The Role of University Art Museums in the 21st Century
President Shirley M. Tilghman
December 5, 2006
Presented at “Creator, Collector, Catalyst,” a symposium sponsored by the Princeton University Art Museum and The Wolfsonian-Florida International University
I am delighted that the Princeton University Art Museum has joined forces with The Wolfsonian to explore the multifaceted role that university art museums play in nurturing the visual arts. Though our art museum and The Wolfsonian were founded a century apart, and though their collections are dissimilar, they share a deep commitment to preserving and presenting material culture in a way that generates not only new knowledge but also new forms of cognition. They also share a generous benefactor – Micky Wolfson, a native of Miami and a graduate of Princeton who has left an indelible mark on both museums and on the communities they serve. The greatness of collectors like Micky is not so much their ability to assemble an exceptional array of works, impressive though this is, but their willingness to share both their passion and collections with others, turning a private pleasure into a public good.
This symposium represents an opportunity for all of us to consider the enormous good that university art museums do, not only in an academic context but in broader civic and artistic terms. As Miami Beach prepares to celebrate the visual arts on a grand scale, I think it is appropriate to ask ourselves if university art museums are doing everything they can to make the work of human hands and the product of human inspiration an integral part of campus life and the community at large. We need to ask some searching questions about our own breadth of vision, and how it coincides with our educational mission. And when I say, “we,” I mean the university as a whole. While university presidents, especially molecular biologists, cannot be expected to be authorities on the care of Renaissance drawings or the appraisal of Chinese porcelain, we do have an obligation to both understand and articulate the full potential of our art museums and to create a climate in which they can flourish. This leads me to pose four questions for today’s discussion.
First, and most broadly, what value do we, as universities, attach to artistic expression, irrespective of form and venue? Second, is object-based scholarship on our campuses solely the preserve of art historians and archaeologists or is it something that extends to other branches of learning? Third, should our art museums design their programs with only scholars and students in mind, or should they reach out to a wider audience, and if so, how? And fourth, should university art museums promote the creation of art as well as its study and appreciation, essentially providing a bridge between the two? Drawing on Princeton’s own experience, I would like to reflect on each of these questions in turn, for how we answer them can tell us a great deal about the state of the visual arts on our campuses – where we are succeeding and where we need to do a better job.
Now, if our experience is any guide, university art museums are hardy plants, and a good thing, too! The Princeton University Art Museum spent its first seven decades in a cramped building that as late as the 1950s lacked running water, temperature controls, conservation facilities, and storage space. Only a fraction of our collection could be exhibited, and what could not be displayed was relegated to a number of precarious locations, including a barn and a dormitory basement. In competition for resources with the Department of Art and Archaeology and the School of Architecture, our art museum generally lost, and even when a new facility was opened in 1966, it had a number of serious drawbacks – from a leaking roof to doorways that were barriers to large works of art. It was not until the 1980s, with the help of Micky Wolfson, that a much needed renovation and expansion took place. I am pleased to say that these trials and tribulations did not prevent our art museum from becoming one of the brightest jewels in Princeton’s crown, with more than 68,000 works of art, an ambitious program of exhibitions and events, and a well-deserved reputation as one of our nation’s foremost “teaching museums.” The history of our art museum does, however, reflect the kind of challenges that university art museums face in the absence of an institution-wide belief in their importance and a corresponding commitment to their welfare. Universities can support their art museums in many ways, but I believe the most effective means of doing so is to situate them squarely within a larger commitment to the arts. If the arts, including the visual arts, are viewed as tangential to the central mission of higher education; if they are seen as outlets for aesthetes and artists rather than as a crucial center for teaching, learning, and expression, then university art museums will always struggle to make their presence felt beyond a limited circle of devotees.
This is one of the reasons why, last January, we launched a major initiative to strengthen the creative and performing arts at Princeton, to bring them from the margins of university life to the center. Our goal, to use the terminology of a recent American Assembly that explored the nexus between the performing arts and higher education, is to develop a “creative campus” in which every student can integrate some aspect of the arts into his or her course of study. We want them to do so not because they may one day have a one-person show in Chelsea or join the Chicago Symphony – most, in fact, will not – but because a creative mindset can inform and enrich whatever vocation they pursue. As Paul Klee famously observed, “art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see,” and this heightened level of perception and appreciation is something all our students should develop before they graduate. To quote the report on our new arts initiative that we prepared for the Board of Trustees, “The habits of mind that one acquires through the arts spill over into every other occupation. Just as our distribution requirements reflect the belief that competence in scientific and ethical reasoning should be required of a Princeton graduate, so too exposure to the creative arts prepares students to become more effective citizens and, very importantly for the U.S., future patrons of the arts in their communities.”
