Housatonic’s longtime art director steps down

BRIDGEPORT — As director, Robbin Zella helped add more than 4,000 pieces to the Housatonic Museum of Art’s collection. Now she hopes to help the museum with one more addition – a new director.

Zella, who has worked at the museum since 1998, recently announced her retirement. She said it was time for the museum, located on the Housatonic Community College campus, to start fresh.

“Now is a good time to hand it over to a new person who can bring their own vision to the museum and look at it from a different perspective,” Zella said.

She said her decision to retire was also driven in part by family obligations.

“I care about helping my parents now,” she said. “I felt my attention was divided, that it was really better to leave the museum now with so much in place.”

Zella’s successor will have big shoes to fill. Under his leadership, the museum grew its art collection from 3,000 to 7,000 pieces, digitized its catalog for greater accessibility, and secured numerous endowments, some of which did not exist in its early days.

Her tenure at Housatonic began after directing an exhibit at Eastern Connecticut State University. She soon began curating exhibits at Housatonic’s museum, including one on Ansel Adams, a photographer known for his landscape photographs detailing the American West.

She also made sure to include artists from Bridgeport, allowing them to break into the mainstream art world.

“We would do open exhibitions that would give local and regional artists the opportunity to see their work by top curators,” she said.

Not only did Zella bring in top curators and expand the collection, but she was also responsible for the practical aspects of the museum. In addition to landing a $500,000 endowment, she was also responsible for digitizing the museum’s archives and even updating shelves and shelves to better protect the art and setting up a program restoration to return damaged pieces to display.

Kristy Jelenik, executive director of the college’s foundation, said Zella has been successful in attracting top curators to the museum through her personal connections with them. Other museums trust Housatonic with their own collections, knowing that it will take care of them, Jelenik said. That trust will be hard to replace, she said.

Zella also had pieces from the collection on display throughout the facility, meaning it could be enjoyed by the public outside of a traditional museum setting, she said.

“I will miss his passion for the museum and for bringing all that the museum has to offer to HCC students, faculty and the community at large,” Jelenik said.

Zella said she sees the museum’s mission as providing students with the work necessary to see the collection in their daily activities, “whether they’re on their way to the cafeteria, the classroom, or the offices.”

As a result, Housatonic CEO Dwayne Smith said Zella completely redid the museum.

“The museum, its collections and its programs will forever bear the impact of Robbin’s unwavering dedication,” he said. “She has enriched the lives of our students, our faculty, and the community at large, and Housatonic is grateful for her leadership over all these years.”

Despite his retirement, Zella’s legacy will live on outside the museum in the form of the Robbin A. Zella Scholarship Fund. The museum has already raised $16,000 for the scholarship, which will go to students wishing to embark on a career in art history or museum studies. Jelenik said the scholarship will award between $500 and $1,000 per recipient.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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