in the early 2000s to be a shining star for the community,” says Marie. “I was thrilled to focus on making the Museum a gathering place. By nature, I am a person who wants people to gather and have fun. I just can’t imagine not having fun. That has to be your life’s stance.”

Throughout the year, the Museum offers free lectures, family programs and other activities. Perhaps the most popular event for locals is 2300°, a free event offered the third Thursday of the month from November to March featuring live glassmaking and music.

In 2011, Marie began to consider succession planning. Then executive director David Whitehouse was transitioning into a research role, and Marie knew she would want to retire in a few years. She began working with the board to identify someone who could fill David’s shoes and grow into the role of president. In 2011, Karol Wight, formerly senior curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum, was appointed executive director. For the last three years, the two leaders have worked together to transition Karol into the dual role of executive director and president which she’ll assume when Marie retires in December.

Marie McKee with Karol Wight who will assume the role of president and executive director after Marie's retirement. Photo by Matt Wittmeyer.

Marie McKee with Karol Wight who will assume the role of president and executive director after Marie’s retirement. Photo by Matt Wittmeyer.

“Karol was the clear choice. She brought not only extensive curatorial expertise, but she had the leadership and managerial experience needed for this position,” says Marie.

Karol will be able to build on the foundations of the results of Marie’s leadership, which include a collaborative work environment, a strong digital backbone and the clear mission Marie defined with her team not long after she started.

“There is so much opportunity here thanks to the work Marie has accomplished over the last 16 years. I feel excited to move this organization forward, building on her visionary work,” says Karol. “I’m very grateful to Marie for her guidance and encouragement.”

Perhaps the most visible legacy Marie leaves will be the new North Wing, opening March 20, 2015. It became clear about 10 years ago that the Museum needed more room to display increasingly larger scale works in contemporary glass and to accommodate the increased number of visitors who were staying longer at the Museum. Marie has championed the new addition from concept to finish. When she retires in December, she will do so knowing that the building is completed and ready for the next phase.

Perhaps the most visible legacy Marie leaves will be the new North Wing, opening March 20, 2015.  Photo by Iwan Baan.

Perhaps the most visible legacy Marie leaves will be the new North Wing, opening March 20, 2015. Photo by Iwan Baan.

“I’m wildly enthusiastic about the next chapter for this Museum,” she says. “Karol will be an outstanding leader and this facility will offer many new possibilities.”

What will the next phase bring for Marie? “I’m not sure yet,” she says. “I want to travel, visit friends and even throw my own parties. But I also am looking at opportunities that will allow me to make a difference, because that’s who I am.”

4 comments » Write a comment

  1. Nice post. The link for the Heineman Collection takes you to a search page for the entire collection. I expected a press release or a bio on the donors. A bit disappointed on this missed opportunity to celebrate the gift with specifics on the collection.

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