The Princeton University Art Museum has an important place in our plans, for nowhere on our campus are the visual arts more richly represented or more rigorously scrutinized. Of course, the very nature of what constitutes the visual arts is changing, and changing rapidly. We live in a visual age, in which images of every kind – from television sets to cell phones to PowerPoint presentations – confront us at every turn. New media have called for new forms of creativity on the part of artists and new forms of critical discernment on the part of viewers. Never before have we had such unrestricted access to objects of beauty as well as images of degradation and misery. The challenge for our university art museums, as institutions dedicated to the study and appreciation of objects, will be to help us absorb, interpret, and differentiate between a visual banquet and a frontal assault on our sensibilities.
A good example of the power of objects, skillfully presented, to change one’s habits of mind comes from a Princeton alumnus who, in the 1930s, developed a passion for art and the places that house it, thanks to a class he took with the great medievalist and longtime chairman of our Department of Art and Archaeology, Charles Rufus Morey. Morey took this rather callow young man, who prided himself on “high living and low thinking,” on a personal tour of the Cloisters, an experience that became his defining Princeton moment. Many years later, in an anonymous essay in our alumni magazine, he wrote, “The fine arts have given me a lifelong avocation, half-hobby, half-exercise. . . . For thousands of hours, for hundreds of miles I have tramped the art museums of this country and Europe. . . . And often on my museum jaunts my mind goes back to the day I had a personally conducted tour of the Cloisters with Mr. Morey.” This is the kind of impact that art can have on even the most unlikely candidates, underscoring why we should make every effort to expose our students to it during the time that they are with us.
If, then, to answer my initial question, universities believe that cultivating the study and practice of the arts is central to their mission, how might this belief express itself in the context of their art museums? One of the most important ways of gauging our commitment to the visual arts is to measure the degree to which object-based scholarship has found a place in our curriculum, not merely within obvious fields such as art history and archaeology, but across the social sciences and humanities and, yes, even in the natural sciences and engineering. If William Cowper Prime of the Princeton Class of 1843 and one of the founders of our curriculum in art and archaeology was right in asserting that art embodies the story of man, then art knows no boundaries. It is inherently multidisciplinary, and we should not be surprised to encounter courses with titles such as “Art as Science/Science as Art” and “Technology in Art and Cultural Heritage.” These are two of the freshman seminars that Princeton is offering this year, and in these classes, taught by an assistant professor of art and archaeology and an assistant professor of computer science, students are discovering artistic analogues for scientific phenomena – from the principles of evolution to the properties of light. This is precisely the kind of convergence we need to promote, giving faculty and students in every field a new prism through which to view their subject.
Even when a course is not designed to highlight this convergence, art can transform the way a class is taught. In one collaboration, Michael Cook, a distinguished professor in Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, and Michael Padgett, our art museum’s curator of ancient art, re-imagined a survey course called “What Happened in History.” Classes were held within the art museum itself, and objects – from Paleolithic hand-axes to Renaissance medallions – were integrated into the fabric of the course. Not only did our students receive a far richer cultural and historical experience than a more conventional course would have offered, but Professor Cook himself came to see objects in an entirely new light. As he put it, “I have spent most of my career as a more-or-less aniconic textually oriented historian; teaching in the Museum opened my eyes to the riches of a world I had been missing out on.”
In an effort to promote such intellectual discoveries among our faculty and students – and with the generous help of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – we have just appointed our first curatorial associate for academic programs, whose task will be to build new bridges between our art museum and our faculty. By making our collections and curators better known and, we hope, more widely employed, Susan Taylor and her colleagues will gain a formidable group of faculty partners who can help make object-based scholarship one of the hallmarks of a Princeton education.
Just as university art museums need to reach out to a broader range of faculty and students, they should also measure their success in terms of public service. Should they, as I asked at the outset of my remarks, focus their attention on those most likely to gravitate to their galleries, or should they also embrace a non-traditional audience that may be harder to attract but has more to gain in terms of artistic awareness? My answer to this question is predicated on my belief that university art museums, like the institutions of which they are a part, have a responsibility to serve the communities in which they are located, not simply by sending forth well-educated students, but by encouraging the public to take advantage of our resources – from lectures to exhibits to performances and, yes, athletic events. Universities are among the most important patrons of the arts in the United States today, and barring a dramatic change of heart on the part of government, they will remain so. In many cases, university art museums are far more accessible, both geographically and financially, than stand-alone museums. At Princeton, we do not charge admission to our galleries, and our campus is an open sculpture garden, dotted with works by artists such as Henry Moore, Richard Serra, and Pablo Picasso. Anyone can spend a quiet 15 minutes in our galleries without the nagging thought that they should linger longer in order to get their money’s worth, and anyone can enjoy our sculptures and, in the case of Moore’s work, even clamber on them with the artist’s blessing, or in the case of Serra’s “Hedgehog and the Fox,” experience the work by walking between the tilted and curved planes of steel.
