April 4, 2001:
New director Susan
Taylor brings a fresh eye to the venerable Art Museum
By Ann Waldron
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.
also include (pictured below): a Chinese Eastern Han dynasty (A.D.
25Ñ220) 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
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
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
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.