At the end of 2014, Marie McKee retired as president of The Corning Museum of Glass after 16 years on the job. Karol Wight, who was hired as the Museum’s executive director in 2011, took on the additional role of president.
I sat down with Karol recently to learn more about what she sees as the next priorities for the Museum, what she hopes to accomplish as president, and how she’s adjusting to life in Corning.
You’ve been the Museum’s executive director for three years. What will be different for you now that you hold the additional role of president?
It’s really a testament to smart succession planning on the part of the board and the Museum’s former president Marie McKee that this will not be a radical change for me.
The board hired me as executive director expecting me to grow into this role, and Marie strongly encouraged me, in fact expected, me to progressively play a stronger role in overall institutional decision making. Since the end of my first year, which was really a year of learning, I have been engaged broadly with staff in all areas to work holistically across the organization.
As president now, I’m taking a broader view of the institution including the financial well-being of our growing organization, ensuring continued strong visitor service, and retaining our position of leadership in our field. This is a position Marie established and one that I will strive to maintain.
To support me in this endeavor, it’s been important to create new strong senior management roles. Alan Eusden joined us this past fall as chief operating officer focusing on operations, marketing, and finances. We are in the process of hiring a deputy director of collections to oversee the curatorial and educational departments, as well as The Studio and the Library, a role which I’ve filled for the past three years.
Can you describe your strategic vision for the Museum?
Marie’s legacy is strong. We have a sound institution, great staff, and very exciting prospects with the opening of our new Contemporary Art + Design Wing. Moving forward, I’m focused on several key areas that build upon these successes.
The first is digital media. We rebuilt and re-launched our website three years ago making available a great deal of our resources, particularly making the entire collection visible. Last summer, we hired our first chief digital officer, Scott Sayre, and we are now focused on building more digital tools to interpret and share our collections. We also have an amazing collection of archival materials in our Rakow Research Library, which continue to expand. Our goal is to find ways to digitize and share more of these and other materials as quickly and as broadly as possible.
Another priority is taking advantage of our new wing to increase our focus on contemporary glass. We have recently made a number of important acquisitions in this area. We feel it’s important to not only collect art by artists who work primarily in glass but also to collect works in glass by mainstream contemporary artists like Liza Lou, Roni Horn, and Fred Wilson. Our goal is really to broaden the perspective of glass in art and design.
In addition, I’m also excited to expand our hands-on work with artists and designers. Artists walking into our new hotshop will be blown away by its capabilities which will allow us to do so much more. For the visitor, the opportunity to see contemporary works on display and then walk a few feet to see the making of glass will be a strong and vivid experience. Our new hotshop, combined with the deep resources of our Studio, will allow us to expand the ways we work with artists, including creating new guest artist demo programs and residencies.
Which brings me to the third priority. The Studio was founded in 1996 and immediately became a leader in glass artist residencies and teaching of glassmaking. Now we are bursting at the seams, so we need to look at how we might better accommodate our students, artists, and also visitors. That includes space, but also expanding and enhancing current programming.
Another area of focus is science. Science has long been a part of our DNA and we are building on that. In 2013, we hired our first curator of science and technology and just this month brought G. Jane Cook on board as our new research scientist. We are now in the process of hiring a science educator. This strong team will begin to evaluate our current exhibitry and programming, and will work on expanding and enhancing both.
Finally, the work we are doing in our new wing in terms of display and interpretation will help us understand how we might use these tools elsewhere in the museum. Through visitor interviews and observation, we hope to evaluate the success of these tools in the new space and, long range, use them to reevaluate the installations and interpretation in the older galleries.
The Corning Museum of Glass is a story of success and continued improvement, beginning with the opening of the institution in 1951. We have a largess of goodness to care for and share and an amazing staff, and much of what we do next builds upon previous successes.
You moved to Corning after living in Los Angeles most of your life. What has it been like adjusting to life in a small community and at a smaller museum?
Living in a smaller community is a blessing, especially in terms of quality of life. There are no traffic jams, and the schools are great, especially in terms of class size. And I’ve discovered that I like snow! I don’t ski or do anything too sporty related to snow, but I really like snow. You’ll have to ask me again in a few years if I still feel this way; maybe the novelty will have worn off by then!
I love that we have such a creative and diverse small community and that many of our residents are connected to glass in some way, whether as artists, collectors or Corning Incorporated employees. One of the most important audiences for our museum is our community and we want the community to see us as a gathering place, a place for lifelong learning, and a strong partner organization.
I have truly enjoyed every day here. I had the luxury of learning my job over the course of a year and really growing into it. Every day there’s something new and something to explore. Really, that’s why one works in a museum. Your days range from managing the mundane to overseeing the sublime: from approving timesheets to installing some of the most important works in glass in a brand new wing.