The first thing Karen Brosius encountered when she came to Columbia nearly 13 years ago was a warm welcome.
People were friendly, and invited the soon-to-be director of the Columbia Museum of Art into their homes.
Museum board chairman Carroll Heyward even found her a place to live so she could start sooner.
“I think that is the thing that I’ve learned art museums can think about, how they can be a welcoming place,” Brosius said.
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Under Brosius’ leadership, the Columbia Museum of Art became that kind of place. Her lineup of high-profile exhibits – like “Turner to Cezanne,” which drew a record-breaking 46,000 visitors – along with community programs in art and music not only brought in new audiences to the museum but has helped in efforts to revitalize Columbia’s Main Street.
At the end of January, she will depart for a job as president of Careers through Culinary Arts Program in New York. Brosius, a native of upstate New York, will lead the program in helping underserved youth with culinary scholarships, job training and internships. “I’ve always had my heart and soul in education,” she said.
Lynn Robertson, former executive director of the McKissick Museum, will take her place temporarily until a permanent replacement is found. The museum said it expects to make a selection by mid-February.
During Brosius’ time, the museum won the prestigious National Medal of Museum and Library Service. It is the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community.
The award is a culmination of years working to extend the museum’s reach in the community and making itself more accessible to Columbians.
For example, when Brosius started in 2004, the museum only had one summer camp for children. Now it has 26.
It had few evening programs. Now its calendar is brimming with events like CMA Jazz on Main and Arts & Draughts.
It also has several partnerships that provide art lessons to students and young children as well as a proliferation of diversity programs, like the Friends of African American Art and Culture.
“The goal was and remains for everyone to be able to experience that art,” museum curator Will South said. Karen “understood that reaching this goal did not mean being academic, elite, or exclusive.”
The museum was “decidedly sleepy” before Brosius’ arrival, South added. “Now it’s wide awake.”
Main Street was also sleepy when she arrived. The museum has since played a significant role in revitalizing the downtown area and Brosius’ impact has been “tremendous,” according to Matt Kennel, president and CEO of City Center Partnership.
“She was able to meld business and art into the job and, in a very businesslike way, grow the museum to where it had an impact on the city,” he said. “One of her legacies is turning the museum back to Main Street. That to me is testament that she’s trying to make the museum accessible.”
Beginning in March, the museum will renovate its second floor for more gallery space and add a designated Main Street entrance.
“Now it’s so exciting to see what’s happening,” Brosius said. “And I think the museum’s renovation is the next great phase of downtown.”
While her focus was not solely on exhibits, Brosius does have a few favorites that came through during her time.
One is the “Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces” show from 2009. Such an exhibition of impressionist masterworks had never been seen in the United States before, let alone South Carolina, Brosius said.
Another favorite was “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950,” one of the largest loans of Rothkos the National Gallery of Art in Washington had ever made.
A third was “Remix: Themes and Variations in African American Art,” an in-house show and the largest show of African American art the museum had ever organized.
All huge shows to be sure, but Brosius said she considers considers her biggest accomplishment to be welcoming new faces to the museum.
“And having people talk about the museum as ‘our museum.’ That makes me the the happiest.”