April 4, 2001: Features

The Big Picture

New director Susan Taylor brings a fresh eye to the venerable Art Museum

By Ann Waldron

Pictured: New museum director Susan Taylor oversees a collection that includes sculpture ranging from the circa 800 B.C. Stone Figure of Shaman in Transformation Pose, opposite, to the 1902 Frederic Remington bronze, Coming through the Rye, above.

Museum holdings also include (pictured below): a Chinese Eastern Han dynasty (A.D. 25220) red earthenware horse; Claude Monet's 1899 Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge; Frank Stella '58's Felsztyn I; and the Forbes Rubens, Peter Paul Rubens's Cupid Supplicating Jupiter.

When Susan Taylor arrived last August to take over as director of the Art Museum, she discovered that no exhibition had been scheduled for February.

As she tells the story many months later, her face still reflects the shock she felt when she found the hole. Rallying quickly, however, Taylor learned that the museum held drawings made by the great modernist architect Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) to illustrate three lectures he gave at Princeton in September 1935. Le Corbusier had used charcoal and colored chalk on huge pieces of paper - one 16 feet long, the other 14 - that he fastened to the wall. His quick sketches made visible his fundamental ideas on architecture and city planning. For instance, the first objects he drew were the four basic forms: cone, sphere, pyramid, and cylinder.

Taylor immediately planned for an exhibition of the drawings, working in cooperation with the architecture department, which owns them. The show, designed by Jesse Reiser, assistant professor of architecture, displays the enormous drawings laid out flat between heavy sheets of glass mounted on metal legs, as well as photographs and models of Le Corbusier's work. A reading area contains books and articles on Le Corbusier and his ideas, including laminated copies of old Daily Princetonian front pages covering the lectures, which were given in French and translated by an American architect who had worked in Paris.

The exhibition indicates what to expect from the new director: Sparkling exhibitions that draw on the permanent collection, innovative didactic materials, and the development of the museum as a resource for the entire university, including more interaction with departments outside art and archaeology.

Taylor, who came to Princeton from Wellesley, where she headed its museum for 13 years, is winding up her first year at Princeton to unusual acclaim and solid support from the administration. "We're excited about this new director," said Associate Provost Georgia Nugent, who headed the search committee. "Susan has demonstrated her obvious capabilities. Both the president and the provost are eager to help her get what she needs."

Taylor's stated needs include two new curators, digitizing the collection, building an online catalog, a new Web site, and some renovations to the building. She also plans to reappraise all the museum's publications, signs, and labels, and she and the staff are re-thinking exhibitions.

First, Taylor wants to welcome more people, especially from the university, into the museum. Last September, a banner hung outside to greet the Class of 2004; soon after, Taylor introduced an immensely popular series of monthly Jazz Nights, for which the Ellipsis Jazz Project, a student group, plays in one of the galleries. Nearly 200 people - undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and local residents - regularly attend.

Of course, the museum's chief function has always been to assist in teaching. When Allen Marquand organized the Department of Art and Archaeology in 1874, he also established the Art Museum because he felt students needed to see original works of art.

It's still essential that the museum be "hospitable" for teaching, says Art and Archaeology Chair Patricia Brown, who praises the new director for her enthusiasm and openness to new ideas. Art and archaeology faculty have long used the museum's collection in teaching classes, and the museum regularly mounts small exhibitions for them. Every year, for example, Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann's class in Old Master Drawings uses the collection extensively, with Kaufmann organizing a show that he then uses in class. This year, William Childs, a classical archaeologist, and Michael Padgett, associate curator of ancient art in the museum, cotaught a class, The Human Animal in Early Greek Art, in the museum, using objects from the collection. "The students learned to describe an object for a catalog and then put the description online in a database of Willy Childs's devising," Padgett explains.

With Taylor's encouragement, other departments have also begun to use the collection in classes. This spring Michael Cook of Near Eastern studies taught a course in world history that held one of its three weekly sessions in the museum. Cook worked closely with three different curators, in ancient, Asian, and pre-Columbian American art.

"The very first week, we looked at two Middle Paleolithic hand axes that were 30,000 to 50,000 years old," he says. "Later we saw tomb figures from the Han dynasty, mass-produced in the second or first century B.C." Cook says he had been wondering about using the museum's collection for some time, and when he heard Taylor speak at last fall's Humanities Council meeting, he decided the time was ripe.

Taylor says that teachers of classes in history, literature, and languages have approached the museum about using the collection. Even engineering has found the museum valuable, she says. Civil engineering professor George Scherer and some of his students are working with two sets of Egyptian limestone reliefs that were excavated a hundred years ago (PAW, March 7), trying to discover why the reliefs are deteriorating.

As the museum focuses on serving the university community, increasing attendance from the public is desirable, but not a primary goal, Taylor says. "We do want to improve the quality of the experience when they get here," she adds. "We want to offer help on finding the museum and offer better information once they're here."

Taylor grew up in Buffalo, where she was exposed to art at an early age by her mother, who took her to the Albright Knox Museum. As an undergraduate at Vassar she became interested in art history and the interaction between the two disciplines, majoring in medieval/Renaissance studies. "I was always fascinated by the relationship between art and history," she says, "and how you can use art to understand history," such as narrative pictures that show families or historical events, or even portraits.

A fellowship from Vassar allowed her to go right after graduation to the University of Florence to study the theory and practice of conservation. While in Italy, she completed an internship in paper conservation at the National Library in Florence (and met her husband, Paoli Meozzi).