If we are serious about engagement of the public beyond the gates of the university, we will need both creative programming and a vigorous communications strategy that targets the general public and is not afraid to zero in on non-museum-goers. Let me give you two examples over and above the school tours, family programs, gallery talks, and other initiatives that our art museum and many others offer. For some 15 years, the Princeton University Art Museum has sponsored an innovative program for inner city schoolchildren that integrates a year-long series of museum and classroom-based activities into the third grade curriculum of Trenton’s public schools. Students make as many as 10 organized visits to our art museum, are visited in their classrooms by our docents, and, at the end of the program, create their own “mini-museum.” There is both an objective need and a widespread hunger for such programs, and I am pleased that we are reaching students whose families may not have the means of traveling to Princeton to visit our art museum.
My other example comes from a recent exhibition, entitled “Mir Iskusstva: Russia’s Age of Elegance,” which set attendance records and can only be described as an interdisciplinary tour de force. Dance, music, literature, and scholarship rubbed shoulders with the art of pre-revolutionary Russia on loan from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, but what I want to highlight here is the fact that Russian-Americans flocked to our galleries. It was as if Brooklyn had moved to Princeton, and much of this is due to the fact that we advertised in non-traditional media such as Slavs of New York. If we are prepared to define our non-university audience in generous terms and then energetically reach out to them, our experience suggests that they will come.
The final question I would like to discuss is whether university art museums are doing their part to narrow the gulf between the creation of art on the one hand and its study and appreciation on the other. All too often – and Princeton is no exception – the two have been seen as distinct and decidedly unequal activities. Princeton was among the first universities in the nation to incorporate art history into its curriculum, but we have been far slower to give the creation of visual art its academic due. This is something we hope to address through our arts initiative, for as I like to point out, to separate the creation of art from its study and appreciation is not unlike separating experimental and theoretical science. It has been my own experience that some of the most exciting work I have done as an experimentalist has been done in conjunction with a theorist interested in the same issues. University art museums are well positioned to bring the artist and the critic/scholar closer together by serving as incubators of new art and not just as receptacles for works that have existed for decades, centuries, and indeed millennia. For after all, even the masters were once young artists. Who in 1958 would have thought that Frank Stella’s paintings in his senior year at Princeton would be the focus of a major traveling exhibition half a century later, but now we know this work to be a crucial stage in his development as an artist. University art museums need to look forward and backward at the same time. While this twofold role may be unfamiliar – until 1948 our art museum was known as the Museum of Historic Art – it is, I think, a role we must adopt if we are to create a continuum in which art is seen as both intensely contemporary, a work in progress if you will, as well as a preserver of our cultural heritage. By bringing practicing artists into their fold and exhibiting and commissioning their works, university art museums will foster the exciting collaboration that can occur when artist and scholar encounter one another.
At Princeton we have consciously, as a matter of policy, engaged the services of some of the world’s foremost architects, such as Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, Tod Williams, Billie Tsien, and Rafael Viñoly, and their buildings make a powerful statement about the importance we place on design, structure, and aesthetics on our campus. We recently decided to broaden this policy to include the work of contemporary artists in new building designs, beginning with Bloomberg Hall, where, on the advice of Susan Taylor, we commissioned a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt. Covering the ceiling of a vaulted archway in brilliant, sinuous color, “Whirls and Twirls” is linked both physically and symbolically to the life of the dormitory that surrounds it. This is also the arch that our alumni march through in their annual reunion P-rade, ensuring that generations of Princetonians will see it when they return to campus. Here, too, our art museum is providing leadership by ensuring that our campus contains a marriage of world-class art and architecture.
University art museums can also connect with contemporary artists by embracing the concept of “artist-as-curator,” where artists are able to integrate the creation and the exhibition of new works. In a recent exhibition called “Shuffling the Deck: The Collection Reconsidered,” our art museum did just that, inviting four contemporary artists to juxtapose commissioned works with works from our permanent collection. The exhibition overturned traditional patterns of museum organization and blurred artistic categories, but in the words of its guest curator, Eugenie Tsai, it also demonstrated that “the past continues to inspire provocative and exciting art that represents the best of what is being produced today.” What began as an experimental exhibition will continue, we hope, with the introduction of an artist-in-residence program, ensuring that the art of today and yesterday continue to converse with one another.
There are many other ways in which we can broaden our vision of what it means to be a university art museum, but the questions I have discussed today should be part of any conversation on this subject. Indeed, by valuing artistic expression of every kind, by promoting object-based scholarship throughout our curriculum, by engaging with a wide cross-section of the public, and by ending the artificial division between the creation of art and its study and appreciation, I believe that we can make our art museums a creative force on our campuses and in our communities that is second to none – a source of wisdom, delight, and inspiration in a world that sorely needs all three. Thank you for everything you do to create, collect, and catalyze the visual arts, and thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you today.