Chigounis has kept the arts in Moorestown ‘sustained and healthy’ for more than a decade

Karen Chigounis, executive director of Perkins’ Center for the Arts, has announced her intention to retire.

In the late 1970s, Karen Chigounis was new to Moorestown when a group of close friends approached her and asked if she was interested in helping to adapt an aging historic estate into a cultural arts center.

“I jumped in with both feet,” Chigounis said.

Nearly 40 years later, Chigounis went from volunteering to get Perkins Center for the Arts off the ground to running two historic locations as Perkins’ executive director. Having just announced her intention to retire from the position come June, Chigounis said she feels profoundly lucky for the impact Perkins has had on her life.

She spent her early years in West Philadelphia and Bala Cynwyd. She said her love for the arts started as young as 14, and she vividly recalls the class that set her on her path. She said she walked into her first high school art class unsure why she was there and left feeling completely enamored as a direct result of her teacher’s passion for the subject, which he tried to instill in each of his students.

Chigounis attended Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia where she obtained a bachelor’s of arts degree in photography and printmaking. She said she went on to teach art for about 10 years, and in the early 2000s, Chigounis returned to Moore for her master’s degree in arts and cultural management. From there, Chigounis went on to work for the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission.

Over the years, Chigounis remained involved as a volunteer with Perkins, having co-created with Hope Proper the center’s annual juried photography exhibition. Fourteen years ago, Chigounis joined Perkins in a more official capacity as the director of education for the ARTS program. The ARTS, or Arts Reaching The Students, residency program places professional artists in schools for a period of between six and 20 days to develop students’ visual, communication and problem-solving skills.

She said the role had her bringing in professional artists from every discipline in an effort to make arts programming available to schools in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties. Programs ran the gamut from choreography, public mural and sculpture with nearly every type of art being offered over the course of her time at Perkins, Chigounis said.

A particular point of pride for Chigounis is having secured funding through the New Jersey Council of Arts to bring programming to schools in Camden.

For Chigounis, becoming executive director wasn’t in her plan. When her predecessor, Alan Willoughby, announced his retirement, the board decided it needed someone familiar with Perkins to facilitate a transitional period between executive directors.

Much to her surprise, the board asked her to step in for a one-year period, but Chigounis has since filled the role for two and a half years.

“This was just an amazing opportunity and a real honor to be asked by this extraordinary board to help out,” Chigounis said.

She said along the way, the role has helped her to grow in ways she didn’t think were possible. She said the job has had her overseeing Perkins’ finances, community outreach, programming and the stewardship of two historic buildings.

Chigounis said both the Moorestown and Collingswood locations occupy buildings that are more than 100 years old, so preserving these two historic buildings has proven to be one of her greatest and most rewarding challenges during her time in the position.

While the role of executive director has forced her to “wear many hats,” Chigounis said the experience has left her feeling lucky to be part of something so special. She said she will miss the staff at Perkins the most because each person is so willing to generously give their time.

She said keeping the arts “sustained and healthy” in her hometown of Moorestown has been deeply gratifying.

“I’m just the luckiest person in the world,” Chigounis said of her time with Perkins.

While Chigounis has cherished her time with Perkins, she said in her eyes, it’s time for the next generation to step up and for Perkins to have someone who brings a fresh perspective.

“It’s time for change, and I’m really excited for the possibilities for change for Perkins Center with a new leader,” Chigounis said.

Chigounis said she won’t be parting ways with art once she retires. She said her goal is to “learn how to draw really, really well,” and her plan is to connect with artists who can show her how to do just that.