Drawn back to art history, Taylor attended the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, which is affiliated with New York University but located on the upper East Side of Manhattan near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She focused on the Renaissance, earned her master's degree, finished the course work for a Ph.D., and took her orals, but never wrote a dissertation. "I was too busy working in a museum," she explains. While a student, she had a curatorial fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts at the Guggenheim Museum, which focuses on contemporary art. When the fellowship was over, the Guggenheim offered her a staff job.

In 1986 she left New York for Wellesley to become assistant director of its museum. She became director a year later and served as project manager for the construction of a new museum building, designed by Rafael Moneo, which whetted her interest in architecture.

Taylor says the Princeton museum attracted her with its commitment to scholarship and its remarkable collection, with its strengths in Asian and pre-Columbian art and photography. Princeton's current building, which is not as large as some other university museums such as Yale's, was dedicated in 1966; its latest addition, completed after four years of construction in 1989, gives it a total of some 65,000 square feet.

In February, Taylor hired Rebecca Sender, who had been director of development for the American Federation of Art, as associate director. Sender took over day-to-day administration of the museum and will manage fundraising from businesses and foundations, freeing Taylor for what she calls, appropriately, "the big picture."

The big picture includes a wealth of new projects. Taylor's first goal is to get more of the permanent collection on view, even if it's on a rotating basis. "We'll integrate the collection into publications and exhibitions," she explains. For example, next fall the museum will publish a catalog of Roman sculpture in the collection and will do an exhibition in connection with publication of the catalog.

Similarly, a version of Anthony Van Dyck's Ecce Homo or the Mocking of Christ from Princeton's collection will be part of an exhibit organized by the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England. The show will also display the Barber's version of Ecce Homo, as well as Titian's painting of the same name (which is said to have influenced Van Dyck) from the National Gallery of Ireland. In addition to the three paintings, the exhibition will feature a dozen works on paper, including the etching that Van Dyck made of the Princeton version. Princeton will host the show in the spring of 2002, the only venue this side of the Atlantic for what the Barber calls this small but "solemn, noble, and intensely concentrated exhibition."

Taylor also plans a Princeton exhibition on Han funerary art, focused on 10 of Princeton's objects from the Han dynasty in China - a proposal that demonstrates how Taylor sees the collection stimulating both research and exhibition initiatives. "We'll have a symposium in connection with the exhibition, publish a catalog, and publish the proceedings of the symposium," she explains.

In addition to showing off the permanent collection, Taylor thinks it's important to develop scholarship in connection with exhibitions. "This would not necessarily be based on our collection but perhaps on the research of a curator," she says. "We have an opportunity and obligation to share our scholarship with others, to let our colleagues and peers in the museum world have the benefit of our work."

A third objective is the introduction of contemporary art into exhibitions. "Contemporary art raises questions of contemporary culture," she says. "It's a very effective way to engage students. They respond to living artists." Taylor hopes to fund a new position for a curator of contemporary art, the area widely recognized as the museum's weakest.

She would also like to hire a curator for education. "We have 93 docents, self-taught and self-organized," she says. "A curator for education could introduce pedagogical techniques and offer programming for each campus constituency - students, faculty, and staff - as well as the public and other museum people." A curator for education could also work with students and could help them see the museum as a place for intellectual stimulation, not just a classroom. Such a curator could work one-on-one with faculty on how to connect the collection to the curriculum. And an education curator could work with elementary and high school groups that visit the museum.

Another project is a new Web site the museum is designing. "We're trying to use technology in creative and inventive ways," Taylor says. Staff members plan to photograph and digitize the entire collection and put a catalog online with links to the Web site. They're also rethinking all print publications, including brochures, the biannual Record of the Art Museum, and the three-times-yearly Newsletter, and Taylor is considering publishing handbooks highlighting portions of the collection as an introduction for the public and as steps toward more catalogs of the collection. "We're looking at all interpretative material," she says, "how we present the collection to the public, including labels and wall signs."

Associate Provost Nugent appreciates Taylor's abilities with interpretative material after visiting the Wellesley Museum - at Taylor's request - after Taylor was hired. She was astonished at the quality of the didactic materials available. "There were handouts in the galleries," she says. "I loved one case, in particular. It had three objects in it and it served as a quiz. Two of the objects were ancient and one was a fake. The visitor was asked to determine which was which."

In addition to support materials, Taylor is assessing displays. She rehung the Impressionist collection so that the viewer entering the gallery faces a wall with paintings of "four strong women" on it. Impressionist landscapes hang on the walls to the left and right, but those four women hold the eye: Toulouse-Lautrec's Messalina, Degas's After the Bath: Woman Drying Herself, and two Manets, Young Woman in a Red Hat and Gypsy Woman with a Cigarette. She says she will move slowly to do more reinstallations.

As for adding to the permanent collection, Taylor says it's too early to set up a wish list. Last fall's acquisitions include two works from the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, a gilt silver wine cup with Bacchic reliefs, and a portrait head of Augustus from the first century B.C. While several endowments have been set up to provide money for new acquisitions and the Friends of the Art Museum also contribute toward purchases, most of the museum's funding comes directly from the university. Administrators indicate that funding may be about to increase, making the future of Princeton's Art Museum look very bright.

Indeed, Taylor sees the museum taking a leadership role in the wider museum world. "If it continues to focus on exhibitions based on scholarly research and offers innovative didactic material, Princeton can be a leader in the museum world," she says. "Everything we do here - the Web page, the online catalog, publications - should be done in a way that sets the pace. We can provide new alternatives for the field to consider."

Ann Waldron is a frequent contributor to PAW.